Music Lessons

By Simone Solondz / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

On a saturday afternoon in may, hundreds of Providence residents streamed into the Church of the Messiah in the city’s Olneyville neighborhood to hear a classical-music concert by respected members of the community: their children. The sound of excited kids warming up escaped onto the street. Arriving late, a young girl took the steps two at a time, a small violin case clutched in her hand.

The sixty musicians onstage that afternoon ranged in age from seven to eighteen; all study violin, viola, or cello through Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit organization founded seven years ago by Sebastian Ruth ’97, a violinist who’d envisioned a string quartet in residence in an inner-city neighborhood, with members acting as teachers to local children. “It’s not uncommon in a university or conservatory setting for there to be a string quartet in residence,” he explains. “We’re trying to extend that model into the community.”

Ruth was inspired in part by members of the Charlestown String Quartet, which was in residence at Brown during his college days. “They were fabulous mentors,” he recalls. “They really inspired me to take very seriously the idea of playing in a quartet. And through their teaching and work in the community, they encouraged me to think about musicianship in a broader arena, to find the places where your music is going to have an impact on people’s lives.”

Started with a grant from the Swearer Center for Public Service, Community MusicWorks has grown exponentially, and thanks to tireless fund-raising efforts by Ruth and a part-time staffer, the group is on the verge of becoming self-sustaining. The quartet members, who include Ruth’s wife and fellow violinist Minna Choi ’96, spend their time teaching, advising, and performing. In addition to the sixty children they now teach, another sixty are on the waiting list.

Each student attends a weekly one-on-one lesson at the Community MusicWorks storefront in Olneyville. Every other week, guest performers teach workshops that “range from classical to jazz to hip-hop to gospel,” says Ruth. The program also sponsors performance parties and trips to concerts and performances in Boston and Rhode Island. Students who have been in the program three years or more play chamber music together at informal sessions. “I love this kind of atmosphere,” Ruth says, “where music is not part of a formal environment; it’s based around a group of kids having fun. The risk factors for these kids are so high, the poverty levels are high, high-school completion rates are low, drug-abuse rates are high. To see them bonding and supporting each other is great.”

Providence writer Simone Solondz is former editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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September / October 2004