Music success story started under the stairs

The nonprofit KEYS program in Bridgeport, Conn., schools now enriches the lives of hundreds of students who otherwise wouldn't receive music instruction.

Courtesy of KEYS
Rob Silvan, the founder of the KEYS music education program in Bridgeport, Conn., accompanies two student musicians.

Just Say Yes.

Those three words led Rob Silvan, a jazz musician and composer, to launch KEYS, Kids Empowered by Your Support. The 11-year-old nonprofit group brings music to schools in Bridgeport, Conn., a city with a high poverty rate and where creative arts programs are a luxury most students and schools cannot afford.

“I don’t think of music as some kind of privilege,” says Mr. Silvan, who serves as executive director of KEYS. “It’s [a student's] right to have it. The whole thing that drives me is fairness. On one side of the zip code line kids get everything [in school] and on the other side they get nothing.”

The schools where KEYS works are prone to the same problems many other poor communities face: Most students live in single parent homes, sometimes the percussion of gunfire interrupts their sleep, and the school lunch program might be the only balanced meal a student receives that day. Students also face pressures to join gangs or drop out of school to help make ends meet.

Despite these challenges, Silvan is giving Bridgeport students what they deserve: music.

As a child he had showed little interest in music. True, his father played violin and his mother played the piano. And, yes, he took piano lessons during elementary school. But sports and other activities grabbed his attention. He graduated from New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School and studied English at Iona College in that city.

Then one day, when he was around 18, he noticed a piano. On impulse he sat down and played.

“I knew the name of the notes and where to go on the keyboard. I started to play and couldn’t stop playing,” he says.

He’d fallen in love with music. Still unsure of what he wanted to do as a career he spent a year working in Paris. When he returned he decided to take piano lessons. His teacher soon suggested he audition for the Westchester Music Conservancy in White Plains, N.Y. He began playing in bands, composing, and teaching.

Then, 20 years ago, while living in southwestern Connecticut, has was asked a question that changed everything: Would he become a music director at a local church?

He could have said no. But he didn’t.

“I had had decades of being on a stage, which is isolating in a way, except for the other musicians you play with,” Silvan says. “But I had started feeling music was a gift that you should give away. Now I had a chance to use music as a relationship with others.”

As the music director for Talmadge Hill Community Church in Darien, Conn., he directed the choir. One of the members mentioned that the Bridgeport school where she taught had no music department. Silvan agreed to visit and see what could be done.

“I brought my own keyboard with me. There was no spare room. The administrator showed me a closet where the copier was, but I couldn’t teach in there,” he recalls. “So I got an extension cord and went under the stairwell. It wasn’t that bad.”

Instead, it was perfectly imperfect. As students changed classes they heard the music coming from under the stairs. Some stopped to listen. Others asked if they, too, could play.

“My sensibility for the first years of KEYS was ‘Just Say Yes,’ ” Silvan says.  

Quickly his first four students grew to 21 students. And since 2004, more than 1,000 Bridgeport students in 14 schools have participated in the KEYS program.

Because students miss classes for these music lessons they must sign a contract promising to make up their classwork. Students have a chance to perform once a week in the city's 1,400-seat Klein Auditorium. They also give Christmas and spring concerts.

“We are bringing lessons and opportunities to play in ensembles to students who normally don’t have this experience,” says Corrine Metter, a violin teacher with KEYS.

For every parent who supports a child’s involvement tin KEYS here is one who views the program as a hindrance, Ms. Metter says.

“The whole concept of lessons might not be part of their culture," she explains. "They don’t see the value of a music education. They view instrumental lessons as taking away from the academics when in reality music helps in all domains of learning.”

KEYS works because it’s economically viable, Silvan says. He used seed money from his church to launch the program. Because of that he’s always paid musicians for their time. He holds drives to collect gently used instruments.

Today the program relies on a mix of private donations and grants, including funding from the Fairfield County Community Foundation, the Lone Pine Foundation, and Spread Music Now.

Teachers come from various local music organizations, such as the Westport (Conn.) Suzuki Music School.

“I wanted the students to have teachers with a high degree of prestige,” Silvan says. “It was important that these kids not get the leftovers, so to speak, as is so often the case for them.”

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