This story is part of Made in Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
When Nozomi Imamura first stepped into a middle school classroom, he was terrified. He had always been a music performance major — first at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and later at Yale University’s master’s program. What did he know about teaching?
But as part of Yale’s Music In Schools initiative, he was assigned to teach trumpet twice a week in New Haven, Conn.
At first, many students were closed off, Imamura said. One girl, Maya, wouldn’t even participate.
But by the end of the year, students were teaming up to work together, and Maya was among the first to rush into class and open her instrument case.
“I realized I am capable of making a difference for students,” Imamura, 28, said. “It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to have, and something I didn’t get from just performing."
When he graduated in 2017, Imamura decided to pursue that feeling and returned to Philadelphia as a Curtis Institute community-artist fellow to bring art to underserved areas of the city.
Since then, he has led the 18-student band program at South Philadelphia High School — a school that just five years ago had no music program at all.
“Without Nozomi, there’d be no band,” said music director Louis Russo, who was hired by the school in 2015 to restart its music program. But with six introductory music courses on his plate, there’s no time for Russo to teach band.
Imamura visits the school two to three days a week, giving the band students individual or group lessons whenever they get permission to step out of their other classes. (There is no assigned band period.)
For many students, Imamura’s class is the main thing they look forward to in coming to school.
“Everyone here actually wants to learn,” said Alexson Sok, a 10th-grade trumpet student. “It makes band class so different.”
Imamura has each of his students’ cellphone numbers, often texting them to see if they’re coming to practice. They call him Mr. Nozomi, and greet him with fist bumps.
At one recent practice, Sok hid the mouthpiece of his classmate’s trumpet just as they were about to play the opening notes of Ode to Joy. When the girl went to put her lips on the instrument, she realized there was no way to play. She burst into laughter, and soon Imamura joined in, too.
“He lets us be ourselves,” said Yenely Ramos, another 10th-grade trumpeter at practice that day. “I feel free in the band room.”
Despite producing a number of notable music graduates, including Chubby Checker and Mario Lanza, South Philadelphia High School lacked a music program for years.
It was the typical story: a poor urban school district facing shrinking budgets and an emphasis on test prep.
But in recent years the Philadelphia School District has been revitalizing arts education. A recent analysis found 90 percent of its 220 schools have full-time art or music education, and 60 percent have both.
Still, disparities persist. A citywide analysis found schools in high-poverty areas that serve large numbers of minority students are most likely to lack instrumental music programs.
South Philadelphia High School fits the bill, with 85 percent minority students and 100 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.
Partnerships with outside institutions are key to addressing that gap, said Frank Machos, executive director of the school district’s Office of Arts and Academic Enrichment. “In Philly, we have all the world-renowned cultural assets you’d want,” he said. “It’d be silly for [the district] not to lean on that.”
The district’s partnership with the Curtis Institute began in 2015. Since then, South Philadelphia High School has hosted three fellows. The first led a musical theater program and the second led band, which Imamura then took over.
Last year, all six seniors in the band graduated and continued to college — not a small feat at a school whose graduation rate is 53 percent, about 20 percentage points lower than the district average.
“Kids in the program are way more empowered than before,” said Russo, the music director. “They find an ability and are affirmed for something they may not have been before."
Growing up in Japan, Imamura played a brass instrument called a euphonium.
At 11, he moved to North Carolina with his family. He wanted to continue playing euphonium, but when the music teacher asked for his preference, Imamura, still learning English at the time, didn’t understand.
“She started listing instruments,” Imamura recalled. “The only one I heard was trumpet, so I said yes to that.”
With music, one coincidental moment can change a student’s entire path.
That was the case for Eliza James, too, one of Imamura’s former students at South Philadelphia High. She had been playing saxophone for six years when she transferred to the school her junior year. She wasn’t sure what role music would play in her future.
Seeing Imamura have a career as a musician (he performs in addition to teaching), inspired her. “He plays his instrument all the time,” James said. “I couldn’t believe that’s his job.”
Imamura didn’t realize he was molding a future musician. He simply knew James had talent.
“She has something to say. I wanted her to realize that,” he said.
Today, James, 18, is a music major at Lincoln University, playing in the band and studying to become a music therapist.
She credits band with teaching her many of the skills needed to succeed in college, like time management and study habits. James says a lot of students could benefit from the band program the same way she did. She dreams one day it’ll grow to have a separate wind ensemble or jazz band.