Boston — Service to families, whether newcomers or old-timers, is inherent in the community music school concept. Just ask any member of the Joseph Nichols family of Cambridge, Mass. Mr. and Mrs. Nichols, now living in retirement on Cape Cod, sent all 11 of their offspring to the Community Music Center of Boston. Mrs. Nichols vividly recalls taking her children to lessons each week and attending ``a little assembly'' on Saturdays, at which six or seven students would show off what they had learned. ``Ma, I'm going to play!'' was a familiar cry at the Nichols house as weekends approached.
``It gave the children a real incentive -- a goal every week,'' Mrs. Nichols says. It took a bit of cajoling to get them all to practice, she admits, but the music lessons were ``well worth what we invested in them.'' Her sons and daughters still play regularly, and one daughter teaches music and does some composing. Mrs. Nichols now looks forward to watching, and hearing, the musical development of her 13 grandchildren.
The Boston music center offers instruction to all comers, regardless of age or talent. It also offers financial help geared to a student's ability to pay. These policies, based on a philosophy of ``arts for all,'' are shared by the 139 other community schools of music in cities around the country. Enrollment at the various schools ranges from 100 to 5,000.
Most of these schools sprang from the ``settlement-house movement'' of the early 20th century, explains Lolita Mayadas, director of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts in Teaneck, N.J. Immigrant families found guidance and recreation in the settlement houses, and were given a taste of culture as well. ``The music component developed quickly on its own,'' she says, ``and, in many cases, what remains of the old settlement school is in fact the music school.''
Most community music schools have a strong intergenerational flavor. Students at the San Francisco Community Music Center range in age from 2 to 84, says Stephen Shapiro, its director. In many instances, he says, mothers and fathers take lessons with their children.
Jim McClelland is director of development at Philadelphia's Settlement Music School, which has three branches and more than 3,000 students. He points out that a survey of parents at one branch revealed that ``almost all of them'' were sending their children to the school because either they themselves or a member of their family had studied there in the past. One family has three generations currently enrolled, he says.
In Rochester, N.Y., the Hochstein School held a recent recital at which a family quartet performed -- mother, father, and two children playing piano, recorder, oboe, and clarinet. It was ``a wonderful occasion,'' says Margaret Quackenbush, registrar and dean of students. She describes her school -- which, like the others, dates back more than six decades -- as a ``place where a family can come and everyone participate.''
Community music schools are also places that can help fill gaps in the local educational system. Boston's center has extended its program into the public schools, supplementing the schools' own dwindling music offerings, hard hit by budget cutbacks. Elsbeth Meuth, head of the center's school program, says that hundreds of children ``who would never play an intrument otherwise'' are thus being given the experience of producing music.
Dr. Shapiro in San Francisco underscores this aspect of broadening horizons for inner-city children, many of whom may come from ``rocky backgrounds and broken homes.'' Some children are ``saved by the musical experience,'' he asserts, adding that it provides ``an alternative, not only to being on the streets, but to being a passive person'' -- not a small accomplishment in an age when so many children are glued to TV sets.
Even during the summer months, these centers across the country help children get acquainted with music. But the pace is slower, the sounds a bit softer. At Boston's center, a musical m'elange of recorders, violins, and pianos drifts lazily along the brick passageways and out the multipaned windows. Lessons are confined to weekdays during these vacation months. But come fall, activity at the center will sharply crescendo. Saturday mornings will throb and sway to the ``Music is Fun'' program, which introduces young children to a range of musical expression, including ``eurythmics,'' a method of teaching music through movement.
The children involved in that program not only have a good time, they get a ``surreptitious introduction to music theory,'' says David Lapin, director of the center.
Year-round private lessons and the school-year weekend program are but two items on the Boston center's musical menu, which includes preschool programs, frequent recitals, and music therapy for the handicapped.
Mr. Lapin's organization is situated in Boston's ethnically and economically diverse South End. Like most centers across the country, it serves children of all races and all economic backgrounds.
The immigrant aspect is still present, too. Mr. Lapin points out that the Boston center serves many Southeast Asian and Latino families recently arrived on American shores. And it's not uncommon for suburbanites to transport their children into the inner city for classes at a community school, since instruction there is usually some of the best around.
But young people gain more than just musical instruction at these centers across the country. As San Francisco's Dr. Shapiro says, ``It makes listeners out of them. . . . Once you start playing I don't think your ears are ever the same again.''