MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)
“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.
Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.
Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.
“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.
“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”
The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.
First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”
Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.
Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.
Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.
These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.
“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.
“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.”
However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.
Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.
“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.
With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.
An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.
“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.
Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.
However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.
These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.
How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.
In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.
Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.
Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.
In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.
Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.
“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.
“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”