Musical Empowerment serves local kids through music

Increase font size
Decrease font size

University Gazette

Photo courtesy of Dan Sears.

This fall, Tun and Morris were paired through the Carolina student organization Musical Empowerment, which has given Tun the chance to work with Morris once a week.

Morris, a junior psychology major who sings with the UNC Chorus and the campus a cappella group The Tarpeggios, said Tun is a natural. “From our very first lesson, I knew: This girl has so much talent.”

Tun’s entire family is musical, and they’ve always encouraged her to sing. But the high cost puts private lessons out of reach for many families. Carolina’s Musical Empowerment volunteers offer that same level of expertise and attention free of charge.

Musical Empowerment, which began as Carolina Music Outreach in 2002 [and was created in through an APPLES Social Entrepreneur Fellowship] , pairs musically inclined Carolina students with local children interested in learning a musical craft. Applications for the program go out to area elementary and middle schools, and the group accepts as many students as they have volunteers.

This year 50 Carolina students are sharing their time and expertise with 50 young members of the community. Lessons take place weeknights at the Methodist church on Franklin Street, where classrooms are filled with students practicing trumpets, running scales on violins, learning chords on guitars and warming up their voices. When the 40-minute lesson is up, one pair replaces another until 7 p.m

Alternative Winter BreakFor the love of music

Some volunteers are music majors, but not all. Junior Kaitlyn Hamlett, co-president of Musical Empowerment, is a biostatistics major who happens to be proficient at piano.

“That’s the great thing about this group,” said Hamlett. “We’re just students who love music, love kids and want to help.”

For the past three years, Hamlett has taught piano to a pair of siblings, one of whom was very shy. At the youngster’s first Musical Empowerment recital, Hamlett sat next to her on the piano bench for support.

Susan Gleaves is a first-year nutrition major who plays violin in the UNC Symphony orchestra and turned to Musical Empowerment for a more personal music experience.

“I’m busy, but I can’t imagine my life without music,” she said. “Though I’ve switched roles from student to teacher, I get one-on-one contact with someone else who loves music, too.”

Musical Empowerment gives Gleaves’ student Quinn Lutz, a sixth-grader from Phillips Middle School, an opportunity to stretch her wings outside her school orchestra. “Here, I can just come and play, and if I mess up, I’m not holding up anyone else,” Lutz said.

“Quinn is a great listener,” Gleaves said. “When I tell her one thing she goes home and practices and is ready the next week for something brand new.”

Like many Musical Empowerment volunteers, Gleaves has no formal training in teaching music, but she calls on the finger and bow control techniques she learned as a child and tries to remember what it was like to be Lutz’s age, nervously cradling her first violin and trying to move each finger without moving her whole hand. 

“It’s one thing to be able to play yourself, but to be able to pass on that knowledge is a totally different thing,” Gleaves said.

The power of the arts

Emil Kang, executive director for the arts at Carolina, has served as the group’s faculty adviser for four years.

He knows from his own childhood that private lessons are a big investment.

“Whether you’re 8 or 15, proficient or just starting out, the chance to have private lessons can be rare,” Kang said.

The opportunity to develop a musical craft coupled with a mentoring relationship makes Musical Empowerment “the perfect storm of human relationships and human dynamics,” he said. Children learn discipline, perseverance, commitment, character and self-esteem. Student teachers learn communication skills and empathy.

“For me, the development of an empathetic society is critical to developing a more civil citizenry,” Kang said. “The arts have an impact, not just in creating the next Yo Yo Ma or Baryshnikov, but in actually creating better human beings.”

Kang said he believed in the power of the arts to change lives and cultivate better students.

“Most of the students who come to Carolina have participated in arts, theater, orchestra or band, and this is a part of what makes a successful student,” Kang said. “Through the commitment to an instrument, to time and to practice, we are teaching these kids the lifelong skills that will serve them in any field.”

Beyond Carolina

Not only can the cost of lessons be a barrier to a musical education, so can the cost of an instrument. Through seed money from the Campus Y Social Innovation Incubator, Musical Empowerment has been able to develop an instrument-lending program to make it easier for young musicians to practice on their own.

“With this grant, we were able to get violins, guitars and keyboards for the students to borrow so they can practice at home,” Hamlett said.

The Campus Y Social Innovation Incubator is a program developed in response to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s call to solve the world’s problems through innovation. The incubator supports entrepreneurs on campus through seed capital, dedicated workspace and equipment, workshops and coaching services.

As part of the Campus Y Social Innovation Incubator, Musical Empowerment has had the opportunity to seek advice from students in the School of Law about incorporating as a non-profit, which would allow the group to apply for more grants and expand to other campuses.

This semester Kang has been leading Musical Empowerment co-president Katie Weinel in an independent study on nonprofit management and leadership. Together they’ve worked on bylaws, marketing plans and grants to carry the organization forward. Weinel is currently drafting a strategic plan for the group’s next five to 10 years.

Weinel will be starting medical school at UNC in the fall, but plans to remain on the group’s board of directors. She wrote about her four-year experience with Musical Empowerment for her medical school application.

“It’s helped me as I’ve learned how to plan ahead, how to work with individuals and as a team, with the students and their families, and with my fellow volunteers, who are like my family,” she said. “I’m so passionate about it, because it has given me so much.” 

Kang said Musical Empowerment keeps growing because of the doors it opens for all who become involved.

“We like to see the spark that develops within the individual that comes from arts participation,” he said. “Whether it’s a fourth-grade student or a student at Carolina, what we’re trying to do is give them every possible opportunity to succeed.”

By Courtney Mitchell, University Gazette.

Photo credit, Dan Sears.