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KEYS to Success

posted Oct 4, 2012, 12:46 PM by Julie Johnston   [ updated Oct 5, 2012, 2:52 PM ]
Program provides children with private music lessons, by Joel Weickgenant, Stamford Advocate, Sunday, December 4, 2005

BRIDGEPORT - In a dimly lit stairwell at Columbus Elementary School in Bridgeport, a Westport-based piano instructor teaches young students – 15 minutes at a time – on an electronic keyboard. The notes echo off cold walls. Occasionally, other children rumble through the stairwell, which Westport-based instructor Julie Chen said makes some pupils shy. The children, who come from working families in poor areas, are getting something they could not otherwise afford – private musical instructions using the Suzuki method, one of the best money can buy.

“I’m learning the half notes, whole notes, quarter notes” said 10-year-old Kei’aja Harper, a fourth-grader at Columbus. “I had to write my own song about Thanksgiving.” She called the song “My Dead Turkey”. Kei’aja is learning through the pilot program Kids Empowered by Your Support, known as KEYS.

Rob Silvan, a Stamford resident and musician, started KEYS to show children who can’t afford music lessons that Fairfield County is tuned in to their dreams. “I realized there are under privileged kids with no access to music,” sylvan said. “There are a lot of kids who couldn’t afford lessons. It just seemed wrong.”

The KEYS program started in spring 2004. Silvan, who gives private lessons in Darien and Westport, learned from a friend who teaches at Columbus that the school had a barely functioning music program. He told the teacher, Andrea Oskar, the selected five students. “We wanted to start with the kids that had the best chance to succeed,” Silvan said. “We made sure the kids I taught were kids that wanted to do it. They were really excited. A lot of them don’t have a piano in their lives.” Silvan later recruited teachers from Talent Education Suzuki School in Norwalk and Suzuki Music School in Westport and Norwalk. He told them he would pay their regular rates to make the trip to Bridgeport and pull students out of their classrooms for lessons.

“When I met Rob and talked about this program, I knew immediately it was wonderful,” said Rebecca Thoennes, a piano instructor at Talent Education Suzuki School. “The kids are very excited,” Theonnes said. “By now, they know I’m the piano teacher. Every week, and I know it’s going to happen, a kid looks up at me and says, ‘Can I have piano lessons too?’ and it breaks my heart”.

Three instructors provide piano lessons to 10 students and violin lessons to four, all from Columbus Elementary. The program is small, but Silvan said he didn’t want to “depend on volunteerism” to expand it. “I didn’t want these kids to learn haphazardly. I wanted them to learn the high-class way,” Silvan said. “I wanted fully trained teaches. They need to be dependable. It has to be economically viable for everybody.”

Silvan also has worked with school officials to develop the music program at Columbus. Principal Manuel Rocha said Silvan has made an important contribution. “We’re all about creating and developing talents in our children. When kids are creative, it translates into math and reading,” Rocha said. “This gets kids excited, motivated. It gives them a good background."

Silvan’s students said the KEYS program is allowing them to put their dreams and ideas into action. “I wanted to play the piano, because my dad used to play the organ with the church,” 10-year-old Robert Meekins said. “My dad used to sit me down and play the notes, hold my fingers down on the KEYS.”

Nine-year-old Brian Rodriquez, an aspiring violinist, remembers when he first became interested in music. “When I saw the music in the movies – it was ‘Spiderman’ I think – I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”

The instructors said the students are expected to keep up in the classroom and are accountable for all class time they miss. “If they maintain good classroom grades, as well as show continued interest (in music), they get the keyboard to keep,” Theonnes said.

Silvan said there is little overhead in running KEYS. Since he is responsible for virtually everything, all funds go to paying teaches and buying keyboards. He said he has enough funding to run the program through only the current school year, but he is dreaming big. He aims to double the number of students next year and wants KEYS pupils to continue their lessons in middle school. He also hopes to expand the program to other areas, including South Norwalk. “Eventually I want a committee that helps me with this”, he says.

But what he needs now is money. He’s trying to cobble together grants and support to expand, but also simply continue KEYS. He has the support of the Norwalk music community. “I hope it will expand,” said Becki Christopherson, co-director of Talent Education Suzuki School. “I was teasing him because when he said Charter Oak (a possible source of funding) will only sponsor programs for several thousand dollars, I said, ‘Well I can make it work that much.’” Silvan said it costs $600 to support one student for a year. He hopes many more students with scant access to music will soon enjoy the same opportunity as Kei’aja Harper.

“Every day I come home and practice after school,” said Kei’aja, who lives with her mother and grandmother. “We all have instruments. My sister has a tuba, my brother has drums. And my little brother, he just bangs on everything.”

Stamford Advocate, Sunday December 4, 2005