Cover Story

Note Worthy

Community Music School Makes Sound Contributions
January 22, 2007 Cover

January 22, 2007 Cover

Coming of age in New York City, Eric Bachrach, founder of the Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS), said he realized the power of music early on, but only later did he realize that not everyone has the means to study the universal language. He set out to change that in the early 1980s, and today, Western Mass. continues to hear the strains of one organization doing its part to change the world.

It was a disaster that would dampen anyone’s resolve.

In 1994, a broken water main on Birnie Avenue caused a 10-million-gallon flood to course through the halls of the Community Music School of Springfield.
Countless sheets of irreplaceable music were lost, the building was uninhabitable, and one of the school’s pianos was drowned under 25 feet of water.

The blow was catastrophic for CMSS, still fragile 10 years after opening its doors with two borrowed pianos and a second-hand drum set held together with masking tape.

But the school lived on, as did the ill-fated piano, which, after some repair, still plays. CMSS Executive Director and Founder Eric Bachrach says that’s an apt metaphor for the entire organization.

“We are famous for rising from the flood, for our resilience,” he said. “We’ve been through the vagaries and trials of any nonprofit, but we’ve always been confident in our importance, and the importance of keeping music a reality for anyone and everyone.”

And that, in essence, is the school’s mission and purpose. Dedicated to music education for children and teenagers across the region, Springfield’s Community Music School has grown from about 80 students in the 1980s to more than 2,000, involved through both on- and off-site programs. Many of those students are receiving their musical education for free, and many others through the benefit of scholarships and financial aid, amounting to more than $250,000 a year.

The goal is a simple one — to offer exposure to music to as many young people as possible, regardless of their social or financial strata. But often, the importance of music and cultural education can be difficult to articulate.

To help him translate the school’s objectives, Bachrach, a violinist, returns to both his own roots and those of community music schools in general, of which there are about 350 across the country. Each school operates independently and in a variety of ways, but all share one common bond: they provide musical opportunities for students who otherwise may never get the chance to simply make a joyful noise.

Bach to Basics

“I grew up in a middle-class family in the Bronx,” Bachrach began. “My mother taught at Julliard, and my father taught psychology at City College of New York. A time came when they decided it was time for me to study music, and I did so privately — never realizing that there are so many people who do not have access to the study of music.”

It wasn’t until he began to study under violinist Ruth Kemper, who helped found the National Guild of Community Music Schools, of which CMSS is a member, that he began to fully grasp that reality.

“She made me realize the importance of equitable and democratic access to the arts,” he said, reaching for a tattered — and water-stained — copy of Music, Youth and Opportunity, a text published in 1926 for the National Federation of Settlement Schools. Kemper presented the book to him, and it became the guide for many of CMSS’s programs.

“The community music school model came from the early settlement schools in this country,” he explained. “They were set up to teach immigrants the basics of life.”

In addition to balancing a budget and negotiating at a public market, the schools also considered music to be basic.

Bachrach taught music in New York City throughout the 1970s, and moved to Massachusetts in the 1980s to pursue a master’s degree in Music at UMass Amherst. In 1983, he made his first and last foray into providing accessible music education, by sending leaflets to about 18,000 Springfield public school children announcing a new music school in the city.

Of those students, less than 1% signed up for classes, but the CMSS never shut its doors after that point.

It has moved a few times — the original CMSS was located on Birnie Avenue until the flood in 1994. At that point, the school was homeless, but not defunct. Bachrach said within a week, classes had resumed in a variety of locations throughout the city, and staff had begun searching for a new home.

“We knew it was going to be in Springfield — we’ve always been in Springfield,” he said. “We knew we needed parking, and we wanted it to be downtown, in a neighborhood that effectively belongs to everyone regardless of ethnicity.”

No Strings Attached

A search committee that included some recognizable names in the Western Mass. business community, among them real estate developers Harold Grinspoon and Tom Henshon, attorney Steve Schatz, and and former SIS president Bill Marshall, began looking for a suitable property, and in 1996, they found it — an historic 1933 Art Deco bank building on State Street with high ceilings and, in turn, fabulous acoustics.

The building had just been acquired by Fleet Bank, along with four other properties downtown, and Bachrach said because there was not a lot of obvious re-use potential in the State Street facility, CMSS was in position to take advantage of an excellent opportunity.

“But we took a risk and held out, because we needed the building and also its adjacent parking garage,” he said, noting that Fleet was prepared to virtually give the building to the school, but was more hesitant to give up prime-location, downtown parking space. “It took a lot of negotiating, but in the end it resulted in a priceless gift.”

The bank building and its adjacent parking were sold to CMSS by Fleet for $1 in 1996. Bachrach said staff moved the school’s music library, instruments, and furniture in over one weekend, and have operated from that location for a decade with no plans to move again. Back rooms were converted into studios and offices spanning four floors, and the Ruth Kemper Music Library was created, housing all of the sheet music, books, and recordings that were salvaged from the Birnie Avenue flood or procured since then.

Development plans have also been brisk in those 10 years, and remain so as CMSS approaches its 25th year.

Bachrach explained that about 700 students study music at the State Street school, while an additional 1,300 or so take part in off-site programs, all of which are free to students. They include the Prelude program, which, through the assistance of a Wallace Foundation grant, provides music and creative movement instruction to Head Start classrooms; and the Presto program, which identifies young, inner-city elementary school students and provides lessons in stringed instruments.

The school also offers musical instruction to incarcerated teens through the Renaissance program and to others through various community organizations, such as Girls Inc. and the YMCA. It has also created a special Saturday program for Somali mothers and their children, through a program that again returns to CMSS’s settlement school beginnings.

“In addition to music, that program also offers arts and craft instruction and English as a Second Language classes,” said Bachrach, “and these mothers have been gathering here for about a year and a half. It’s sort of a home away from home that allows them to create a community amongst themselves, after years of feeling displaced.”

At the school, students take part in private and group lessons with one or more of its 68-person faculty, all professional musicians. Instruction is available for a wide array of instruments, including violin and guitar through the internationally-known Suzuki method, and ranging further from baritone horn to vibraphone and beyond.

Classes include early childhood programs for infants, toddlers, and young school-age children and music therapy classes for those with special needs, in addition to instruction in a variety of instruments and genres. Jazz and classical ensemble programs are also available, as is participation in the CMSS Chamber Orchestra, chorus and choir programs for young singers, and an adult instruction program.

Those programs, as well as improvements to the CMSS building to make them possible and the scholarships that bolster its student roster, are financed largely by grants and private support, including $2.1 million raised through the Focus on the Future campaign in 1999, which financed renovation of studios and the school’s exterior, installation of a handicapped-access elevator, a scholarship endowment, the start of a community partnership program, and other program expansions.

Currently, the school’s annual operating budget is about $1.3 million and its endowment $500,000. Soon, it will embark on a new fundraising campaign to further expand programming and make improvements to the CMSS facility. Less than half of the operating budget is funded through tuition.

A Handel on Things

On top of Bachrach’s to-do list is the creation of a new performance hall at the school, which would provide a more professional space for concerts, now held in the school’s spacious foyer.

“As grand and regal as this space is, it’s really not fitting for us now,” he said, noting that performances are held adjacent to the school’s administrative offices and front door, where ringing phones and visitors are a distraction. “We need to close the world off and form a discreet space.”

Plans to collaborate with Boston’s Berklee College of Music to offer the Pulse program, which will serve 100 middle- and high-school students each week through Web-based, acoustic and electronic instrument instruction are also in the works, as are plans to start an arts-based pre-school at CMSS.

That program would augment existing early education initiatives at the school, and also provide an academic preschool with a focus on music and the arts for area children. Half of those students, Bachrach said, are expected to have their education fully subsidized.

“We’re always looking to raise money for really important work,” said Bachrach. “Our students are high achievers, who come from families that are interested in the important parts of life, but which are often not easily accessible.”

As he continues to tear down those barriers, Bachrach said his hope for CMSS is that it will continue to evolve from a small community music school into a regional center for the arts and arts education. Following the launch of the school’s newest capital campaign, yet to be formally announced, he added that he hopes the creation of a new performance hall and other improvements will also help return State Street, one of downtown’s main thoroughfares, to “boulevard status.”

Flood of Memories

These are lofty goals, Bachrach concedes, but not unachievable.

“It was a real eureka moment for me when I realized that increasing access to music education can change the lives of students, regardless of social strata,” he said. “That’s an idea to which we’ll stay very deeply connected, and we have some very concrete plans for the future.”

Indeed, following the flood, many contend that a new world was born.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]