by Maestro Andrew Kurtz, Gulf Coast Symphony
Twenty-eight smiling faces beamed up at me with a mix of excitement and awe as I began our rehearsal for our side-by-side concert with the children in our MusicWorks! program. Ten months of hard work and preparation had led to this day, and the only smiles bigger would be their parents, grandparents, neighbors and family members, who were full of pride and joy at what their children had just accomplished.
This concert was the final triumph for these children – none of whom had ever seen a classical music instrument before in their lives and who called any type of string instrument “a guitar.” Now they were performing on a stage, in their community, for friends and family, sitting next to members of the Gulf Coast Symphony, who were treating them as peers. It was an emotional experience for the members of the symphony and for me the culmination of a dream that had begun years before.
In August 2015, the Gulf Coast Symphony launched MusicWorks! with the help of a grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. Music Works! Is a free innovative and intense after school music program at The Heights Center based on the Venezuelan El-Sistema youth orchestra program that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children. MusicWorks! uses music as the tool to develop both citizens and musicians. It teaches children critical skills to improve executive function, decision-making, and impulse control. In just seven days in our program, the Heights students receive more music education than they receive in an entire year at school. And, our instruction is far more comprehensive, detailed and personalized. We focus on positive growth and reinforcement in a supportive and safe environment.
During the year, these children performed five major concerts, including two at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall prior to a Gulf Coast Symphony concert. They performed in monthly recitals solo and duets. They had visits from professional guest artists and members of the symphony.
When we invested in this program we believed we could make a real difference in the lives of these children, who live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lee County. True, learning to play an instrument proficiently take a lifetime of practice, learning and growing. But the meaningful changes in thinking and behaviors begin nearly immediately. And, one year in, we have found the changes were indeed profound, and in some ways unexpected.
Academically 75% of the children improved at least one core academic grade; 48% of the grades were improved by 5-10 percentage points; 38% of the grades were improved by 11-20 percentage points; 14% of the grades were improved by 20+ percentage points. And, we saw a 43% decrease in school absences.
These changes were noticed by teachers and parents alike. In fact, 100% of parents, who we surveyed at the end of the year, indicated they believed their child’s participation in MusicWorks! helped to increase their child’s academic achievement and social and behavioral skills. Parents indicated improvement in focus and attentiveness; self-confidence; leadership; initiative; discipline; and problem solving solutions (stop, think, then decide method).
The program began with some resistance and reluctance from parents and a few others involved at the Heights Center who were wary of a program so foreign to them. They are now the converted. Many are now our greatest supporters, and the community and parents have embraced the program. A few students now own their own violin!
But the real test was coming – our summer session. Participation would be optional, and parents would have to drop their children off early at The Center. Remarkably, 98% of our students registered for the optional summer program, and 25 new students signed up to be a part of the MusicWorks! Summer program. In just a few short months we have created change in a community by allowing children to experience the transformative power of music.
If you would like to learn more or help us, please contact me at [email protected]. And like Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation often says “I am listening,” we say, “we hope you are listening,” because it is simply beautiful.
This summer, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is spotlighting the nonprofit organizations funded through the 2016 competitive grant cycle. We have asked our 2016 grantees to send us their stories. The Foundation is pleased to partner with these change-makers.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
As leaders, conveners, grant makers and concierges of philanthropy, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation is a foundation built on community leadership with an inspired history of fostering regional change for the common good in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Community Foundation, founded in 1976, connects donors and their philanthropic aspirations with evolving community needs. With assets of more than $93 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $63 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. Last year, it granted more than $3.2 million to nonprofit organizations supporting education, animal welfare, arts, healthcare and human services, as well as provided regional community impact grants and scholarship grants.