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BC Volunteers Share the Gift of Music Education

Elizabeth Wilson ’15 tutors Gardner Pilot Academy student Roxnny Roche as part of the Music Outreach volunteer program. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 14, 2013

For some Boston College students, music isn’t just something they happen to be good at, or enjoy playing. It’s a means to make an impact on a child’s life.

Some 15 BC undergraduates spend part of their week giving music lessons to children — about 60 in all — at the Gardner Pilot Academy of Allston and Brighton High School, as part of the Music Outreach program coordinated by Music Lecturer Barbara Gawlick and her husband, Assistant Professor Ralf Gawlick. The BC volunteers spend at least one to two hours a week working with the schoolchildren individually or in small groups on voice or instruments such as guitar, violin, piano, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, flute and recorder.

These sessions aren’t intended to groom kids for the conservatory, or even for a spot in a school band, say program organizers and volunteers. Few of the schoolchildren’s families have resources to afford music education, and their schools are likewise limited in what they can provide. But through Music Outreach, now in its third academic year, the children get a sense of what it’s like to have music as part of their lives — not as a source of entertainment but as a skill or talent they can develop, or simply enjoy for its own sake.

“The benefits children get through exposure to, and involvement in, the arts are very well-known,” said Ralf Gawlick. “These kids get a taste of music education, and in the bargain, can engage with a caring young adult who is really invested in sharing the gift of music.”

Added Barbara Gawlick: “The BC students have devoted years of study to develop their musical skills, and now they have the opportunity to serve underprivileged youth through music.”

Elizabeth Wilson ’15 — shown here working with Gardner Pilot Academy student Roxnny Roche — said the Music Outreach program had a discernible impact on the children: “You could observe how they were growing more confident in themselves.” (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

“It’s all about giving kids the best possible things, from the basics like sunlight and fresh air to the benefits of art,” said Lucas Allen ’16, a Presidential Scholar who volunteers at Gardner. “Music is like that: They can grab hold of it and make it their own, and it will bring enrichment to their lives.”

Felix Santiago, a 10th-grader at Brighton High, was so enthused by the guitar lessons he took from sophomore Amanda Adams last year that he signed up for piano as well as guitar for this year. “Amanda could really sing,” he said. “She taught us and made it easy to remember.  She taught us the strings and different notes and chords.  I learned it superfast.”  

The parents of Sebastian Sanchez, a Gardner sixth-grader, are pleased with their son’s progress in Music Outreach. “It really helped him in a different way to have that experience of trumpet. He discovered that he liked other instruments as well and was able to start to play guitar. He wanted to have that opportunity, and being there, it’s something different for the kids to do.”

Moreover, while the weekly face-to-face time may not seem like a lot, organizers and volunteers say it has a cumulative effect, creating a bond between the children and the BC students.

Josie Bearden, a sophomore from Boonton Township, NJ, cultivated a mutually rewarding relationship with Gardner student Genesis last year, when she taught the girl to play clarinet — not the easiest instrument to get the hang of, she notes. But Genesis made steady progress, especially after she was able to take the clarinet home to practice, something she did with great zeal, according to Bearden.

“I really felt that she just put all her energy into it. She’s so focused, and she would sit there for an hour absolutely fixated on the clarinet. When I spoke with Genesis’ parents, they were very excited about how well she was doing, and how much work she was putting in at home.”

Bearden wound up loaning her clarinet to Genesis for the summer, and received a big hug from the sixth-grader at this year’s orientation session for the outreach program.

“I love working with the kids,” said Bearden. “I don’t know if this is a ‘want-to-do-it-the-rest-of-my-life’ kind of experience, but it’s wonderful to see the impact music can have.”

Elizabeth Wilson ’15, the first to volunteer in the program, agrees. “You could observe over the course of the year how the kids were picking things up, and how they were growing more confident in themselves,” said Wilson, from Laplata, Md. “They felt a real sense of achievement, no matter what else might be going on in their lives.”

Ari Fleisher, director of after school and summer enrichment programs at Gardner, points out that music education can have a long-term impact on a child beyond the ability to play a I-IV-V guitar chord sequence or a Beethoven piano piece. “Think about the dedication and commitment that goes into playing music, and the bravery it takes to stand up and perform at a recital. Employers talk about looking for qualities like confidence, competence and leadership skills – music can be an enormous help in developing these.”

Music is at the core of other BC-related outreach to local communities, such as the annual “BC Idol” concert that raises money for the St. Columbkille Partnership School’s music program. More recently, the BC Music Guild has begun a volunteer program at Franciscan Hospital for Children, sending student musicians to perform for young patients. It’s a meaningful development for a university whose music program was formally established a little more than two decades ago.

“Music Outreach, under the leadership of energetic and committed professors Barbara and Ralf Gawlick, is an excellent example of learning beyond the classroom: It offers BC students the opportunity to directly apply the music and pedagogical skills they learn in class as they share their considerable performing talents,” said Professor Michael Noone, chair of the Music Department.

“Moreover, these dedicated students provide an important service to the community by bringing music into the lives of young children and teenagers. Music Outreach — just like such other initiatives as the BC Idol benefit and the Music Guild’s partnership with Franciscan Hospital for Children — truly fulfills the University’s call to ‘Light the world.’”