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Chamber Music Beginnings Begins Again

CMS Rebuilds Its Music Fundamentals Program

Violinist Danbi Um answers questions from students at a Chamber Music Beginnings concert at Merkin Hall.

Violinist Danbi Um answers questions from students at a Chamber Music Beginnings concert at Merkin Hall.

Photo by Russ Rowland

by Matthew Tommasini

In October 2022, more than 300 students from the Brooklyn Public Library’s school partner PS/IS 30 Mary White Ovington filed into Merkin Hall on their first field trip in a long time. They were attending Chamber Music Beginnings: Brahms and Me!, the culmination of a season-long reimagining of CMS’s music fundamentals program for grades 3 through 5.

It had been more than two years since CMS could welcome students in person, and we heard students from diverse backgrounds say this was the first time they had attended a live concert. They cheered the music of Brahms. They cheered the artists onstage. They asked lots of great questions!

Chamber Music Beginnings covers a curriculum aligned with the New York City Department of Education’s Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Music, and features CMS roster artists and teaching artists. In the past, the program was offered in a three-year cycle with each year divided into three units, each of which included an interactive chamber music concert, an in-class teaching session, and a teacher’s guide.

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that this format was challenging for partner schools who needed more flexibility. When it was safe to return in person, we knew the program needed a change that reflected a different landscape. How could Chamber Music Beginnings address accessibility and inclusivity? What if the program could serve as an introduction to chamber music for children in underserved communities in New York City and provide them a gateway to other CMS programs?

The key was partnership. Over the course of the pandemic, CMS expanded its network of partners working with underserved communities in New York City and built stronger ties to education programs at other Lincoln Center constituents. We put those new partnerships into action.

Co-host Ana Cantorán in Brahms and Me! at the Dr. S. Stevan Dweck Cultural Center, Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch. Photo by Gregg Richards

We worked with Harmony Program, the Brooklyn Public Library, and New York Edge to create a new vision for Chamber Music Beginnings that met their needs, allowing them to easily bring their partner schools to the program while, at the same time, we welcomed back the program’s pre-existing school partners. In another change, the program was now offered at no charge. Lincoln Center Theater and teaching artists at the New Victory Theater helped us to identify new actor-hosts with backgrounds in music who were representative of the communities our partners served, including artists who were English/Spanish bilingual.

Our chamber music partners at the Juilliard School helped us enlist teaching-artist collectives of students and alumni who already worked together on projects in underserved communities, introducing a team teaching approach to the program. We invited the Ivalas Quartet, Juilliard’s Graduate Resident String Quartet, which brought a wealth of experience in performing and teaching in schools. We invited the Vision Collective, founded by a former student of Juilliard’s Chamber Music Community Service Seminar, and the Youth Orchestra of Urban Towns and Hoods, founded by a teaching artist working with our other community engagement partner, the Noel Pointer Foundation, to bring their team-teaching experience to underserved communities.

Over the summer of 2022, we partnered with New York Edge to offer stand-alone teaching sessions at their summer program school sites in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. With feedback from their students and staff, together with our teaching artists, we experimented with different teaching methods to address the needs of students who had little to no exposure to chamber music.

After many meetings over the summer and early fall, we had a revised three-unit series comprising: Brahms and Me!, touching on social-emotional learning concepts to explore how Brahms conveys emotions in his music; Raise Our Voices!, exploring melody fundamentals through the music of the African diaspora and featuring the composers Coleridge-Taylor, Burleigh, and Price; and Classics in Your Classroom, with concerts and more in-depth teaching sessions all held in schools, redesigned together with the Ivalas Quartet. Concert formats were more interactive, including scripted lines both in both English and Spanish. Teaching guides were simplified and were also provided in English and Spanish.

Season registrations are now back to their pre-pandemic levels, with nearly 1,000 students (and registrations are still growing!) Nearly 90% of participating schools are new to the program, and more than 70% of student registrations are from programs working in underserved communities in New York City.

It has been thrilling to watch the program begin again (and begin anew). We look forward to bringing chamber music to excited young people in new ways in future seasons!

Matthew Tommasini is Director of Education and Community Engagement at CMS.