Held together by the strings

Marconi Hernandez isn't so different from most urban teenagers. The ninth-grader at Mount Pleasant High School in Rhode Island plays basketball and football after school, hangs out with friends, and listens to pop music. But in addition to a roster of hip- hop stars, Marconi is fond of Bach, who composed Minuet 1, his favorite piece of classical music.

Marconi and kids like him are learning about Bach and Beethoven with help from Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit organization in the heart of Providence. It started up four years ago when Sebastian Ruth, who had just graduated from Brown University here, took it upon himself to teach 15 students on a single hand-me-down violin.

Today, kids, parents, and educators all sing the praises of Community MusicWorks, which offers free lessons in violin and cello to 50 students ages 7 to 14, workshops featuring renowned musicians, performance parties and recitals, and family trips to professional concerts.

Hidden Bach fans

Mr. Ruth, a violinist and the company's executive director, had harbored ideas about music and social change since high school. But his vision began to take shape when he taught violin to a 10 year-old southeast Asian Hmong boy during his senior year at Brown. Ruth recognized there was interest in classical music in parts of the city that Bach doesn't always reach.

"I thought, 'If only I could bring in a string quartet and teach even more students,' " he says.

When he earned his degree in music and education, Ruth won a $10,000 fellowship from the Swearer Center, his alma mater's public-service center. He decided to turn his attention to South Providence, Olneyville, Elmwood, and West End, four lower-income neighborhoods of Providence where predominantly African-American, Hispanic, and southeast Asian immigrant populations face high dropout and substance abuse rates.

Ruth formed a string quartet in residence that today also includes 20-somethings Minna Choi, Ben Rous, and Heath Marlo. Each one teaches children in groups of two or three at community centers after school.

Community MusicWorks operates on a shoestring budget that relies on state grants and some private contributions. Lessons are offered to children from the four neighborhoods on a first-come, first- serve basis. Ruth tries to balance genders and gives preference to siblings because of his belief that it's ultimately a family- and community-building project.

On a Monday afternoon at West End Community Center, fourth-graders Fraynelis Cabrera and Shadelys Pena learn a song called "May Day" with Ms. Choi, a violinist who graduated from Brown in 1996 and now serves as Community MusicWork's program coordinator. They practice notes while Choi patiently guides fingers and bows, occasionally drawing out confident notes on her own violin for the students to hear.

Fraynelis says "Deck the Halls" is one of her favorite songs to play. She remembers a trip to see a concert of the Boston Philharmonic, where Ruth plays viola.

"It's good to see them playing music; the people move when they're playing, like they're dancing," she says. "And you get to imagine like you're playing in it, too."

Music has been a part of Ruth's world since he began playing violin at age 5 in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. He says there is a "problem with classical music and how elitist it can be." Lessons and instruments are expensive, and music requires lots of family support to take root. "There's the monetary expense, but also a problem of limited access. You have to have a parent who is dedicated to music, who will drive you places and give you input at home. If a parent is working multiple jobs, this is impossible."

Extended-family recitals

Through Community MusicWorks, music extends far beyond the classroom. The students give recitals every other month at 'performance parties,' where families gather for potluck multicultural feasts representing the city's ethnic communities: Haitian, Dominican, Hmong, Laotian, Guatemalan, to name just a few.

Ken Goode, program director at West End Community Center, raves about the parties. "They're packed. You've got to get there early or you don't get a seat," he says. "They go beyond just being a concert; they're a family gathering."

Guest workshops show music's role outside the classroom and have featured jazz combos, a blues pianist, and a musician playing the didgeridoo, a traditional instrument of Australian Aborigines.

Ruth emphasizes that Community MusicWorks is not simply an outreach program.

"There are a lot of symphonies that say: 'Here are some concert tickets' and that's it.... We're not a quartet that goes into a community and then leaves. We can ... provide support so that music becomes the relationship between people who otherwise wouldn't know each other."

As Community MusicWorks has grown, so has the neighborhoods' involvement. The company has a board of directors that includes Brown University educators, local musicians, parents, and Marconi, who is now in his third year of violin lessons.

Educators Ted Sizer of Brown and Maxine Greene of Columbia University's Teachers College provided Ruth with early guidance. In addition, a board of directors mentored him in grant writing, drafting by-laws, fundraising, and other fundamentals of running a nonprofit organization.

Janis Johnson, a South Providence native who joined the board in February, says this is her first involvement with a committee. But the organizational duties are well worth the chance to see a recital by her 10-year-old granddaughter Jan-Delle.

"When I see her on stage, I'm overwhelmed," she says. "I wanted to play violin [when I was a child], but my mother couldn't afford it. Inner-city kids don't get the chance to play violin."

Deborah Wyatt, executive director of West End Community Center, recalls her satisfaction when she saw kids and parents dressed up for the Boston Philharmonic.

"Sebastian [Ruth] and Minna [Choi] are committed to bringing a new resource to a group of people who might never have had the experience," she says. "They're showing the kids that, whether classical or pop, music is not something segregated for 'those' people."

Ms. Wyatt is so taken with Community MusicWorks that she hopes to include a music room and more lessons in a planned expansion of the center.

"Now I'm just waiting for them to offer adult lessons," she says, laughing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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