In tune with Providence

By
Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sitting on the very edge of her seat, back straight and violin tucked snugly under her chin, 17-year-old Sydney Argueta plays the sharp opening notes of Mozart’s Quartet in G Major, K. 156. She messes up a little bit, slumps her back and frowns. The other three members of her quartet tease her some, and their teacher, Chloe Kline, rolls her chair over to help.

“Guys, we have to be serious,” Argueta says, jokingly reprimanding the other teenagers, who chat and laugh while she works on the sheet music.

Despite the giggles, jokes and the occasional car honk outside, the members of the group takesthe music seriously. They discuss the notes, sing their parts’ melodies and play the same bars over and over.

This quartet of dedicated young musicians came together through Community MusicWorks, a non-profit organization started in 1997 by Sebastian Ruth ’97 as a way to transform an urban community through musical education. Ruth and the other members of the Providence String Quartet played and taught music in Providence, laying the foundation for an organization that would later expand into much more than Ruth’s initial vision. CMW now enrolls so many students that it required the formation of a more advanced ensemble of players – the quartet Argueta now plays in.

The quartet’s young members were forced to find a new outlet for their musical interests after budget cuts left their schools without music programs about eight years ago.

For them, CMW does not just provide after-school music lessons – it gives them a network of support they would not have otherwise.

“Community MusicWorks has shaped who I am today,” said Kirby Vasquez, the quartet’s cellist.

The opening notes

Ruth founded CMW after he graduated as a way to “explore how a string quartet could play a role in community life.”

“From the beginning I didn’t want Community MusicWorks to seem like a missionary effort where music is the answer to everything,” Ruth said. “I really wanted to embed ourselves into the community and grow with the community.”

Ruth, who played in a string quartet at Brown, spent his senior year teaching at schools in the South Side of Providence. The idea for CMW came from a desire to combine his two loves: music and community service.

“Right from the start he had a passion for education and the arts,” said Lois Finkel, teaching associate in music and Ruth’s instructor during his time at Brown.

Ruth decided early on that he wanted to create a program to provide arts education to youth who might not have had it otherwise, she said.

With the help of a $15,000 public service fellowship grant from the Swearer Center, Ruth was able to begin CMW in 1997. In the beginning, he taught 15 students in the West End Community Center.

Ruth was somewhat nervous about jumping into the Providence community, he said, but he found that collaborating with the community center was the organization’s first step to integration.

“With (the community center’s) validation, the larger community accepted us as a valuable program right from the start,” Ruth said. “Families saw this as a genuine offering and that we really cared about their kids. They accepted us, not just for our mission, but as sincere people.”

Ruth and the other teachers’ decision to become part of the neighborhood helped them take their work beyond their day jobs.

“What’s the significance of a student running into their violin teacher at the grocery store? Or being able to call their cello teacher when times are tough at home?” Ruth said. “If we are in tune with the community then we will have more authentic performances and community events that are more tailored to the community.”

Over the next decade, CMW evolved into much more than Ruth’s initial vision. With a budget of $591,000, it now has 115 enrolled students and a variety of programs, including lessons, mentoring programs and performances.

“We sometimes joke,” Ruth said, that “I’d written out a weekly schedule the first week, and it took seven years to get to Saturday.”

Finding a forte

Two years ago, four of CMW’s most committed students – Argueta, Vasquez, violist Josh Rodriguez and violinist Luis Ortiz – created the ensemble that still plays together today.

For the foursome, the new project is a culmination of many years of learning and self-discovery through CMW.

“Being involved in this program is tons better than anything else,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve improved musically, and as a person.”

Rodriguez said his time at CMW has made him more confident, social and considerate of others – traits relevant to his life outside of music.

Ruth said cultivating this culture of respect, learning and improvement is what sustains the CMW community.

“New students join with habits of peer groups in school – sarcasm is the norm, clowning around is the best way to win approval,” he said. “But they quickly see, not through reprimands from teachers, but through (the) behaviors of the other kids, that that’s not the best way to succeed.”

As much as the students help one another, the relationships they have formed with their music teachers are just as fundamental to their growth.

Vasquez’s instructors are “more like a family than a school,” she said.

Many of the instructors at the school attribute this close-knit community to the respectful and personal way they interact with their students.

“I think just having someone taking the time to sit down and make you a priority is a really powerful thing,” said Sara Stalnaker, a resident musician and mentor program coordinator.

A few years ago, one young musician confided in an instructor and brought up a desire to join a local gang, Ruth recalled. The teenager was searching for a sense of belonging somewhere, Ruth said. But ultimately, the student chose not to join the gang – the young musician recognized the supportive family that CMW already offered.

Another way to play

CMW’s supportive family still extends to the campus that Ruth left in 1997, though the Swearer Center has no official relationship with the organization.

Over 15 Brown students mentor CMW’s young musicians, giving them additional weekly lessons. The younger students benefit from practicing with people closer to their age, Ruth said.

But for both groups of students, the program has grown into more than just mentoring.

The student Bonni Brodsky ’09 has mentored for three years often hangs out with Brodsky and her roommates.

“Half the time I feel like she mentors me,” Brodsky said. “She’s so insightful, considerate and I’ve learned so much.”

Some students, like Tyler Lucero ’10, have come across unexpected challenges in mentoring the younger musicians.

Lucero, who plans to continue teaching after graduation, said he realized the mentoring program helped him realize that “passion isn’t enough.”

“You have to make it digestible and meaningful, which takes a whole other dimension of your knowledge,” he said.

Lucero’s experience as a mentor has transformed his perspective on his own education, he said.

“I think it’s invaluable for Brown students to see a Brown graduate … come back after going out successfully into the community and discuss that transition,” said Roger Nozaki, director of the Swearer Center for Public Service.

One of Ruth’s goals is to foster collaboration between College Hill’s temporary residents and the larger Providence community, he said.

“Providence, like most cities, tends to be a divided city where people don’t necessarily feel comfortable leaving their neighborhoods,” he said. “One of our ongoing goals is to give students access to new ideas and bigger possibilities that they may have imagined.”

Striking a chord

At the end of the day, the music itself challenges, invigorates and inspires the lives of those it touches.

Sarah Schuster ’11, who mentors a student from CMW, said the program gives the student’s children an experience that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

“It adds something to her life and gives her a minute to breathe,” Shuster said. “It’s something she really wants for her kids.”

Argueta and the rest of the quartet spend an hour piecing together Mozart’s music, note by note, measure by measure. They pay close attention to each note’s pitch, to every shift in melody. Completely engrossed in the opening bars of music, they all pause for a moment when they are finally satisfied.

“That was cool,” Rodriguez says, resting his viola on his lap. “It gave me goosepimples.”