By Rachel Wallach
From Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Wilmington, North Carolina, Peabody alumni are using music to break down barriers, create opportunity, and bring people together.
Now that his Portsmouth Music and Arts Center is 12 years old, founder Russ Grazier (MM ’93, Composition) is watching students who grew up in the New Hampshire program attend conservatories, join the faculty of university music departments, and become professionals in the music industry.
While it’s deeply rewarding to see those developments unfold, Mr. Grazier says it can be even more gratifying to watch hundreds of other students choose and excel in nonmusical fields while remaining connected to the art that grounded them.
“We look at arts education in two ways,” Mr. Grazier says. “There’s art for the sake of art; playing music is an experience everyone should have. Then there’s the way that we use our brains and interact with people while learning the arts, which supports all other ways of learning.”
Mr. Grazier is one of a notable cohort of Peabody alumni who have carved out careers offering music programs in communities across the country and abroad. Some programs are for kids, meeting during or after school and on weekends. Others are geared toward adults — whether returning to a childhood instrument or picking one up for the first time. Some aim to prepare aspiring professionals, while others focus on the communal experience and an environment of mentorship.
And while social change and the concept of upward mobility play a key role for many community programs, they are in no way about “outreach,” which would feel arrogant or condescending, the alums say. Instead, they’re about using music to build community, and about teachers and mentors receiving — both personally and professionally — as much as they give.
“It’s not ‘us’ reaching out to ‘you’ because you need us; it’s that we both need each other,” says Matt Carvin (MM ’05, Guitar), executive director of DREAMS of Wilmington in North Carolina.
Mr. Carvin first started connecting with community during his Peabody days. In search of a meaningful way to relate to the school’s neighbors while earning his master’s degree in classical guitar, Mr. Carvin picked up his instrument one day and walked over to My Sister’s Place, a nearby women’s shelter. After playing for the residents and sharing a meal, he realized this was the experience he’d been seeking to balance an existence filled with practice rooms and recitals. “I knew this was what I was supposed to do with my life,” he says.
He began arranging concerts by his peers at Baltimore shelters, hospitals, and schools, and soon had created Peabody’s Creative Access program — which continues to hold performances across Baltimore — and served as its director for 10 years. The purpose, says Mr. Carvin, was to help students step out of their world and into their neighbors’ and to create performances that celebrate a mutual world. “When you stepped back into the practice room afterward, trust me; you noticed it in your playing,” Mr. Carvin says.
One year ago, he left Baltimore for North Carolina to become director of DREAMS of Wilmington, which offers free after-school classes in the musical, visual, literary, and multimedia arts to about 110 kids a year, mostly from economically disadvantaged backgrounds or considered “at risk.” The organization also brings free music and arts classes into public housing and other sites for about 600 children unable to travel to the center — an undertaking that has been a priority for Mr. Carvin, who says he learned at Peabody the importance of going into the community to break down barriers of transportation and mobility as well as cost.
In the program’s 18-year history, 99 percent of its students have gone on to finish high school and enter college. Studying art can do that for kids, Mr. Carvin says: While thinking critically about what they’re trying to accomplish with art, they learn to set goals, evaluate their progress, try new things, and recover from mistakes. Mastering that process, they learn to believe they can improve.
“You practice music, you think about how you want to sound, and, like success in pretty much any other area of life, the focus becomes less about the sound and more about how to get there,” Mr. Carvin says.
That process is essential for kids who, like himself, have had very limited access and opportunities in early life, says Baltimore native Dontae Winslow (BM ’97, MM ’99, Trumpet), now a Los Angeles-based musician who appears with his wife, Mashica Winslow, as WinslowDynasty. He’s toured with Justin Timberlake, Queen Latifah, and Jay-Z, among others.
Together with his wife, he is co-founder of Music Motivating Minds, a nonprofit in Baltimore that offers free music, movement, and art classes to about 25 kids every month, from January to June. Developing skills in the arts can sustain kids growing up in the inner city, Mr. Winslow says, and can help them get into college and build their passion. “I’m one of these kids. I know what it’s like to sit outside on the porch all day on Saturday with nothing to do,” he says.
What he and his peers were missing, he says, was someone who showed interest in their development and offered guidance in setting the goals that would help them find their path. “Everybody needs coaching, mentoring, life skills, and fun,” says Mr. Winslow. Along with offering choir and drumming, Music Motivating Minds holds workshops in areas that staff members have observed can pose challenges for adults — financial literacy, nutrition, and mental health, for example.
Like other alumni working in the community, Mr. Winslow has found that developing a skill in the arts often spills over into spheres both academic and personal. Music provides a spark to young brains, he says, inspiring students to try harder across the board. “Kids find something they’re good at and it builds confidence, character, ability, and aptitude that they begin to apply in other areas.”
There’s growing evidence that in addition to building confidence and instilling passion, music can help unlock these creative cognitive pathways. Mr. Grazier, too, has watched it happen among his students. The human brain processes music differently from the way it processes language, he notes, which helps musicians develop new approaches to all manner of problem-solving.
He’s also noticed that university orchestras are often heavily populated by students studying science, technology, and medicine. “That’s telling me that young students who grew up immersed in musical education are the same students getting accepted to the best medical schools and science schools in the country,” he says.
Mr. Grazier has known since his Peabody days that music education strengthens the fabric of community. Having watched Peabody Preparatory play that role in Baltimore, he went on to teach at Merit School of Music in Chicago, and then returned to his hometown of Portsmouth to found — along with his wife, Katie — the community music school that never existed when he was growing up. The Portsmouth Music and Arts Center offers music and visual arts education programming to 750 students of all ages, including performance, ensemble, and exhibition opportunities.
In a town where the median age is 65 and politics can be contentious, he’s discovered that music builds bridges like nothing else. Through the communal experience it creates, music strips away boundaries regardless of the musicians’ backgrounds and philosophies, he says. “It doesn’t matter if someone is the most conservative or the most liberal; if you play Mozart together, you have the same goal and the same passion for it,” he says. “There’s really no better way to build social capital than having the community participate in arts programming.”
Dan Trahey (BM ’00, Tuba, Music Education) agrees that community music programming, by providing democratic access to music, helps build confidence within individuals and community within groups. He’s seen it happen in multiple settings — he’s worked with some 50 ensemble programs in U.S., European, and Latin American communities; teaches at the Peabody Conservatory and directs the Preparatory’s Tuned-In scholarship program; and serves as artistic director of OrchKids, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program offering music education to 1,000 kids in six Baltimore public schools.
One of the most important contributions of community music education, Mr. Trahey adds, is an expansion of repertoire and pedagogy far beyond the Western white male composers of the 16th to 20th centuries that are so familiar in pre-professional institutions. As schools like Peabody become increasingly involved with their communities, he says, they change — for the better — how they think about music education and the way they relate to music.
“Hearing and learning different styles of music is of the utmost importance to any institution and integral in producing the 21st-century musician,” says Mr. Trahey. “Diversity in styles of music and pedagogy is helping to create a place where all can come and learn music.”