Much More Than Music

Can music transform kids - and the neighborhoods they live in? It's a question the founder of a non-profit organization called Community Music Works first asked more than a decade ago.  This year 120 inner-city children are receiving free music lessons every week, but it's not just music they're learning about.

SCRIPT:

Late on a Friday afternoon, when most kids are already in weekend mode, a dozen six-year-olds gather in a makeshift classroom to learn a new song. Some on the violin, others on the viola or the cello. They are the inaugural class of the Daily Orchestra Program.

The kids meet in a room at the John Hope Settlement House in Providence every afternoon for an hour, five days a week. It's a new concept for everyone here.

Ruth: ``This idea that music learning is a daily program and kids start by playing in an ensemble right from the beginning.''

Sebastian Ruth is a Brown University graduate who founded Community Music Works in 1997, The non-profit organization offers free music lessons to more than a hundred children every week - ages six through 18. The Daily Orchestra is the newest program,  launched at the beginning of the school year.

The kids participating in Community Music Works come from South Providence and the city's West End.

And there's waiting list of 270.

Ruth: ``Our kind of theory about all of this is the music can become a really important part of kids' lives. It can become part of their social fabric, their intellectual fabric, their sense of how they belong in community and in order to do that deep work we choose to focus on a small number of kids, so we have about 120 kids involved.''

Community Music Works is wrapping up its 16h year and has grown dramatically from its modest beginnings as the brainchild of a college graduate who wanted to combine music and public service. CMW now has 18 full- and part-time staff members. It is a non-profit organization funded primarily through grants and donations.

Most of the action goes on here: at the Trinity Academy for Performing Arts charter school - the old Asa Messer Elementary. The charter school gives Community Music Works the third floor after school hours.

From private lessons, to larger ensembles - all of the students are here at least two days a week, and some up to five. The average duration in the program: about five years.

Ruth: ``That means some kids are here for 12, some kids stay for just two. What think of as the successful opportunity, a successful experience a kid could have here is to come in and stay with it as they grow older, as they go on through middle and high school and then join Phase 2 and start to have a really deep experience with their peers.''

Hummel: ``Has the mission evolved since you began or has it stayed pretty much the same -- what you want to see this program do?''

Ruth: ``The mission has stayed pretty much the same. The way we express it has evolved. So the core mission has been to create a cohesive urban community, through music education and performance that transforms the lives of children families and musicians.''

As part of its commitment to the community, CMW last month held concerts over three nights at this soon-to-be renovated house on Broadway. The performers: four of the organization's fellows. It gave Community Music Works a chance to showcase itself and Community Works Rhode Island, which is transforming the historic house.

Ruth: ``What impact can this have on a neighborhood - to have a group of young people who are studying to have musicians in residence, living here, working here, playing concerts in the neighborhood, how does that gather neighbors together, whether their kids are students of ours or not.''

Adrienne Taylor runs the Daily Orchestra Program for the six year olds.  The native of Pennsylvania came to Providence because of Community Music Works.

Taylor: ``For me I felt like I wanted to be in a place where I already felt a connection with the community - and I've lived many places for short amounts of time and I didn't have a place that I really felt of as home - except Providence.''

Taylor admits it's been a learning process with the 6-year olds, where she's had to be part teacher, disciplinarian, musician and confidante.

Taylor: ``Years ago I never would have imagined myself working with kids that young. I didn't see it as something that I was well suited to, but I think it sort of started with the idea if you start young you can have the biggest impact.  If they're seeing each other every day and learning how to work together every day and playing music every day and form those friendships every day - that's so powerful if you start that at a young age.''

Taylor starts out many classes talking about their day, then transitions into the music and does exercises as the building blocks for their eventually playing the instruments. And there's a lot of fun. Taylor is amazed as the transformation she's seen over the past nine months.

Taylor: ``I find that now they're starting to take a lot of responsibility for themselves; that wasn't quite there in the beginning. One of the things we talk about is how our behaviors affects the people around us. And they start to become more aware of that now, so if somebody says something that criticizes someone and makes them feel bad another kid will say `oh you shouldn't say that, that will make them sad.' The exciting thing for me about the Daily Orchestra Program is creating this idea, which I think is the basic idea of an orchestrata as an ideal community - if you can learn to play together in a sensitive way, if you can learn to set goals as a group and work toward those goals - and those goals nothing to do with anything material. If kids can learn from that age to create a community around something like that I think that could be something really powerful.''

Hummel: ``I'm wondering whether the kids, as they get into middle school and high school, appreciate what this program or understand the gravity of what it's doing for them. Do you get that sense?''

Ruth: ``I think that the kids who are in high school really start to understand the value of this. Earlier than that, this is just where they come to play the violin, or the viola or the cello. For kids it's about opening kids' perspectives; it's about seeing there are more possibilities in their lives and their futures than they might have known. It's about providing a structure for kids to realize they can devote themselves over a period of many years to a progressive skill building project and know what it means to persevere through the low points.''

And, that a group can give you strength.

Ruth: ``And we see that really taking hold especially for our high school students, who have a set of friends that they've developed through Community Music Works. They're playing music with these friends, they are forming a tight peer group. You know sometimes I have people ask what's the outcome you're looking for, for kids. It is that they become professional musicians? And it's not. We of course support kids if they want to go on and study music seriously and grow to be professionals. That's great. But at the end of the day the thing we're really going for is that the kids have the experiences, that they understand their place in society, understand it to be rich with possibility and understand that it could lead them to other continents to study other disciplines, but sort of rooted in what they learned here.

And while Ruth enjoys the day-to-day interaction with the kids,  he is thinking about where Community Music Works - and the Daily Orchestra in particular - will be down the road.

Ruth: ``What I would like to see happen is that that program evolves and that cohort of 6-year- olds moves through elementary and middle school, then into high school together and that they develop a new sense of what's possible with music in this community.''

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

 

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