Montclair musicians rescue popular violin program
This story is part of "We Care Montclair," a special celebration of groups and individuals working to help the Montclair community. See more stories in the special "We Care Montclair" section inserted into the April 29 edition of Montclair Local.
By AMANDA VALENTOVIC
For Montclair Local
The music will go on.
Recently, Succeed2gether found its violin program without violins.
When the Montclair-based organization, which provides educational and enrichment opportunities to low-income students in the area, had to return its 15 rented instruments to the music store, they were left without violins for the students who were in Suceed2gether’s music program.
The program is offered to students at no cost and led by Aurora Mendez, a Montclair Orchestra Fellow alumna. They knew they had come up with a new plan to keep the popular music program for fourth through seventh graders afloat.
Program Director Jackie Mroz reached out to the Montclair Orchestra, and it was able to work with New Providence-based K&S Music, buying six violins and then donating them to Succeed2gether. The lessons have been able to continue without pause.
“Violin has been a really popular program,” said Mroz, who asked Montclair Orchestra founder and President Andre Weker for help. “So I reached out to Andre and asked if he knew of anyone who could donate. They [the orchestra] were able to pay for six violins, and we were thrilled about that.”
Others in the community stepped up as well. Montclair residents Janet Shapiro and her husband, Phillip Byrd, donated to Succeed2gether so that the program was able to buy nine more violins to reach a total of 15. The couple supports the Montclair Orchestra, and Shapiro is a board member of Jazz House Kids, the studio and music school based in town.
“We had the same reaction, which was ‘What a shame,’” Shapiro said about the couple’s hearing about Succeed2gether’s losing their borrowed violins. “It seemed like a natural fit to what we want to do, which is put instruments in people’s hands. I believe everyone should be able to learn to play an instrument.”
It was in that same spirit that they started donating instruments in the first place: Ten years ago, Shapiro and Byrd were at an estate sale where they found instruments for sale and wondered what would happen if no one bought them.
“I thought, ‘Should we buy them and give them away?’” Shapiro said.
She connected with Melissa Walker, the founder and president of Jazz House Kids, and the couple gave 23 instruments to students who needed them that year. A decade later, the goal remains the same.
“I was a music major in college and took piano lessons for many years,” Shapiro said. “An awful lot of my life has been wrapped up in it, so I know what a difference it can make.”
She’s also done a lot of singing over the years, and Byrd is a trombone player in the Montclair Community Band. Their company produces television specials and online performances with orchestras around the country.
Mendez has managed to keep up with teaching the students throughout the pandemic even though lessons, like much else, have had to move online to Zoom due to COVID-19.
“She’s an amazing teacher,” Mroz said. “The kids love her. It’s really worked out; we’re hoping to keep it going for our summer program.”
Getting instruments to students was a win-win for the program and for the orchestra, according to Weker. The organization is planning to launch its own youth orchestra, and hopes are that the students will be able to sit in an orchestra to play with other musicians by 2022.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for a while,” he said. “When that program begins we’ll start with high school age and then add middle school and eventually elementary school. Hopefully some of those seeds are being planted now. We can explore the diversity of the music and the players, and show them what the industry is like. Hopefully that encourages them to go into music and makes them want to participate.”
It’s been a tough year for the arts, as Weker said. Many of the professional musicians who play in the Montclair Orchestra were furloughed when performances were canceled last March at the onset of the pandemic and have left the New York City area. The music students from Juilliard, Rutgers University, New York University, the Manhattan School of Music, Cali School of Music and Mannes School of Music who play in the orchestra have either been in class online entirely or in person only part of the time and haven’t played in a large orchestra in months.
“We’re working towards thinking about the summer and next year,” Weker said. “We’re thinking about what the fall will look like as vaccinations pick up and some restrictions are relaxed. Can we have something more reflective of the program that they’re training for?”
Until then, the music plays on at Succeed2gether. Shapiro sat in on one of Mendez’s lessons recently.
“I came away really happy with it,” she said. “We helped supply the tools, but she’s the one making a difference. Music can’t fix every problem, but it can do an awful lot for a kid. I don’t think there’s anything it can’t improve.”
Succeed2gether is still looking for donations to meet the increased demand of the music program. Mroz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org to make a donation, and more information can be found at succeed2gether.org. Donations can also be coordinated through the Montclair Orchestra by calling 973-435-2906 or emailing email@example.com.