MusicWorks Program Gives All Students Chance to Learn

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Arts & Entertainment

by Elaine Marranzano – 

Ten years ago, while watching their daughters perform, Judy Kass and Alison Paul noticed the Sleepy Hollow High School Jazz band was, well, very white.

“We were both really taken by the fact that the ensemble did not reflect the community’s diversity,” said Paul.

They wanted to know why.

“The school did a good job recruiting kids to start an instrument in elementary school, but by middle school, students whose families could not afford private lessons, many of whom were students of color, dropped out of the music program.” said Kass.

Their observation led them to establish MusicWorks, a program that offers free private music lessons to children in the district who show musical aptitude, qualify for free or reduced lunch and are willing to practice. A decade after MusicWorks was established, the results are in.

“Participation in our programs is up by 40 percent since I arrived,” said Micha Sprague, Performing Arts Department Chair, Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. “MusicWorks is a contributing factor, helping a large part of our student population gain access to performance arts.”

“We realized that music needs one-on-one instruction to master, and the inability to pay for private lessons was a barrier,” said Kass.

A collaboration between the Shames Jewish Community Center (JCC) on the Hudson and The Public Schools of the Tarrytowns, the goal is to support and nurture the musical abilities of low-income students.  Thanks to the initial or ongoing support of the Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns, the Rotary Club of the Tarrytowns and others, plus a $20,000 grant from the JCC, 15 students now benefit.

“Music enriches their lives,” said Paul. “When kids of color see kids of color in the ensemble, they think: ‘I belong there! I can do this too.’”

Teachers nominate prospective students and the JCC performing arts program matches private music teachers to students. To reduce the barriers of transportation and lack of practice space, lessons take place at the school.

“In school, we offer wonderful instruction, but one-on-one instruction gives students a huge leg up – for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” said Sprague.

The principal clarinet in the Sleepy Hollow High School (SHHS) wind ensemble is a MusicWorks student, and six others have been accepted into Westchester All-County Ensembles.

“These groups are very hard to get into, so that’s a great number,” said Sprague.

Rising senior and MusicWorks student, Suniya Warren, played the lead this year in the musical Beauty and the Beast at SHHS.

“When I told my friends, I was taking private lessons; they said: ‘but you can already sing,’” said Warren.  “But I’ve become a better singer, and I was able to go to the Beauty and Beast audition with a stronger technique, and I knew more what I was doing.”

MusicWorks coaches families and students on the importance of not missing lessons.

Lessons come first, even if that means other teenage pursuits have to wait.

“Every Thursday my friends would wait for 45 minutes outside the school until I finished my lesson,” said Warren. “Then I could go hang out.”

The focus of the program is not to produce professional musicians, but to use music to enhance lives.

“Music fires up the different dopamine receptors in the brain and makes more neural connections, and the discipline of regular practice helps kids focus,” said Paul.

Some MusicWorks students like Francis Pace-Nunez have gone on to study music in college. Currently a student in the acting conservatory at SUNY College, Purchase, Pace-Nunez said he “had no musical knowledge, but a great ear.”

“MusicWorks took me another level that was vital. It gave me the opportunity to work professionally with vocalists.” His teacher also told him about summer stock. “I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

Taking families to live performances each year is another way MusicWorks integrates music into the lives of students and parents.   For many, it’s their first experience with a live concert.

“Last weekend, I was so moved by seeing the faces of the parents watching their children perform,” said Kass. “They knew they were in a situation that was transformative for their children.”

To sustain the program for the next decade, MusicWorks is seeking people who would like to join its advisory board.  For more information, contact the Shames JCC at 914-366-7898.

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