For 25 years, the W.O. Smith Nash-ville Community Music School has provided music instruction to schoolchildren from low-income families for just 50 cents a lesson. These talented and dedicated students are often taught by other talented, dedicated students—Blair School of Music students, that is. Every week student volunteers from Blair conduct private lessons with children ages 9-18 in almost every major instrument.
This harmonious relationship benefits both the giver and receiver. “A great many Blair students go on to become teachers,” Dean Mark Wait says. “At W.O. Smith, our students hone their teaching skills and give back to their art.”
Blair students make up more than 20 percent of the W.O. Smith school’s 100-member faculty. Last year, more than 30 Blair students taught at the school. “We just couldn’t do it without them,” says Jonah Rabinowitz, executive director of the W.O. Smith school. “Blair is on the forefront of music education, and their students’ volunteer work here has helped us grow as an institution.”
That growth is evidenced in a modern new facility on Eighth Avenue South and an enrollment of 400 students who come from all parts of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. The school offers individual and group lessons in all band and orchestra instruments, as well as piano, guitar and voice. There are also classes in music fundamentals and theory, composition, music technology and recording. Three choirs, a string ensemble, wind band and other performing groups provide ensemble experience. The volunteer faculty also includes Blair faculty members, Music Row studio musicians, symphony players, public school teachers and church musicians—all donating one to four hours each week.
Blair student teachers are typically sophomores and upperclass students, recruited each fall by Rabinowitz, who visits the Blair campus and talks with the students about service opportunities. “It’s incumbent upon us as musicians to pass along our craft to the next generation,” he says. “There’s a wonderful continuity when we pass along how we play our instruments from person to person.”
Recent Blair graduate Julie Aiken passed along her craft at the W.O. Smith school for most of her college career. For the past three years, Aiken gave private instruction at the school to the same violin student. “Darold was my first student and had never had private lessons before,” Aiken recalls. Over the years Aiken saw her student grow from a shy sixth-grader who had never held a violin and hardly spoke during class to a versatile musician who also plays trombone in his school band and talks with his teacher about his life outside class. The teacher has perhaps grown even more than the student. “I’ve learned how important it is to break down problems into manageable steps and what to focus on,”Aiken says. “I’ve also learned how important it is to be faithful, each week, that what you’re doing can bring about change.”
Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity members Hannah Hickerson (rising senior, clarinet) and Lara Pitts (rising junior, trombone) are also volunteer teachers, and the entire SAI membership helps out at special events at the school. “The Smith school has a Halloween recital and last year our members baked treats, handed out goodie bags and had an arts and crafts activity for the kids,” says Shona Goldberg-Leopold, SAI president and musical arts/teacher education major at Blair. In March Goldberg-Leopold and her fellow SAI members organized a joint recital by members of the Blair and Belmont SAI chapters at the W.O. Smith school. Proceeds from a bake sale and door prizes at the recital were donated to the school.
Members of the men’s music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha volunteer at the school as well. “The birdhouse auction is our major fundraiser,” says Lynn Adelman, assistant director at the W.O. Smith school. “Phi Mu Alpha members help us with everything from setting up tables and hauling equipment to emptying ice chests and cleaning up after the auction.” The annual event features one-of-a-kind birdhouses created by local artists that are auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“Our students get a tremendous satisfaction and joy from their experiences at the Smith school,” says Pam Schneller, associate dean and liaison for Blair student volunteers with the school. “All of us at Blair feel privileged to be in music at Blair and at Vanderbilt. With that comes the responsibility to give back to others who don’t have those opportunities.”
In giving back through their art, Blair students find they also receive. “An hour a week is such a small part of my life,” Aiken says of her time commitment. “Yet teaching at the Smith school has helped me see my own playing—and my life—in a new way.”
The W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School is not the only institution to benefit from the Blair school’s talent and knowledge. As long as Blair has been in existence, the faculty and students have served Nashville and surrounding communities by offering free lectures, performing free concerts and volunteering to teach in a number of venues. For instance, faculty members in musicology have given free lectures at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville Public Library and at several Tennessee universities. Pre-college and undergraduate soloists and ensembles frequently perform, not only to entertain listeners at lunchtime concerts or art exhibit receptions, but also at area hospitals to give patients a musical respite during their stay. The following is a listing of places faculty and students from Blair have performed, lectured or taught as a community service during the last three years.
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Steve Green