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Music Heals the Soul

Vanessa Ford (left) said CMSS provides more than just singing

Vanessa Ford (left) said CMSS provides more than just singing opportunities to students, but life skills as well.

After the pandemic, one in 10 people under the age of 18 experienced a mental-health condition, and one in five young people reported that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health.

Research dating back to ancient Greece has demonstrated that music and the arts can have valuable benefits in reducing distress and mental-health concerns, and Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS) is doing everything it can to provide that safe space for youth.

“We love the idea of the beloved community. It was Dr. Martin Luther King who talked about that, but we really want to be the embodiment of the beloved community that helps Springfield and the community support each other and itself and sort of uplift our city in a way that’s not gentrification, but through the arts,” said Sierra Simmons, associate director of CMSS.

She went on to explain that the school and its staff have always been dedicated to access and inclusion when it comes to musical and artistic opportunities, as well as improving the well-being of the community by bringing people together.

“We have classical, contemporary, pop music, hip-hop, gospel, jazz … it pretty much runs the gamut. We try to be really inclusive and relevant to the culture of people that are in our community.”

CMSS was founded in 1983 as a nonprofit and still operates as one today. Around the end of 1999, it moved to its current location, a 1933 Art Deco building in the heart of downtown Springfield, comprising more than 33,000 square feet of studios, classrooms, offices, and performance areas across five floors.

While touring the space with BusinessWest, Rachel Rivard, director of Faculty and Education at CMSS, noted that the performance hall is her favorite area in the building. The Robyn Newhouse Concert Hall used to house a bank, and it’s still adorned with old teller boxes and deposit-slip tables. On the wall hangs an original 1933 mural of the American urban landscape by Carroll Bill.

Today, the building serves more than 2,000 students annually. The music school provides a variety of programs, including music therapy, a preschool of the arts, a children’s chorus, and more. Among the private lessons and ensembles, students have the capability of learning almost 33 different instruments.

“Pretty much any instrument you can think of, we have someone who can teach it. We have a staff of about 84, and about 65 of those people are musicians,” Simmons said. “And we teach all different sorts of genres. We try to honestly include everything you can think of. We have classical, contemporary, pop music, hip-hop, gospel, jazz … it pretty much runs the gamut. We try to be really inclusive and relevant to the culture of people that are in our community.”

One of the programs offered through CMSS is the Sonido Musica program, back in 31 different Springfield and Holyoke public schools this year to support musical learning, social-emotional growth, and leadership development for youth. Students participate in weekly ensemble music classes during school, led by CMSS faculty. This opportunity is available to students in grades K-12, at any experience level, in schools that have agreed to partner with CMSS. Sonido Musica provides instruction and an instrument to each student at no cost to their family.

Rachel Rivard

Rachel Rivard was hired through the Sonido Musica program before moving to CMSS.

When the program was created in 2014, Julie Jaron, director of Visual and Performing Arts for Springfield Public Schools, connected with CMSS Executive Director Eileen McCaffrey, sharing the problem that there wasn’t an unbroken continuum of music education in the school system leading from elementary school all the way through high school.

“The idea was that we would provide teaching artists through state funding, and we would provide music instruction for schools that didn’t have music in their school, with the agreement with the principal that, at the end of three years, they would hire at least a part-time music teacher,” explained Rivard, who was hired as a teacher through the Sonido Musica program before making her way to CMSS. “So that started creating this snowball effect where more and more people were wanting music in their schools; we expanded Sonido to more schools throughout the years, and now, at the end of that, principals are starting to hire music teachers.”

In fact, Rivard noted, in 2019, the Springfield School Committee decided to require at least a part-time music and art teacher in every school throughout the city.

During the pandemic, the Sonido Musica program was made virtual to adapt to the changing world. As students were able to congregate in classes again, the music program was needed more than ever, said Vanessa Ford, vocal faculty member and director of the Trust Transfer Project and the Culture RX program (more on those later).

“When you have an opportunity to share music in the lives of kids, that’s the motivation to get them to even come to school sometimes,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not like they’re super motivated to go to school right now, especially after the pandemic. Where do you fit in? How do you fit in? What do you do? How do you complete your day? If there’s music involved, most of the time, that’s the motivation to get the kids to show up. And showing up is all we need sometimes.”


Music, Mental Health, and Extra Needs

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), bringing out emotions and thoughts through methods of verbal and non-verbal expression and exploration — such as dance and body movement, music, art, and expressive writing — may deactivate the avoidance mechanism and enable the elaboration of emotions and distress. CMSS has created programs to offer just that to its students, including representation in correctional facilities and special-needs classrooms.

The Adaptive Music Program (AMP) connects music education and special education to improve students’ lives, impacting their social/emotional, academic, and artistic development.

The Prelude Preschool

The Prelude Preschool offers music and arts throughout the day as well as the regular school routine.

More than 20% of the student population in Springfield is identified as having disabilities that impact their learning. Music is a proven and effective tool to unlock learning potential in students with disabilities, yet the majority of these students have historically not had access to music instruction adapted to their needs. AMP partners with 14 public schools and education centers throughout the Pioneer Valley, providing adaptive music classes for youth in preschool through high school in their typical classroom setting during the school day.

Another program CMSS offers is the Culture RX program, funded through the Mass Cultural Council, to link partnerships between a cultural organization, like CMSS, and a health clinic or other partner in the Springfield community. Baystate Health and Behavioral Health Network (BHN) have partnered with the school and have prescribed their clients ‘social-healing sessions’ that steer away from, or at least complement, the traditional model of prescribing medication.

“It’s primarily focused on giving the patient an opportunity to be prescribed something that gives them hope and healing, energy, social activity, togetherness — bringing them out of their homes from isolation into really stepping forward into places where they can connect with people on a very human level to do something fun,” Ford explained.

“You talk to doctors, lawyers, scientists, people involved in very, very difficult, challenging work. Rocket scientists, when they’re not working, are involved in some type of music experience.”

Meanwhile, the school’s Trust Transfer Project mobilizes youth, artists, faith leaders, educators, health professionals, and other community influencers to create works of artistic messaging that lead to improved public-health outcomes. This project leverages Springfield’s cultural assets to increase access to evidence-based public-health information (particularly around COVID-19 and vaccines), promote positive health choices, and foster hope and healing.

Ford told BusinessWest that the pandemic has made many groups rethink what works and what doesn’t. In the case of CMSS, it is exploring more holistic and interactive ways of dealing with mental health. Ford explained that “it’s a whole new mindset,” and the music school is doing things that haven’t been done before.

Not only was the pandemic isolating, but the world was watching racial injustice happen in real time, through constant television coverage and instant access on social media. When serving a community of mostly Black and Brown people, CMSS took the time to pause and focus on the structures and systems in place in the organization.

“Our enrollment did take a little dip, and it gave us time to think so we can try to be as equitable and inclusive and accessible as possible to our community,” Rivard said. “So we are recovering, absolutely, but I think we’re recovering so strongly because we had a chance to really examine the system that exists here and build it with community members involved in the process, so that it’s moving forward in a way that’s healing and caring rather than ‘let’s just hop right in and jump higher and move faster.’

NAMI research shows that music is influential in a person’s life

NAMI research shows that music is influential in a person’s life, regardless of age and demographics.

“We’ve really listened to ourselves, to the faculty here working with us who live in this community, and to the people within our community that see changes that need to be made,” she added, “and I think that’s why we’re recovering so well — because we use that as an opportunity to listen and to come back to the ground.”

Ford agreed. She used the metaphor of a bus, and “everybody comes out at different stops.” The spillover and residual effects of COVID have shown that music may not be the most important thing in someone’s life, but it can be among the most powerful.

Youth mental health is a main focus for the music school this year, and the staff are doing everything they can to support their students socially and emotionally. And for good reason — according to research by NAMI, patients diagnosed with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia have shown a visible improvement in their mental health after general music and music-therapy interventions. Moreover, studies have demonstrated other benefits of music and music therapy, including improved heart rate and motor skills, stimulation of the brain, and enhancement of the immune system.


Learning for Life

Simmons called social-emotional learning an important part of the educational programs at CMSS.

“It’s huge in Sonido Musica,” she said. “It’s all about gaining skills and competencies for kids that sort of helps them succeed socially, academically, and even onward into their careers and their lives. These are skills like self-regulation, community collaboration, working together for a common goal, confidence, agency, resiliency — skills that really help them everywhere they go.”

Ford added that learning music and arts early in life make young people better readers and strengthens their reading-comprehension skills, math aptitude, and more.

“You talk to doctors, lawyers, scientists, people involved in very, very difficult, challenging work. Rocket scientists, when they’re not working, are involved in some type of music experience,” she said. “Whether they love listening to music or love actually playing music or singing, or they studied a whole life of music and then ended up doing these extraordinary, really difficult careers, music is the backdrop. So when we see the potential for music to really calm and be a stepping stone to positions like being president of the United States, you’re like, ‘OK, we just need it.’”


Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]