When children start orchestra programs during fifth grade in Madison area public schools, demographics usually match those of the classrooms. However, by the time students are playing in high school, diversity in music programs is nearly nonexistent.
Such is the dilemma for private violin instructor and Executive Director of non-profit Madison Music Makers, Bonnie Greene.
“Public school programs are pretty much structured for the kids who have had private lessons all these years,” Greene said. “[The ones] who are prepared for it.”
Five years ago, in an effort to narrow this diversity gap in the music programs of public schools and give kids who cannot afford private lessons a chance, Greene founded Madison Music Makers.
Music Makers provides individual and group lessons to low-income children in violin, guitar, drums and the recent addition of keyboard. Most participating kids qualify for a scholarship and therefore do not have to pay for what might otherwise be very expensive lessons.
“Music study is expensive, so the people who come to my home for lessons with me are paying $50 an hour at least for lessons,” Greene said of the private instruction she offers from her home to supplement her income. “In a semester, that’s a big check to write, plus the parents have bought an instrument and when the child outgrows it they go buy another one and that costs a bit.”
“If it breaks they have to fix it and then they have to bring them every week,” she said. “They have to be free to bring them every week. And so all of those things are impossible barriers for a lot of people.”
Greene said even middle class families often cannot afford music lessons for their children, especially if they have more than one child, and requests for the benefits of this program have only increased in current times of economic hardship.
Michelle Palmer, 38, qualified for a scholarship but still pays a small monthly fee for her daughter MarElena to learn violin with Music Makers.
“We still pay… but it’s not probably what it might otherwise be,” Palmer said. “This class is like half the cost of what it would have been to take the piano class that she has before, but we’re also in a different place economically.”
Most of the families making use of Music Maker scholarships are not able to pay anything at all, meaning Greene has to somehow come up with the funds.
So far, she has been able to purchase over 50 violins for around $500 each, meaning sustaining the program is an expensive feat.
Music Makers received startup funding of $100,000 a year from the Madison Community Foundation and Pleasant Rowland Foundation, but after five years of buying instruments and paying the salaries of instructors, this initial money is long gone.
Now Greene applies for small grants wherever she can find them. This year they were fortunate to receive funding from the National Endowment of the Arts for the first time.
“You have to submit something that I consider the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation for these grant proposals,” Greene joked, though still somewhat serious. “They’re really very complex, but we did it and one of the board members helped me put that together and so we got money.”
The generosity of others also fuels this non-profit organization.
On December 6, local jazz musician Gerri DiMaggio hosted his annual benefit concert at the Cardinal Bar with all proceeds going to Madison Music Makers. The event raised $500—enough to purchase one violin for another child in need.
In addition to fundraisers by fellow Madison organizations, Music Makers also relies heavily on volunteers. Along with Greene’s five paid instructors, area high school students and music majors from UW-Madison offer their time during Saturday group sessions.
Christina Yin, 15, is a sophomore at Madison West High School and comes in just about every Saturday to individually coach students or accompany the lessons on piano.
UW junior Nathaniel Wolkstein, 20, who studies violin, plays in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and has worked with Music Makers off and on since its inception. He heard about the program four or five years ago through one of his violin instructors and makes himself available whenever possible. He said he does it primarily because he loves teaching others how to play.
“The occasion when you see the kid starts to actually like it you see their eyes light up just a little bit because they have this really big new interest,” he said. “They realize that they can produce this beautiful sound with this instrument right under them and it’s them doing it.”
Music Makers works a lot with the UW Madison music department, utilizing student volunteers and in return giving them teaching experience, but Greene said she would happily accept volunteers with even a little bit of musical background.
Cintia Reynolds does not play any instruments herself but functions as a key member of Music Makers in her role as family liaison. After moving to Madison from Bolivia a little over three years ago, Reynolds now acts as translator for the many Hispanic families with children in the program who do not speak English.
With a background in social work, Reynolds said she loves her position.
“I like to be here, I like to hear the music and be with the kids,” Reynolds said.
Unfortunately, she has had to accept returned violins from some students who could no longer continue lessons, but she remained optimistic for the children.
“If they need to do it then we accept that, but we always encourage them to come back,” she stated matter-of-factly.
In the meantime, other children reap the benefits of this unique program.
Palmer is grateful her daughter has the opportunity to be involved with Music Makers. They just started lessons in the fall after MarElena, 8, had been begging to play violin for about two years. A slot opened up and they jumped at the opportunity because of the program’s many benefits.
“I really believe that music helps you learn,” Palmer said. “If they do music now, they’ll be able to do better at math and science; they’ll be more motivated with their other studies just because, it’s like a discipline.”
This belief touches on the broader goal of Madison Music Makers as explained on the organization’s website, www.madisonmusicmakers.org: “Music education gives students a reason to pursue all education, showing that it is possible to learn a challenging skill, with focused effort, over time.”
MarElena first wanted to play violin after seeing someone practicing outside in their yard during the springtime, but she has continued to practice whenever she can this first semester because she truly enjoys the instrument.
“I just really like the sound and I like the instrument and how you play it,” she quietly explained. “I just really like the violin and music as well.”
Madison Music Makers brings together children from varying backgrounds—Hispanic, Hmong, African refugees, Chinese, Indian—but when they meet on Saturdays to practice their new passion, the music and experiences they make resonate in beautiful harmony.