Musical Bridges nurtures talent

Mark Stauffer (left) gives instruction during a recent practice session with one of his Musical Bridges students.
Mark Stauffer (left) gives instruction during a recent practice session with one of his Musical Bridges students.

Doctoral students coach high school musicians

A typical applicant to the Conservatory of Music and Dance likely has spent years nurturing and refining raw talent, taking lessons with first-rate private teachers, practicing for hours at home and performing at annual recitals. Those who attain artistry in music and dance almost always have benefited from instrument ownership or individual lessons begun at an early age.

For underserved pre-collegiate musicians and dancers in Kansas City, it is an altogether different story. Without lifelong quality training, the students – many are students of color – either do not apply or do not meet academic or audition requirements. To help students qualify for admission to the UMKC Conservatory or another institution of higher education, the Conservatory began a special program in 2007.

Musical Bridges provides instruction in a variety of instruments, voice, and composition.

Musical Bridges provides instruction in a variety of instruments, voice, and composition.

Musical Bridges is entering its third year, with nine Conservatory doctoral students and three Community Music and Dance Academy instructors comprising the teaching corps. They have given individual lessons in voice, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, violin, viola, trumpet, dance, composition, and cello to a total of 45 students. For 36 weeks during the school year, students receive a one-hour performance lesson and perhaps some music theory and composition.

“Musical Bridges gives these kids an excellent chance, but it is more than the one-on-one teaching,” said Mark Stauffer, cello instructor. “They interact with college kids and they meet someone who cares about their future and their potential. They see the world as a richer place.”

The aim is to get high school students where they want to be in music – and in an ideal situation, that would be as students in UMKC’s Conservatory or another music studies program. Even in the best of circumstances, many college music majors need scholarships – which are in short supply. Discussions are under way about providing college credit to pre-college students, much in the same way as for continuing education students.

Partners and donors

Participating schools are Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, Kansas City Middle School for the Arts, Smith-Hale Middle School in Grandview and Ruskin High School. The school band, orchestra and choir directors recommend students for Musical Bridges, based on their accomplishments thus far. The students are not charged a fee for the lessons, but school districts contribute based on their ability to pay.

Startup money and continuing support funding came from the Francis Family Foundation, Prep-KC, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City and the Richard J. Stern Foundation for the Arts – Commerce Bank, Trustee. The Shumaker Family Foundation provides funding for instrument rental, sheet music purchase and music camp tuition, including the Chamber Music Festival at UMKC or KU’s Midwestern Music Academy.

William Harris Lee, a fixture of the Chicago music scene, provides reduced rates on superior instruments to Musical Bridges. The difference in instruments sometimes yields a difference in outcome, as in the case of Brandon.

A cello student for the past three years, Brandon has really blossomed since he received an $11,000 instrument to play. He was accepted into the Chamber Music Festival at UMKC, earned superior ratings for his solo performances at a Missouri state music festival, and has amazed his instructor. Currently, Brandon is auditioning for acceptance into colleges.

Results prove program success

Musical Bridges students have qualified for scholarships to prestigious programs, such as Lyric Opera camp and the UMKC Jazz Camp. One voice student was asked to join Canta Filia, a Kansas City women’s chorus, and accompanied them when they performed in New York City – a trip she is certain would never have happened without the private instruction from Musical Bridges.

So far, all Musical Bridges high school graduates are studying performing arts in college. At the close of the pilot year, Michael Turnbo was accepted as a music major and is now in his second year at Baker University. At the end of the 2008-2009 year, three more Musical Bridges students began studying music at the university level: BreAnna Wilson at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and Andrea Goering and Tynetta Jenkins at Northwest Missouri State University.

Academy instructor Cheryl Melfi spoke about the students’ dedication during her first year with the students.

“We go to the students’ schools, because it is easier than transporting them to campus. The drawback is that in some schools, there is no rehearsal space set aside. Our students would play in the corridors while classes changed, students walked by and bells signaled the start of the next class. These students were so tenacious. Against all odds, they kept right at it. Their attention never wavered.”

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