Music is a shared tradition among Blair School of Music students and the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School
by Kara Furlong
photography by John Russell
For students at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, it’s a ritual they know well: warming up an instrument; running through scales and technical exercises; reading notes from a page; playing and receiving feedback.
This is the process of a typical music lesson, and by now most Blair students have received lots of one-on-one instruction. From their initial engagement with an instrument, usually at a young age, to their advanced study at the university level, private instruction has played a large role in helping them hone their craft.
Post-graduation, some Blair students will become professional performers; others will become professional educators. But virtually all will have opportunities to share their musical knowledge and skills through teaching.
A number of Blair students are getting a jump-start on this endeavor – and gaining valuable new insights into the teacher-student dynamic – by serving as volunteer instructors at the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School.
For an established nonprofit such as W.O. Smith, which relies on a large corps of volunteer instructors, having the Blair students on board is an undeniable asset.
“We recognize that we couldn’t survive without Blair students – we need them,” said Jonah Rabinowitz, executive director at W.O. Smith. “There’s no question they make up a significant portion of our teaching faculty here.
“But we also are providing them with an amazing opportunity not only to do community service, but for those who will teach, to get them started with their careers,” he said.
“It’s how we all learn music – we pass it down from generation to generation,” Rabinowitz said. “While we know they are serving our students, in many ways, we’re serving them right back.”
The W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School has a tradition of service and learning that dates back more than a quarter-century.
Founder William Oscar Smith, a jazz bassist who recorded with greats such as Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins, settled in Nashville and served for 30 years on the faculty at Tennessee State University. His instructional experience and contact with the city’s school system made him aware of the many students from low-income families with an aptitude for music but no resources for private instruction.
Smith convened the Wednesday Night Club, a multicultural gathering of interested community members, and articulated his desire to alleviate this problem. In 1984, the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School was born, designed specifically to bridge the gap between Metro students’ classroom learning and their desire for one-on-one training – provided at the nominal fee of 50 cents per lesson.
Twenty-five years later, this fee remains unchanged. Approximately 600 students, ages 7 to 18, are served each year by some 180 community volunteers. In addition to Blair students, instructors are music industry professionals, Nashville Symphony members, local music teachers, band directors and accomplished amateur musicians from all walks of life.
Blair’s relationship with W.O. Smith reaches back to the school’s beginning. John F. “Del” Sawyer, director of the former Blair Academy (before its merger with Vanderbilt in 1981) and the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music’s first dean, is a founding member of the W.O. Smith board of directors.
In recent years, the school has found allies in current Blair dean Mark Wait and his staff.
“The W.O. Smith school has been wonderful in recruiting Blair students and faculty who are dedicated, passionate musicians,” Wait said. “In every sense – educational, philosophical, practical – the partnership between Blair and W.O. Smith works. My predecessor at Blair, Del Sawyer, had the foresight and compassion to help start the W.O. Smith School, and we are honored to follow in his footsteps.”
About 30 Blair students currently participate as volunteers. W.O. Smith works diligently to coordinate lesson times around their busy schedules and even provides shuttle transportation between Blair and W.O. Smith’s sprawling facility in the Edgehill neighborhood.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we both would regret it if the relationship didn’t exist,” Rabinowitz said. “We know we would serve far fewer children, and I think Blair realizes the volunteer experience is really furthering their students’ educations.”
Indeed, Blair students are finding that giving back in this way is not only “good for the soul,” but also good for one’s technique.
“It’s been a great lab for trying out different teaching methods,” said Sam Schneider, a fifth-year musical arts student from Maplewood, N.J., who is completing his master’s in education at Peabody College. “It has allowed me to figure out, ‘What’s going to work this week? How am I going to get them to do this?’ It’s been great to encounter different personality types, to meet a stranger and try to figure out how to work with them.”
Schneider, a volunteer at W.O. Smith since his sophomore year and currently a student teacher at Bellevue Middle School, has seen first-hand the challenges students can face in a large classroom setting.
“When a student is learning an instrument in a band classroom, they’re in there with 20, 30, sometimes upwards of 60 other kids. And especially if they’re beginning on that instrument, it can be really overwhelming,” Schneider said.
“What W.O. Smith allows, and what I hope my students are getting, is that one-on-one attention they can’t get in school,” he said. “Lessons allow me to see exactly what they’re doing. If there’s something wrong with their embouchure, how they’re breathing, or if something’s wrong with their instrument that might go unnoticed in a large band setting, I can correct it.”
W.O. Smith provides educational materials, but otherwise sets loose parameters so that lessons can be tailored to fit individual students’ needs. Engaging the students – making the most of that lesson time – can be a challenge.
“This is something I’ve thought a lot about as I prepare to take on, not just one student at a time, but potentially 60,” said Alex Naser, a master’s student from Marietta, Ga., who plans to teach. “How do I get them engaged and get their minds activated toward this sort of learning?
“I think first you have to start with what you feel music education can offer a particular student, and it’s different for everyone,” he said. “For some, music education can serve to create really great musicians. For others, it can offer the simple goal of working as a team and being accountable, and I think ensembles serve that purpose.
“Then I think for some students, music can be a diversion – from the outside world, from the issues they have going on in their lives, the bad day they had at school or the bad night they may have coming up at home,” Naser said. “I’ll be honest – I think I made mistakes when I started teaching at W.O. Smith by not taking into account where the student was versus where I was when they arrived.”
While every student may not be destined for musical greatness, children who receive a music education tend to perform better on standardized tests, stay in school longer and achieve higher graduation rates, Rabinowitz said.
To engage one of his saxophone students, Naser got creative. Instead of relying on method books, the two began composing songs together – with Naser slipping in lessons on theory along the way.
“It’s accessing music that he’s familiar with – music that he lives with every day,” Naser said. “Then I say, ‘OK, let’s learn this scale, because to play this next piece or to play in this next key, you really need to learn this scale.’ I’m finding that a lot can be accomplished by approaching things in unconventional ways.”
“Working with younger students causes us to think more actively about how we learn, and how we communicate musically,” Wait said. “By helping others, we stretch our own consciousness, and we help others begin to find themselves musically.”
For some Blair students, volunteering has sparked a renewed engagement with their craft.
Shona Goldberg-Leopold, a senior music education major from Merion, Penn., finds her trumpet student’s enthusiasm contagious.
“She just lights up when she plays and talks about music,” said Goldberg-Leopold, who specializes in French horn and wants to perform with an orchestra or chamber ensemble in the future. “I think that’s one of the most valuable things that I’ve gotten from the experience – to see the process through fresh eyes.
“It’s tough sometimes,” she continued. “When you’re a music major at this level, everything is so detail-oriented, and it’s easy to get lost in that. It’s nice to take a step back and see how much they appreciate it at that early stage.”
Others have become more deeply entrenched in the teaching process.
“Almost every time that I leave W.O. Smith, I make a phone call – to my mom, to a friend who volunteers, to a fellow music major – to share news about the progress we made that day,” Naser said.
Schneider and Naser, who are roommates, say they frequently swap notes on students’ breakthroughs and setbacks and are constantly thinking about new teaching avenues they want to explore.
“To have the opportunity to influence these kids, but also to be really excited by the process – I hope I never lose that,” Naser said.
This academic year, the opportunity to engage the wider community of W.O. Smith students and parents came in the form of Daniel Bernard Roumain, a renowned violinist and composer known professionally as DBR. A Vanderbilt alumnus, Roumain is a visiting associate professor of composition at Blair for 2009-10.
“DBR is an incredibly charismatic person. I don’t think there’s anybody from the age of 2 to 92 who wouldn’t be drawn into his world,” Rabinowitz said. “So for Blair to offer – for the limited amount of time that he’s in Nashville working with them – that he come to W.O. Smith and lecture was, for us, quite a coup.
“Engagement with low-income folks is one of the biggest problems in all kinds of schools, and certainly in ours,” Rabinowitz said. “We’ve got people whose lives are full of difficulty most of the time. But DBR got them excited. He helped them to understand what the possibilities are for them in music, and that’s something we can’t always do. That’s something he’s got a special gift for.
“The most wonderful thing was that our students saw themselves in him. This is a young man who not only plays incredibly well, but also reflects them. It was magical.”
Blair’s involvement with W.O. Smith doesn’t end with its volunteer instructors, or the lending out of a renowned visiting professor.
The Blair chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, a music fraternity for women, has established ties with W.O. Smith by sponsoring holiday parties for its students, with arts and crafts and food. SAI held a musicale last spring where its sisters performed and conducted a bake sale and silent auction to raise money for the school. And SAI is developing a mentorship effort, tentatively titled Music Sisters, which would pair its members with female W.O. Smith students for music-centric activities.
“I think it will be great for these girls to see that they can stay involved in music,” said Goldberg-Leopold, SAI’s president. “They can pursue it as a career, like a bunch of us are doing, or they can just keep it a part of their lives.”
Blair professors are participating in W.O. Smith’s Master Teacher Series, in which music professionals lecture to the school’s volunteers on best teaching practices.
And W.O. Smith is the frequent beneficiary of independent fundraising efforts from all parts of Vanderbilt’s campus. Rabinowitz cited the proceeds from November’s Rock Band video game competition, sponsored by the Curb Creative Leadership Series, as one example.
“The efforts of Blair students and Vanderbilt itself have been very important to us financially,” he said. “Without that help, it makes it very difficult for us to do our jobs.
“Our students pay 50 cents per lesson, and by the second day of our fiscal year, every penny that would be collected for the year is already used up, which means we’ve got 360-some-odd days left to fund,” Rabinowitz said. “When a Vanderbilt group gives us the proceeds from an event, it may not seem like much money to them, but to us it’s huge.
“We’re grateful not only for the time and talent coming out of Blair, but also for the fact that so many people at Vanderbilt put a lot of heart and soul behind our organization.”
At the heart of why many Blair students volunteer is their love of music – and respect for W.O. Smith’s young musicians.
Lara Pitts, a trombone player and junior from Germantown, Tenn., never planned to be a college music major.
“One day I realized it’s something that I want to be a part of my life, forever,” she said. “Music was such a big part of my growing up that I can’t imagine wanting the opportunity to play, and not being able to have it.”
Pitts, who wants to teach music or English abroad following graduation, hopes she is doing her part to “even the playing field for everyone” through her volunteer efforts.
“I want my students to understand that there are people in the world who care about them, whether they personally know them or not,” she said. “There are people who are willing to work with them to allow them to pursue what they love.”
“Music is about sharing,” Wait said. “Teaching music to somebody who might someday share it with others is a great privilege. It’s about giving back – sharing the music that has nourished us and enriched our lives.”
For Goldberg-Leopold, finding success through music was tantamount to finding a sense of identity. She wants the same for her student at W.O. Smith.
“I hope that she finds in music an outlet for herself – for her creativity, but also for her talent,” Goldberg-Leopold said. “Once I got into music, it boosted my confidence, my self-esteem, and helped me find my place in the world. I could see that happening for her, too.”
Altruism aside, working with these students – playing music together – just feels right, Goldberg-Leopold said.
“I’ll never forget teaching my first lesson at W.O. Smith,” she said. “I had just left a bad rehearsal. I was in a terrible mood. I was stuck in traffic and worried that I was going to be late. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? Why did I commit to this?’
“But as soon as I met Alison, my mood completely flipped around. I left the lesson happy and fulfilled. I was set for the rest of the day. I told myself, ‘This is one thing that you are not going to drop.’ It really was that gratifying.”