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Outreach and the Musician, Part 3: Building Community

January 22, 2011

A reporter in an article in the New Yorker about CMW questioned:

But why Brahms? Isn’t it simply a self-indulgent fantasy to think that German chamber music could change the world of a girl whose mother is living on food stamps?

Sometimes we overlook the role music has in building community. Not only is there a danger of stereotyping music and inner city neighborhoods, making assumptions of their desire to learn about music, we also tend to be blind to the lack of community in these neighborhoods. We also underestimate the role arts programs have in inspiring individuals as well as communities, changing their worlds into something somewhat bigger. Not only that, it serves to change whole worlds, maybe in small steps at first.

Sebastian Ruth first got the idea to start Community MusicWorks as a senior in Brown University studying the philosophy of education. He was at first interested in doing it in a setting where music would be part of a project for social justice, especially since inequality and injustice were important topics to him. Realizing that he might have a role to play, he was inspired by the thought of education as a way of introducing people to ideas, and more specifically, the idea of arts education as “not only a leisure pursuit of subculture for gifted children but an instigator of social change.”

Not only that, he felt as if there was something “bleak” about merely having a performing career.

You are in this tight, closed-off world. you are playing generally at very expensive concerts for people who can afford it, and who are already steeped in it. You fight the feeling that it’s not real.


Going for a more “visceral” sense of connection with a community, Ruth decided to form an organization which made music accessible to the inner city kids of Providence: a community which definitely could not afford to attend these concerts, much less know much about classical. Why should music be something restricted for special occasions?

In a recent Boston Globe article, Ruth remarked,

“We’re making the concert experience part of the normal, everyday life of this community. We’re also bringing the message, albeit unspoken, that these are communities that are very under-resourced, where kids grow not to expect the highest-quality things. So the subtler message is, ‘No, you deserve, in fact, the best quality experiences. You don’t have to leave the neighborhood for them.’ “

A message like that, seen in the interactions between musicians and inner-city children who have a burden of unfortunate circumstances, goes a long way. Even to their parents, who might never have thought about their children learning to play a musical instrument, a message like this brings hope.

It should be noted that Sebastian Ruth dislikes using the word “outreach” to describe what CMW does. To him, this word brings connotations of musicians going into places where they are strangers and outsiders. Instead, he thinks of CMW as something which is planted in the middle of community, building from the inside out instead of the outside in. He and his fellow performers in this sense are an active part of the community, who adapts their lives around and are influenced by the people they serve.

This organization is something that already belongs there.

As for what this organization has to offer, the heart of Community MusicWorks are the weekly instrumental lessons, which are offered as a sort of after-school program these children can participate in. The members of the quartet teach group classes in viola, violin, and cello, and along the way, develop mentoring relationships that continue on a long-term basis. Musical workshops, offered monthly, involves informal interactions between local or touring artists from diverse backgrounds and these kids. Four times a year, performance parties and youth salons are held as an opportunity for students, teachers, and guest performers to perform as a diverse community coming together. Significant about this event is the multi-ethnic potluck feast that follows, where people who speak different languages from each other can still come together as a community with common interests and goals. The Youth Salons, as they are called, are were recently added as a further opportunity for students to showcase their musical accomplishments with a variety of local performers and artists.

Picture from CMW Typepad blog

Importantly, once a month, concert trips are organized for the entire family, not just the students, to attend concerts held by the Boston Philharmonic, the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and other organizations that would provide free tickets and transportation to these inner city families.

Lastly, CMW implemented a Fellowship Program in September 2006, by which young professional musicians are able to join CMW for a two year period to build community by teaching, performing, and learning about their model for arts education so that it can be utilized elsewhere. Adding more part-time teachers doubles the program capacity, allowing more children interested in signing up to be able to participate in the program instead of being wait-listed for an extended period of time.

All of these programs, events, and even instruments are offered free of charge.

Proof of how far their program has come over the years came in the form of the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Michelle Obama presented the award, amounting to a $10,000 grant for continuation of the project, to Sebastian Ruth in a White House ceremony. (The link also provides the breakdown of CMW’s funding, as well as how the donations are split among their various needs, in case anyone’s interested.)

Photo credit: Michael Bowles

One might think that the point of such a program would be about finding musical talent or producing new musicians. What’s the point of spending so much time and money to train a child how to play a violin if the child may not stick with it in the future?

But the point of CMW goes much deeper than simply the desire to find new talent or produce new musicians. In fact, it would be more correct to say that that’s not the point of the organization at all. Sebastian Ruth replied to the reporter in his interview for the New Yorker,

I don’t know if it changes anything right in a single moment in anyone’s life. But it might change how someone thinks. Maxine Green talks about the arts creating openings, this mysterious clearing in people’s lives, so they walk out of the forest and can breathe. Maybe, at that moment, music becomes a huge part of their lives. Or maybe they use the clearing to see themselves in a new light, and go on to do something different. It could be any kind of music, could be any other art form.

Indeed, this program and others of its kind is about something else…

We’re trying to take the essential energy, creativity, spark that generated this music in the first place, be it Beethoven or Bartok or Anthony Green, that basic human excitement and energy … How does that spark transformation for those kids? … Maybe they become musicians, maybe they don’t. But have they been sparked by experiences to realize that their lives have limitless possibility?

It’s a question worth asking.


On another note: I am honored to be collaborating with the Providence String Quartet in a series of chamber concerts, one in Providence College on February 4 at 7 PM, and another in Roger Williams University on February 6, at 2 PM. Please check my website for more information!


Further information:

Community MusicWorks in the Providence Journal archives: “Inner-city creativity – Kids from the streets learn new avenues of expression” written by Journal Arts Writer Channing Gray, Feb 25, 2001
Classical Notes: “Providence String Quartet builds community” from the Boston Globe, May 15, 2009
Transforming lives one day at a time :: The online journal of Community MusicWorks
10 years… 10 stories: interview with Sebastian Ruth
Community MusicWorks in the New Yorker, September 4, 2006
Link to CMW’s Flickr photo gallery
Community MusicWorks at the White House

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2011 11:17 am

    Thank you for your comment on my blog post, Dr. Kang. I wish you success in your career and blessings to your family!

    Best Regards,

  2. January 30, 2011 5:09 pm

    Hi, Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. 🙂 This programme reminds me a bit of the story depicted in ‘Music of the Heart’. I started playing the violin at the age of four and would love to teach my kids music. Nothing is better than the ability to compose.

  3. February 19, 2011 6:04 pm

    I guess that in a society that seeks success, there are lot of people that just don´t see the point. Why a program that is not looking for the next gifted talented musician? They simply ignore the fact that all kind of arts make people develop a sensitivity that will live with them for the rest of their lives and it will be applied to any kind of field they decide to go into. We all should have the possibility to fully develop our talents.
    I don´t know how you got to my blog, but thanks for being there!!

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