Sept. 25 2013 12:00 AM

Celebrating 20 years of MSU Community Music School


As a child, Heather Guernsey showed no musical aptitude. Her mother played the violin, but Guernsey said she didn´t have any desire to pick up an instrument.

Today, Guernsey, 49, is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter who is the top violinist in her class and a 9-year-old son who is a budding cellist. Her 7-year-old son has utilized musical therapy to help him through his physical and mental developmental challenges, and the three of them routinely bond through sibling jam sessions. Guernsey’s husband, Eric, doesn’t play an instrument either, which raises the question: Where did all that musical talent come from?

“I honestly have no idea,” Guernsey said.

“I just wanted to give them the opportunity to play an instrument, and they took right to it. It was a spontaneous choice based on a conversation I overheard at the pool, but it’s the best decision I’ve made. The MSU Community Music School changed our lives.”

The Guernsey children discovered and honed their musical skills at the Michigan State University Community Music School, a self-supporting outreach division of the MSU School of Music. This week, the Community Music School celebrates 20 years of providing music education and music therapy to Lansing area residents.

Since 1993, more than 50,000 people have utilized the program, ranging from infants to senior citizens.

“Our goal is to supplement local music programs and provide a creative outlet for members of the community,” said Amanda Darche, spokeswoman for the Community Music School. “And the music therapy we offer for special needs individuals is something that can’t be found anywhere else locally. It can help with everything from basic movement to improving verbal skills. Music can unlock so many facets of the brain.”

Notable Community School alumni include Melissa White, a Grammy Award winning violinist who tours internationally (including a stop by the Wharton Center in 2011) with her ensemble, the Harlem Quartet, and Demi Fragale, a professional performance artist living in New York who got her start in the school’s MSU Children’s Choir.

“I experienced more as a young musician in the MSU Children’s Choir than most adult professionals do in their entire career,” Fragale said recently in an interview.

As a self-supporting unit, the school relies solely on student tuition and fundraising, which feed its approximate $1 million annual budget. All classes cost money, but the school does offer some financial assistance to low-income students.

Special events have been lined up to commemorate the Community Music School´s 20th anniversary and elevate its visibility. Two weeks ago, the school held an informal tailgate event with impromptu concerts and an “instrument petting zoo,” where curiosity seekers could take a musical instrument for a test drive. And Thursday, the school´s Encore! Evening event will serve as a major fundraiser. The event will spotlight performances by a capella group the Doo-Wops and the early gospel/ sacred slave songs of the Earl Nelson Singers. A silent auction will feature an African safari and original artwork from local artist Zahrah Resh. Additionally, the fete will serve as the opening premiere of Resh’s exhibition, “Etudes in Flow,” with 20 percent of all art sold at the party to be donated to the school.

Guernsey said a significant portion of her family’s monthly budget goes to paying for her children’s classes, but she said the results are “worth every penny.”

“My kids have gotten so much out of it,” Guernsey said. “They’re better students, they’re confident and they’re very well rounded. It’s been everything to my family. The school has become like a second home to us.”

In January, the Community Music School moved to its permanent home at 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, across the road from MSU. The new location is smaller than its old digs, a former church on the north side of East Lansing, but Rhonda Buckley, the school’s executive director, said the new space has opened it up to many more opportunities.

“We’ve been able to work with the university more directly in a number of ways, such as using MSU art students to help design our school signage,” Buckley  said. “But it’s also put us closer to many of the programs in the area and made it easier to work directly with the community. It’s opened the door to allow us to explore many new programs and offerings as well.”

That includes recent additions such as digital music to the curriculum. The school’s longstanding programs include chamber music coaching, music reading classes and the Suzuki program, an immersion method of teaching music to children as young as preschool age. Adult offerings include a variety of voice and instrument group lessons and the New Horizons Band, a concert band made up of people who are either fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing an instrument or want to get back into it after giving it up earlier in life. Private lessons for all ages are also available through the school.

“This is an invaluable service to the community,” Guernsey said. “And it’s especially important in a time when arts are being cut. I tell the kids how fortunate they are to have this in their lives. I wish there’d been something like this when I was their age.”

Encore! Evening

Celebrating 20 Years of the MSU Community Music School 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing $75 ($35 of which is taxdeductible) (517) 355-7661