Making Music Even in Frugal Times
By: Adam S. Poswolsky
“I grew up in a world where sports was everything,” remembers J. Curtis Warner, Jr., executive director of Berklee City Music, a nonprofit program founded by Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. “As a kid who was not an athlete — who was tall, black, and couldn’t play basketball — I was traumatized.”
Raised outside Philadelphia in the 1960s, among notable jazz artists like Bobby Timmons and Tommy Campbell, Warner found his inspiration through music, learning how to play drums in the fourth grade. “Music was life-changing for me,” explains Warner. “Once I had a band, I was a cool. No one started a fight with me — people would say ‘don’t mess with his hand, he needs it to play.’”
After studying at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, Warner taught music in several Boston Public Schools, while he played gigs with local bands and ran a recording studio at night. Warner joined Berklee City Music in 1993, giving underserved youth in Boston scholarships for a five-week summer music mentorship program. “That next summer, I saw of the same kids from the previous summer, without any skills, as if they had forgot everything,” says Warner. “I realized we needed to provide year-round access to our students, that five weeks wasn’t enough.”
Nearly 20 years later, Berklee City Music still provides music education to 4th through 12th graders in underserved communities in Boston, and has educated more than 13,000 students across the U.S. City Music’s work comes at a time when arts and music education, especially in low-income communities, has faced severe budget cuts.
A 2010 report by the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, which uses classical music as a vehicle for youth development, stated that up to a third of public school elementary students do not have music teachers or instruments with which to learn how to play.
Recently, the Government Office of Accountability found there was a significant likelihood that low-income and minority population schools had cut funding for the arts in response to the demands of No Child Left Behind, which pressured schools and teachers to focus on improving math and reading skills, leaving non-evaluative subject areas like music to be neglected.
In addition to offering a weekday after-school program with music theory and one-on-one classes taught by students and faculty at Berklee College of Music, and a Saturday program for 4th through 8th graders in Boston, City Music has launched a year-round online music education method called PULSE, which is shared with 37 partner organizations across the country, and provides access to professional music instructors and an online community where students and teachers can interact and share music resources.
City Music has awarded scholarships to 1100 students to attend its five-week summer program in Boston, and of those students, more than 160 have gone on to receive full-tuition scholarships to study at Berklee College of Music.
This group includes Tuffus Zimbabwe, who has been playing music since he was five years old, and after studying at Berklee College, received his master’s degree in jazz studies at NYU, and can be seen every Saturday night on national television, playing behind musical stars like Mick Jagger and Bruno Mars.
Zimbabwe, now 30, is in his third year playing keyboards for the Saturday Night Live house band, and spends his days teaching piano to kids in Manhattan and Queens. He grew up in Roxbury in Boston, and his mother signed him up for the free Berklee City after-school program in 1996, when he was 14.
“City Music gave me the opportunity to take high caliber music classes, that my family otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford,” explains Zimbabwe. “I learned music theory, jazz ensemble, and had private lessons, which prepped me for an opportunity to receive a scholarship at Berklee College.”
City Music’s curriculum emphasizes pursuing higher education beyond careers in music; former students have gone onto to work in education, law, and medicine. William Junior, also from Boston, participated in the five-week summer program in 2003, when he was a junior in high school, studying jazz guitar as well as funk, hip-hop, and R&B, and then received a full scholarship to study music education and business management at Berklee College.
Now, Junior is completing rotations in his third year of medical school at Temple University in Philadelphia. “As a young kid in a big city, it’s easy to get lost if you don’t have something productive to do after school,” says Junior. “For a lot of inner-city kids, Berklee City Music gives them direction, something they can do and be good at — it’s like a family.”
Berklee City Music teaches music theory through contemporary music, including popular genres like hip-hop and R&B. “Urban kids don’t have time for nonsense,” says Warner. “If they aren’t familiar with the music, if it’s not part of their everyday lives, it doesn’t make sense why they’re learning it, and they don’t have time for it.”