How to Build Community Through Music

November 23, 2011

Today’s guest blog (Part 2 of 2) from the Institute of Music for Children is an important reminder of the value of the arts in our lives and the way it connects us to our community. If you missed it, Part 1 is here.

An Interview with an Institute Family

Building community through music is the essence of our work at the Institute of Music for Children in Elizabeth, NJ. Our teachers build community in each class, our staff builds community throughout the campus, but it is our families – parents and siblings, cousins and grandparents – that truly build our community across the city. We recently spoke to one family who has made the Institute a key part of their life in this country.

“We love the Institute. I don’t know what we would do without the Institute.”

Johnson and Jeanne Ratsimbazafy

Jeanne and Johnson Ratsimbazafy came to the United States from Madagascar 20 years ago and settled in Elizabeth. Like generations of immigrants before them, they set down deep roots: Jeanne has worked at IKEA in Elizabeth for more than 10 years, and Johnson at Continental Airlines. They are longtime members of a Malagasy Christian congregation at Second Presbyterian Church on East Jersey Avenue. And they have been a part of the Institute family for over a decade.

“We heard about the program at Second, where our congregation meets. We were looking for something fun for the kids to do over the summer, and saw a poster. A friend of ours said the program was great and we decided to register them all together.”

Her daughter Sarah began that 2-week summer program at only 6 years old, learning the keyboards and playing in the Hand Bell Choir under the direction of Ms. Carolina Bradford. The response was immediate, for the entire family.

“We fell in love. We couldn’t believe how much they learned in just two weeks! The music showed them the best way to learn.”

In the 10 years since then, they returned again and again as the Institute grew from that short summer program into a year-round arts-based youth development agency, now serving more than 900 children each year. What kept them coming back?

“The Institute began to offer more choices, so we had new things to do. My daughter was always so shy, always standing behind me and refusing to meet strangers. When she joined this program, I saw her up there, singing onstage, and that was such a big step. The longer we stayed, the deeper our relationship with the program.”

Sarah Ratsimbazafy

Sarah is now 16, and attends the prestigious Thacher High School in Ojai, California, which Jeanne partially attributes to the Institute. “Every time I go to see her, she is onstage, at this amazing boarding school in the mountains…..I say, where did she get this from? She got it from the Institute.”

Her son Michael followed in the family tradition, beginning classes at age 6. These days he is studying guitar and acting on Saturdays, so that he can play sports during the week. But Michael still considers the Summer Institute a must.

Jeanne considers the scholarship support a must. “We couldn’t do it without the help of the Institute.” So when Executive Director Alysia Souder introduced the Membership Program last year, Jeanne jumped at the chance to help deepen her ties to the organization, and to help others have the same amazing experience as her kids.

Michael Ratsimbazafy (right)

The Membership Program “is about supporting each other, finding a way to help. It makes your relationship to the Institute stronger, more involved.” Under the annual Membership fee, families receive discounted tuition, opportunities for scholarships, and priority placement in classes. In exchange, they volunteer one hour per semester per child and commit to raise an additional $50. Though it requires some work, Jeanne feels it worth it. “It’s a great way for kids to see you – ‘Look at my parents, how they are helping me.’”

That community spirit extends to the alumni as well. Every summer, Sarah returns home, and her first question is, “Can I help out at the Institute this year?” For two years, she has been a leader in the Youth Employment Program, an innovative training course for teens, in which they assist our Master Teaching Artists, supervise younger students, and learn vital workplace skills. “It lets the older kids say. ‘Look – this is where I started, and now look what I can do.’ And the young ones say ‘I want to be like you.’”

From pre-school to high school and beyond, the Institute becomes a part of the lives of those it touches. Even if they don’t become musicians or performers, the Ratsimbazafys agree that “Music never leaves kids’ lives. It may not be their whole life, but it never going to leave their life either.”

The Ratsimbazafys exemplify the ethos of the Institute community: long-term, life-changing educational experiences rooted in the performing arts. The Membership Program takes the Institute’s work a step further, allowing dedicated families like theirs to ensure that the music continues to play for those coming after them.

“You feel it. You live. You have to give back to it.”

Images courtesy Institute of Music for Children