It’s no secret that learning to play a musical instrument offers numerous benefits — from improved cognitive development and hand-eye coordination to greater self-esteem and broader cultural horizons. For Betty Perry, it proved to be the ticket to a better life. Words by Amy Lynch. Photos by Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.
Born to Lead
Betty Perry opens doors through Metropolitan Youth Orchestra
Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, Perry lived in and out of orphanages, foster homes and welfare hotels until fourth grade, when her grandmother took charge of her and two of her younger brothers. The eldest of nine children, she learned early on to protect her siblings and to defend herself against bullies.
“It was a tough childhood, but I didn’t know anything different,” she says. “My grandmother gave me a sense of stability and consistency for the first time in my life.”
A destiny discovered
At age 13, Perry relocated to the west side of the Bronx, a move that presented the challenges of a new social environment to navigate. Earning good grades opened the door to opportunities, including the option of music lessons through a scholarship to the Third Street Music School Settlement.
“There was a girl in my class I was very competitive with,” Perry remembers. “She chose to participate in orchestra, so I chose orchestra. She wanted to play the viola, so that’s what I played, too.”
As Perry practiced, she discovered a talent and love for the instrument. Her teacher took notice and invited her to a live youth orchestra rehearsal an hour away on a Saturday morning. When the conductor gave the first downbeat and Perry heard the music being played, it shook her to the core.
“I just started crying,” she describes. “I’d never heard anything so beautiful in my life. I had no idea how, but I knew at that moment, music would be part of my life from then on.”
Through diligent study, Perry’s musical education saw her through high school and into the New York College of Music, where she met other aspiring African-American musicians from around the country. Her involvement in helping form the Harlem Symphony led to another important introduction — her future husband, Ed. As they started their family in the late 1960s, the couple sold their instruments and left the music world for 11 years in order to dedicate their lives to raising children. In 1978, they moved to Indianapolis to be close to Ed’s mother.
“It was a culture shock, but the decision to move out of New York and raise my children in Indiana was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Perry says.
Ed worked different jobs to support the family while Betty managed the home and the kids. By the time her children reached school age, music came calling again. Attending an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance and learning the Suzuki method at the University of Indianapolis, Perry was distressed by the lack of African-American participation.
Paying music forward
Realizing how fortunate she was to have been exposed to music at a young age, she decided to launch a program of her own at local daycare centers in underprivileged areas, raising money for instruments and enlisting parents to conduct weekly group lessons and commit to daily practice at home. From these humble beginnings, the seed for the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra grew.
“We took away the stigma that music was something only for upper/middle class families,” she explains. “I wanted to use it to level the playing field and put the responsibility on the parents for educating their own children. We opened doors to the idea that any kid could go to a concert, perform on stage and be just as good as anyone else.”
Working through her studios in Kokomo, Indy and Crawfordsville, Perry assembled her students once a year for concerts at Wabash College and Indiana State University to show participants where music could take them.
“These were rural kids, racially diverse kids, kids of professors,” she says. “Music gave them common ground. They learned to see each other as peers and develop lasting friendships.”
Multiplying music’s power to transport and transform
In 1995, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis incorporated the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra as part of its Focus Academy curriculum. Under Betty’s direction, the mostly inner city-fed organization grew, shifting to Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra affiliation in 2008. As an ISO community ambassador, Betty continues to work with underserved communities and bring music to local youth. Her efforts have paid off handsomely.
“We have a 100 percent high school graduation rate among MYO students,” she says. “Many of our students earn scholarships, some have gone on to Julliard, performed on Broadway, played in major orchestras and earned PhDs. Some parents have told us that music saved their children’s lives.”
Perry is most proud of the stability and opportunities MYO provides to students and their families, not just in a musical sense, but also as a liaison to any supports and social services they might need. And she hopes that her leadership by example inspires other kids to dream big.
“Knowing my family history and how I grew up, there is no way in the world I’d be where I am right now without music,” she says. “Music gave me a pathway that has changed my life.”
Visit https://www.indianapolissymphony.org/education/myo to learn how you can attend an MYO concert, support MYO or bring the MYO to your community event.