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The Providence of Music Education: Carnegie Hall Helps Bring Music to Rhode Island Youth

By Keith Powers

New Yorkers think of Providence as just up the pike. Carnegie Hall thinks of Providence as a neighbor and colleague. The Rhode Island capital has become a special place for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI), one of many communities across the US connected to the Hall through educational initiatives like Link Up and PlayUSA. Teaming up with linchpin innovators like the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Providence’s Community MusicWorks, these programs bring in-depth musical possibilities to tens of thousands of children, part of a larger web that links Carnegie Hall to hundreds of orchestras and music educators around the world. “It’s a robust community of organizations focused on this work,” says Sarah Johnson, director of WMI, “so we can learn from one another.”

Link Up and the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra

“I teach music in Pawtucket,” says Patrick Dow. “When I started in 2000, we had no curriculum book. The materials we did have were 20 years out of date. To say they were inappropriate would be putting it mildly.”

Dow sought out resources from the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, and through them found Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program, in which students in grades 3–5 learn to sing and play an instrument in the classroom and perform with a professional orchestra from their seats at a culminating concert. Link Up not only provides 12,000 recorders to elementary-school students across Rhode Island, but offers curriculum support at many different levels.

“The Link Up materials gave me a framework, things I could build on,” Dow says. With 430 students in three separate grades, Dow needed both an approach and the resources to reach them.

“It’s a lot of students,” Dow says. “I begin with grade 3, and we just take five minutes to run through 12 lines on our rhythm sheets. Within a month, they are reading rhythms. You start with basics like this, and by the end of fifth grade, I consider them musicians.”

Link Up is an international program, with more than 110 partner orchestras in the US and around the world, benefiting over 450,000 students and teachers annually, using recorders as an introduction. “All the basic recorder music can be played on stringed instruments, so everyone can participate,” Dow says. Rhode Island teachers are also testing Carnegie Hall’s digital interactive program Musical Explorers, aimed at younger students in grades K–2.

The versatility of Link Up makes it transferrable to all levels of local instruction. “That’s why Link Up works for us,” says Annette Mozzoni, director of education at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School. “The philharmonic has had education programs since the 1940s. We started with Link Up in the 2011–2012 school year, and gradually we transferred all our educational initiatives to Link Up.

“It has helped us develop deeper relationships with the communities,” she continues. “And the programs have lasted—like in Pawtucket, where we started an afterschool string program three days a week, and now we’re in our third year.”

Every school year culminates in live performances with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, with more than 10,000 students in grades 3 through 5 participating either onstage or from their seats during eight separate concerts in May.

“When my kids go to that first philharmonic concert in the third grade,” Dow says, “it’s a pretty cool thing. I feel like I’m connecting with every student.”

PlayUSA and Community MusicWorks

Community MusicWorks (CMW) has had a crucial role in non-traditional music education for more than two decades in Providence. Founded in 1997 by Sebastian Ruth, CMW is a fellowship of musician-educators that works mainly in Providence’s South Side. The organization operates in multiple storefronts, melding with the neighborhood and fostering a musical culture that ranges from lessons to performances.

CMW’s work has transformed children’s musical lives, and that work has been recognized. Ruth himself is a MacArthur Fellow, and received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama in 2010.

Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA supports opportunities for low-income and underserved K–12 students, funding 15 organizations in 14 states across the country—a total of $500,000 annually. For CMW in particular, it’s a mutually beneficial partnership, with PlayUSA funds and materials supporting CMW initiatives, and other PlayUSA partners benefiting from CMW’s extensive grassroots experience.

“Community MusicWorks really has been a leader in teaching practice,” says Karen Cueva, one of WMI’s managers of learning and engagement programs, “so much so that we’ve arranged inter-visitations in Providence so educators from other locales can go and observe.”

“PlayUSA is a natural fit with us,” says CMW’s Education Director Chloë Kline. “They fund professional development support around deepening teaching practice. And in certain areas, we have a longer experience being imbedded in a community.”

PlayUSA funds the inter-visitations along with monthly webinars and teaching videos. The interaction helps everyone involved. “People who do this work can be completely underwater in their own situations,” Kline says. “We can get them to focus on actual teaching, instead of just doing as much as they can on very little money.”

“Just being connected with other organizations doing this work helps,” says Sarah Kim, a resident musician at CMW. “It’s interesting to see that there are all kinds of organizations with similar missions.”

“It’s really about community building,” Kline says. “One of the focuses of PlayUSA is to set a high artistic bar. They want to make sure that wider access doesn’t imply a lower level of playing. We try not to separate those things either.

“And it’s really important to our philosophy that we perform in the neighborhoods and teach the next day,” she continues. “That way students can see the whole trajectory. Supporting teachers as performers deepens the connections to the community.”