Despite his ‘junker’ violin Melki Garcia-Perez’s talent shines through in Trenton’s high school orchestra.

Give Melki Garcia-Perez a microphone, and he’ll struggle to get out a single word. Give him a violin, and he won’t stop playing.

“Everyone can speak,” he says, “but not everyone can play.”

Learning to play has been difficult for Garcia-Perez, a 19-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who lives on the outskirts of East Trenton, and whom I met while I was working to establish the Trenton Youth Orchestra.

When he began the violin his family couldn’t afford lessons and his school didn’t offer specialized string instruction. Without a private teacher, he taught himself. YouTube became his conservatory and videos his coursework. He spent hours a day watching tutorials on how to grip a bow or play on open strings.

Music has helped Garcia-Perez develop self-confidence and a drive to succeed. He is now honing his skills at Mercer County Community College and wants to become a professional musician.

Even though many of his peers don’t get the same chances he’s had, the reality is that music education helps low-income youth get ahead.

According to a 2012 report by James Catterall, a UCLA education professor, low-income high school students with arts-rich experiences had higher grade point averages than students without those experiences. These same students were three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and more than twice as likely to become lawyers, doctors, and other such professionals. Garcia-Perez’s story shows how music can be a life changer.

Trenton’s educational leaders have been trying to strengthen the music curriculum. In 2012 the school district won support from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, providing $695,000 worth of musical instruments and equipment to 20 elementary and middle schools — with each school receiving about 50 new instruments.

Garcia-Perez hopes to play in a professional orchestra some day — a dream that dates back to hearing the orchestral music in ‘Looney Tunes.’

But most of those schools chose band instruments instead of the string instruments that students like Garcia-Perez needed. A shortage of music teachers and overpacked classrooms were another handicap. In wealthier communities like Princeton, students who want to move at a faster pace outside of school buy high-quality instruments and take private lessons. Students like Garcia-Perez can’t afford that.

Still, Trenton is seeing results. For example, Cesar Gonzalez, a senior and tenor saxophonist at Trenton Central High School, spent last summer at a two-week music program in Italy, where he participated in masterclasses and performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Meanwhile Garcia-Perez hopes to play in a professional orchestra some day — a dream that stretches back to his childhood in Guatemala. While watching “Looney Tunes” and “Tom and Jerry,” he fell in love with the sounds of the orchestra. The “Rabbit of Seville” was his introduction to “The Barber of Seville,” with Bugs Bunny’s antics choreographed to Rossini’s frenzied score.

In the fifth grade he attended his first orchestra concert in Guatemala City. His favorite cartoons were projected onto a large screen, and beneath it the orchestra played live music. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the people playing, especially the violinists,” he says.

When Garcia-Perez was 14, his family immigrated to Trenton. He enrolled at Trenton Central High School and took Intro to Music. Six months after choosing to learn the violin Garcia-Perez was recruited by Joseph Pucciatti, the director of the school orchestra, to join the violin section. On his first day Garcia-Perez sat all the way in the back. He played two notes; then four notes, says Pucciatti. Then all the notes.

Garcia-Perez grew more ambitious, bringing the violin part for “The Barber of Seville” to class and surprising Pucciatti with his ability to play the difficult piece. He also did his best to learn vibrato. “It sounded terrible,” Garcia-Perez says. “I could barely shake my finger.” In his spare time, he began to teach himself a variety of other instruments — piano, guitar, and flute, among others.

After 40 years spent teaching music in the Trenton public school system, Pucciatti has seen his fair share of students who are passionate about music, but he was particularly impressed by Garcia-Perez and his resolve. Pucciatti is a bear of a man and conducts like one too, his large paws waving wildly as he towers over his orchestra. “A lot of people make that mistake of thinking, ‘Well, they’re inner city kids, they have different focuses,’” Pucciatti says. “No, they don’t. They have the same wants and desires as anyone else in the world. They want it worse.”

Last February Pucciatti was nominated for a 2019 Grammy Educator Award, which recognizes teachers with a demonstrated commitment to maintaining music education in schools. The nomination came with $2,000, which he plans on using to repair broken instruments.

Garcia-Perez’s violin is what Pucciatti likes to call a “junker” — a low-quality instrument that even the best musicians would struggle to make music with. Its shoddy construction makes it almost impossible not to touch multiple strings at the same time. Occasionally, it will even cause Garcia-Perez to mess up in the middle of a performance.

It’s the best his family can afford. “One day he came into the house and said, ‘I love the violin. Can you buy one for me?’” says his mother, Mayra, who raised him on her own. She works as a server at Prospect House, the private faculty dining club at Princeton University, where she makes $14.46 per hour. A good violin goes for $1,000 or more; she settled for a cheaper model that cost $150.

Whatever his disadvantages, Garcia-Perez’s music has helped him. “He used to be so angry all the time,” his mother says, scrunching her face up into an exaggerated scowl. “But once he decided to play music, he changed. He started talking more and making friends.”

Whenever Pucciatti bellowed a command during rehearsal (which was often), Melki would whisper a joke to his stand partner — but in Spanish, just to make sure Pucciatti didn’t overhear. Members of the string section would occasionally feel something sharp poking their leg, only to look up and find Garcia-Perez wielding his bow with an impish grin on his face. And sometimes, when Garcia-Perez started practicing a piece by himself, his classmates would form a circle around him, and the cramped rehearsal room would suddenly become a hushed concert hall.

In January, 2017, Garcia-Perez joined the Trenton Youth Orchestra. As its concertmaster, he was given the opportunity to perform a solo with the orchestra.

He selected “Allegro” by J.H. Fiocco, a piece that takes the average violin student six years to become advanced enough to play, but that he learned after just two years. In May of that year he performed it during the orchestra’s debut concert at Princeton University, in front of an audience of students, faculty, and community members.

As soon as he lifted his bow off the final chord, the audience broke out into cheers and applause. He was frozen to the spot — a deer caught in the brightest lights of his life. “It didn’t feel real,” he says.

Lou Chen, Princeton Class of 2019, established the Trenton Youth Orchestra. It meets Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Woolworth Music Building, Princeton University. For more information, go to www.trentonyouthorchestra.org.

This article was originally published in the March 2019 Trenton Downtowner.