20 Years On, Community MusicWorks Celebrates A Milestone

Mar 17, 2017

Since 1997, the nonprofit Community MusicWorks has provided Providence-area children with classical music lessons in violin, viola, and cello. 

Thousands of students have taken part in the programs offered by the group. Now, the organization readies to celebrate a major milestone, and prepare for its next steps.

On a recent Friday night, a group of about 15 teenagers gather in a middle school cafeteria on the city’s west side for chamber orchestra practice.

A half dozen violins and violas play a delicate sweeping line, matched by an army of cellos. They’re working on the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto, which they’ll perform next week with internationally acclaimed soloist Emmanuel Ax. Ax is coming to help celebrate Community MusicWorks’ 20th anniversary.

These kids are part of the Phase 2 program of Community music works, in which more experienced players gather to learn chamber music. Most of the kids here are African American and Latino – diversity that’s still something of a rarity on American classical music stages. Most of them didn’t have much connection with classical music before joining Community MusicWorks. Founder Sebastian Ruth said he’s not trying to force that connection.

“It’s not sort of imposing this idea of classical music on a community, but more invitational: I’m going to be doing this right here and invite you in to be part of this,” said Ruth.

Since 2001 the organization has worked out of an inconspicuous store front on Providence’s west side. The words “string quartet” are painted across the windows. To join Community MusicWorks you have to live within certain zip codes of Providence, mostly encompassing the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The program is offered free of charge.

“Very early on we were making the choice to say that we wanted to offer young people that may not have some of the advantages of a more affluent young person growing up in a different community,” said Ruth.

From their humble beginnings the organization has grown, yet stayed humble.  The now million-dollar a year nonprofit still sends its musicians out to play at community centers, soup kitchens, and on sidewalks.

When Emmanuel Ax – who solos regularly at Carnegie Hall – visits, he’ll perform at a gymnasium and a nearby taco shop. Inside the building, the sound of practicing spills from rooms, where private lessons are going on.

Sitting in his office, Ruth, a violinist himself, said private lessons are at the core of their mission. It’s crucial to keeping students engaged.

“There’s a deep connection to a consistent adult, or set of adults, that they may get over a period of five, 10, 12 years. I mean they may start at age six and continue all the way through high school.”

During their time at Community MusicWorks, students can take part in chamber music, orchestra programs, and fiddle workshops. This kind of intense music education is often inaccessible in public schools. And it’s grown since Ruth began the organization in 1997. Back then, it was just him and a few friends.

“Four of us, who at that time were informally playing in a string quartet went in, did a little performance for the kids, and had a sign-up,” said Ruth. “And we had a long list of kids who wanted to sign up.”

Those first kids are now in their late-twenties and early-thirties, and most aren’t professional musicians. But that’s not the point, said Ruth.

“I’ve always thought if somebody comes through our program and was studying public health in India that would be as much a success of this program as playing the violin professionally.”

But Ruth said that doesn’t mean he and his teachers don’t try to hold their students to a high standard.

“As soon as you say it’s not the goal to train people professionally, people start to assume, ‘oh it’s just sort of a nice after school activity to keep kids into something,’” said Ruth. “Well that sort of undermines the point that, no, it really is about progressive skill building.”

The students in phase 2 will get a chance to show off those skills next week when they play with pianist Emmanuel Ax.

As the kids snap up their cases after rehearsal, they get ready for the second part of the evening: a weekly group discussion of social issues ranging from the arts to current events. The sustained focus on engaging kids in more than just music sets this organization apart, says Ruth.

“It’s also about, what kind of community are we building within this program? How are people relating to one another? What kind of respect do people feel when they walk through the door?”

The weekly discussions, which include dinner, foster a sense of community, and build confidence says Ruth. 11th grader Jasenia Grijalva said the organization has changed her outlook on the arts.

“Classical music, most people think it’s just something that you do just to do it, but it really teaches you, and gives you different perspectives on art, that’s another thing we like to talk about too, art and social justice,” said Grijalva. “How we can convey what we think through music.”

Grijalva has been part of the group for 10 years, and says she’s thinking about studying music in college.  Organization head Sebastian Ruth says he hopes some students will continue to make music a part of their lives after they graduate high school, especially as he looks to the organization’s future.

“This is really a lifelong investment in people. In their musicianship and their humanity, and certainly I would hope that that feedback loop continues to deepen, so that some of our graduates will be running the organization sometime down the road.”

Community MusicWorks has ambitious goals for the next few years, including a new space, and more teachers. That should help because there’s currently a long waitlist to get into the program. And the reach of the organization extends far beyond Providence. A fellowship program teaches professional musicians the Community MusicWorks model. They’ve gone on to start about a dozen similar organizations from Canada to California.