When people think of the Salvation Army, they might envision a center where they can donate or receive clothes, furniture or toys, or receive rehabilitation services.
However, for more than 20 years the organization has also been a top provider of free or reduced-cost music and creative arts instruction for students of all ages.
This spring, young people taking classes at Montclair’s Salvation Army chapter took center stage at the Star Search Music and Creative Arts Talent Contest in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and left with the most awards of any New Jersey chapter.
Among the categories in which they won honors were drama monologue, snare drum, dance solo, piano solo, youth band and youth chorus.
Nathan Power, music director of the Montclair Salvation Army’s program, voiced his pride in the participants.
“We’ve seen an increase in the talent, the performance standard of all our kids, both in the New Jersey division and in the Salvation Army Eastern Territory,” Power said. “We’re super-proud of all our results at the territory level this year.”
Adam Avery, 15, winner of the snare drum solo competition and a counselor at Camp Tecumseh, the Montclair Salvation Army chapter’s summer camp for music and arts, has participated in the organization’s programs since he was 10.
He started out playing the cornet, but decided to change to the drums after realizing he didn’t care for the former instrument.
“Within a year, I moved to the drums, which is what I still play now. I do other things, not just drums. But I feel like the drums are the ones that I’m the best at,” Avery said.
It was his third time winning the snare drum competition, for which he prepares up to a month in advance.
The discipline that he learned as a result of being part of the Salvation Army’s music division is one that he hopes other children will get to experience, he said.
“I’d say it’s a great program,” he said. “I know a lot of people already that I’m working at camp with who have been in the same program… and some staff that I met here last year were in this year’s Star Search. You get to meet new people, you get to expand your horizons, you get to be creative in a lot of ways.”
Romina Espinoza, who joined the program when she was 7, won the dance solo in the June 11 event while simultaneously competing in drama.
At age 13, Espinoza choreographs routines for some of the younger girls who take part in the Star Search program. She herself has been participating in Star Search since she started with the Salvation Army, and has a trophy for each year that she’s competed.
Espinoza, now a program assistant at Camp Tecumseh alongside Avery, credits the Salvation Army for giving her a sense of grounding.
“It’s been a rough year for me,” she said. “I recently moved, and I’ve been feeling kind of lonely, but like you get here and you just feel like you’ve known everybody for like five years.
“It’s just a good community, because you get here and any outside tension, anything you feel, it’s like, it’s like our own private planet here at Tecumseh. Any outside issue does not exist here. It’s just the perfect community.”
Children can join the Montclair Salvation Army’s programs starting at age 6 and can choose from an array of offerings. There is one mandatory program: Each participant is required to take singing classes.
There is no cost for students in the Montclair program, but its directors encourage a code of conduct for children and parents to follow that shows their commitment to the program.
As students progress in their respective programs they have the opportunity to audition for a division that will compete in the Star Search program, like the youth chorus or the band, or for an event for individuals.
The program is beginner-friendly and encourages children with no musical background to join, and they are quickly taught the basics of music.
Power explained how the program prepares students to fully understand what music entails.
“What they do is everyone once they’ve reached 7 years old, they take a year of rhythm class,” he said. This class encourages the children to learn how to read music, understand rudimentary rhythm and get some pre-brass training before actually picking up an instrument, he said.
The Salvation Army’s program runs throughout the school year, with Camp Tecumseh offering new and existing students classes during the summer. This year was the first time in two years the camp was open, due to the coronavirus pandemic.