Solution Snapshot: Creating music and opportunity in Birmingham
To many, the shrill wails and screeches of an inexperienced orchestra are something to avoid. But for 130 low-income children in Birmingham, Alabama, that’s the sweet sound of opportunity.
Scrollworks, a non-profit program, offers free music lessons and instruments for inner-city kids ages 8 to 19 years old every Saturday at a local church. “I want every child in Birmingham to have a music lesson,” says Scrollworks Founder Jeane Goforth. “My ultimate goal is to have a youth orchestra that has a rainbow of faces.”
Goforth started the program in 2007 with her retirement money. Today the program survives mostly on private donations, local grants, fundraising and ten instructors who work for little or no money. And after a few turbulent years, finances are finally looking up. In fact, for the first time in three years, Goforth collected a paycheck. It was $250.
Most of the instruments are donated from the community. Goforth runs through the list. “Guitars, violins, piano, strings, violas, drums…If someone donated a harp, we would teach that,” she says. Buying an instrument is a big barrier to entry for low-income families. Upper middle class families can commit to buying an instrument and accept the possibility that a child may grow tired of it. But for the majority of kids at Scrollworks, that’s not a possibility. That’s why sharing starter instruments is so crucial.
But not all parents were thrilled with the prospect of music lessons. Goforth did encounter resistance when she first started the program. “Parents have returned instruments to us, saying they were too noisy,” she explains. Other times, parents have simply refused to let their children take lessons. And sometimes, the concept of practicing outside of lessons is foreign to a lot of kids. For some families, all resources go toward survival.
Goforth says that’s where real opportunity comes in. Learning music isn’t just about playing notes. It helps with math and language. It teaches social and leadership skills. More than that, it gives kids a chance to discover what they love. “Something is going to click,” says Goforth. “Something will be their passion. Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s football. Who knows? But if they never get the chance to touch an instrument, they won’t ever find out.”
Scrollworks has already graduated five students into Alabama’s School of Fine Arts. But according to Goforth, success leaks in mostly in the small moments. “At the recital, you see these kids in frilly dresses and little jackets. They’ve been to the salon to get their hair done. And they get up on stage and sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Their parents and grandparents are in the audience. The pride is showing on their faces. That is success,” says Goforth.