Lou Chen summed up his service philosophy with the idea that “I want to make sure that there are no wasted chances.” This sentiment, of ensuring that nobody is denied opportunities for growth or enrichment because of their background, is at the core of the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO), a civic engagement project that Chen founded, and for which he was recently awarded the A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award. The prize, administered by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, is given annually to a graduating senior who demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people, and loyalty to Princeton through their work in the realm of civic engagement.
Chen, from San Bernardino, CA, founded the Trenton Youth Orchestra after becoming aware of youth in the Trenton area who were seeking opportunities to expand on their musical talent. “I realized I might be able to leverage my musical knowledge and experience for the benefit of youth in Trenton,” he said.
Chen described how early challenges affected his work, and how there were some early doubts about whether both students in Trenton and Princeton would be able to come together and commit to making this project a reality. “But” Chen said “I am a very persistent person, so I didn’t dial it back at all.”
“My sophomore year I reached out to Joseph Pucciatti, the director of the Trenton Central High School Orchestra,” Chen said. Pucciatti invited Chen to attend rehearsals there once a week, which later turned into Chen and two other students Mary Kim ’19 and Elijah Ash ’19 bringing six Trenton students to play at Princeton University in the Woolworth Center. This was the beginning of the inaugural Trenton Youth Orchestra.
The Trenton students soon began taking lessons with Chen once a week on Saturday in Trenton. “This went really well, and the students were enormously dedicated.” Since then, the orchestra has grown to 17 members and migrated to Princeton University, playing every Saturday in the birthplace of the original ensemble, the Woolworth Center. From 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. every Saturday, Chen and his co-volunteers run rehearsal, followed by private lessons until 1 p.m.
This experience has had its challenges though, said Chen. “There has never been a problem with the students’ dedication or commitment to the program. What has been challenging is understanding. The kids in Trenton may not be able to come to rehearsal because they have to watch their siblings, or go to work. It’s important to be cognizant of these factors in the kids’ lives and not take them for granted.”
However, Chen described TYO as an enormously rewarding aspect of his life. “I would not be as happy of a Princeton student without the orchestra,” he said. “Sometimes I will find myself struggling with a paper and think to myself, you know, this won’t affect the most important thing to me, which is the orchestra.” He also detailed the gradual process of getting his students more comfortable with the music. “Kids can be really scared that they are not good enough, or that they are letting you down. You have to find ways to help them beyond just telling them that they’re great. But I see them evolving, asking more questions, and asking more of me. It’s my responsibility not to create something new in them but to coax something out of them.”
Chen’s relationship with his students was also commended by Marna Seltzer, the Director of Princeton University Concerts, who noted that he “has an amazing relationship with his students and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that he has changed the lives of many of the students he has worked with.”
When asked about the future of the program after he graduates, Chen related that “next year I hope to get a job in New York City in music outreach, and hope to return to Princeton every one or two weeks to work on the orchestra. I have no intention of leaving or abandoning this thing that has become my life.”
Chen also talked about how the award funds will open up plenty of new doors for the orchestra. “We’ve never had this kind of influx of funds to spend on anything before. I am thinking about maybe a field trip to the New York philharmonic, or maybe a scholarship fund for students to buy instruments in college. We’re really excited and this money will go a long way to making this last year with the orchestra a memorable one for me.”
Chen concluded with his favorite quotation from author Terry Pratchett: “‘You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?... It's all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they're really good at.’ Just because these kids may have been born in a different context, doesn't mean they shouldn’t have that opportunity, and the fact that the orchestra has grown so much shows that there is value to that dream.”