El Sistema before El Sistema: Rodney McCoy and Ozanam Strings. Part III of a Series
As I was researching this series on El Sistema, a colleague told me about the Ozanam Program in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, whose mission is “to help boys and girls of Western Pennsylvania develop into responsible young adults through positive, developmental training.” While today Ozanam focuses on academics and sports programs, a little more digging into the history of the organization reveals something amazing: Pittsburgh was home to a flourishing El Sistema-like program before El Sistema even existed.
Part of the larger Ozanam Program, Ozanam Strings was an after-school orchestra located in Homewood and founded in 1964 by a nun named Sister Francis Assisi Gorham. A musician herself, Sister Francis understood the positive impact that music could have on children, and turned her love for teaching into a music education and performance program for young people from throughout Pittsburgh’s urban neighborhoods. The program flourished throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Over 200 students performed up to 50 concerts a year, and the program collaborated with jazz stars of the time and even garnered a feature on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood TV show.
To learn more about Ozanam Strings, I spoke with a program alumnus, jazz violinist Rodney McCoy. A native of Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, McCoy continues to live in Pittsburgh and to feel the impact of Ozanam Strings on his career as a musician.
AG: What was your musical experience before you participated in Ozanam Strings?
RM: Violin had always been my instrument, ever since I was 9 years old. My mother influenced me; she was a classical pianist and the minister of my church. I received a scholarship to attend the Center for the Musically Talented. It was through the center that we found out about Ozanam Strings. I was studying classically and was the concertmaster of the senior orchestra at Peabody High School (now Obama).”
AG: Today, you are a jazz violinist. How did Ozanam Strings impact your education and career goals?
RM: Through Ozanam I learned the history of jazz and where it came from and how Pittsburgh was a big influence on the jazz movement. During that time – the 1960s and early 70s – there was a cultural revolution; there were a lot of clubs, which birthed a lot of good jazz artists. Basically my priorities were set for what I wanted to do with music and life. I received a scholarship from Ozanam strings to go to college at Mount Aloysius Jr. College in Crescent, PA where I studied music education and business administration. I also received graduate degrees from Towson University in Baltimore and later at University of Pittsburgh where I studied jazz under the tutelage of Nathan Davis. I brought my own band together, called Rodney McCoy and Silk. From there, I went on to open for and play with national artists like Pieces of a Dream, Grover Washington, Jr., and David Sanborn, among others.
AG: What was it like to be a part of such a special program and to know Sister Francis Assisi Gorham? Do you have any stories to share?
RM: Sister France Assisi Gorham was an angel. She got the best out of you and was so motivating to me and all the other students to always reach for the sky with our dreams. She was my best friend, and we did a lot together. When I was with the group, we traveled everywhere. Europe, D.C., Harrisburg. I’ll never forget one day I woke up late and missed the bus to our performance in Harrisburg where we were performing for the governor on the steps of the capitol. I drove to the airport to get a round trip ticket to Harrisburg and took a cab to the capital to play with them. Sister Francis was so upset, she couldn’t believe it, but I knew I had to be there. I was about 16 when that happened. She saw me walking up the steps, and she turned around and asked, “How did you get here?” At the time I was working at Randy’s Market as store clerk, and I took my pay and bought the round trip ticket for $47 to Harrisburg just to perform with the group.
AG: Could you see a program like Ozanam Strings flourishing in Pittsburgh again?
RM: The Ozanam Strings program has impacted my life in music performance, education, business, and spirituality. Now I live in the very neighborhood that my music career started as a child. I see an extreme need for this type of program in the urban community, to help develop our young children, especially with the arts less available in all the Pittsburgh Public Schools than when I was a child. So much talent goes undiscovered. The community is hungry for another program like Ozanam Strings. With the right leadership, it will flourish like never before.”
Since his time with Ozanam Strings, Rodney McCoy has enjoyed a rich career as a jazz violinist in Pittsburgh and abroad. While he no longer performs publicly, several of his performances and interviews are documented on YouTube. He is a local legend!
Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:
“What is El Sistema (part I of this series)” by Annie Gordon
“Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift” by Annie Gordon
“The Pavlova Effect: An Argument for Equal Access to Arts Education” by Michelle Van Doeren
“The Seriousness of a Child at Play” by Andrew Swensen