From speakers mounted on Community MusicWorks’ storefront in Providence, Rhode Island, the sounds of a quartet rehearsal pour out onto Westminster Street, mingling with the cacophony of city life. While many residents of this gritty, inner-city neighborhood are used to the sounds of Beethoven and Brahms issuing from the building—the Providence String Quartet has been a fixture in the area for 10 years—sometimes people who are new to the community walk in to ask what’s going on. And, the answer is quite intriguing.
Sebastian Ruth, a Brown University graduate, founded Community MusicWorks (CMW) in 1997. His goal was to establish a long-term residency for a string quartet in a distressed urban area, as a way “to explore the notion of music as activism.” Ruth didn’t want the residency to be seen as “missionary work,” where “a group of people from the other side of town come and say, ‘We know what’s good for you here, and it’s classical music.’” Rather, CMW’s professional musicians live and work in the neighborhood. They’re sharing their passion for classical music, while learning from and contributing to the community.
The Providence String Quartet, CMW’s resident ensemble, performs concerts throughout the area. However, the musicians devote the bulk of their time to teaching, providing lessons and free instruments to 110 young people in the community. Along with the classical repertoire, CMW introduces students to a variety of string traditions and improvisational techniques. With these additional skills, participants gain the flexibility to play whatever music might be popular among their friends and families in the heavily Latino and African-American neighborhoods the program serves. Performance Parties give families a chance to celebrate students’ developing skills, while the post-performance potluck feast continues to build community bonds.
CMW also features an apprenticeship for young professional musicians that intersects with public service. This Fellowship Program began in 2006 and doubled the number of resident professional musicians. Even CMW’s commissions reflect its mission of empowerment through music and mentoring. A new piece for double quartet by Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, which premiered in 2008, paired the professional musicians on stage with a teen ensemble.
“That night, Sebastian told me he was very honored to be playing with me and that this day meant so much to him,” recalled student Josh Rodriguez. “Before the performance he was tightening my tie, and just that moment felt so great.”
At Community MusicWorks, the intention is that playing music becomes an experience of developing personal agency and of recognizing both the power and responsibility of having a voice in larger civic and cultural conversations.Dennis Palmer Wolf Principal, WolfBrown