The Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory of Music

After neighboring schools let out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, students of the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club Conservatory walk to the Boys and Girls Club for rehearsal, if they are close enough; others are bussed in, to avoid runs-ins with gangs.

For one hour in the afternoon, they practice on loaned violins, violas, cellos and basses, not just to learn music, but to transform their lives.

The idea of the conservatory, founded in 2010 by jazz pianist Billy Mitchell, was to provide accessibility to music instruction and appreciation to students in low socioeconomic areas of the city, attempting to make up for the arts exposure lost in public schools in recent years.

“In public education, many of the arts programs have been cut from schools,” says outreach coordinator Judith Sydner-Gordon.  “Billy Mitchell has made it his mission to try to give children a chance to benefit from all the things that music has to offer.  For most of them, they wouldn’t have the opportunity for a program like this.   ”

Judith’s role at the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory is singular: to get the word out, in whatever way possible, that the conservatory is there.  “To get more kids involved, to get more parents aware of the fact that the program is here, and what the program has to offer, that’s what I’m trying to do,” she says.

The conservatory makes an effort to give parents the attention needed to encourage commitment to the music program, offered to them at no cost.  To reinforce a family support system, parents attend their child’s classes and sign a contract ensuring home music practice.  Parents also build upon the conservatory’s infrastructure by taking on responsibilities during recruitment and orientation sessions.

“I think it’s clear that parents feel the benefits.  Parents are very supportive once they realize what’s available for their children.”  “But,” says Judith, “it’s an increase in numbers that we’re trying to reach for.”

How to raise awareness is the money question for many grassroots music education programs that want to extend their reach beyond a few city blocks.  At the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory, student numbers have varied from year to year, up one year, then down the next; barriers of language and culture exist within the community, and despite diligent effort, many members of the community just don’t seem to know that resources are available.

Judith has only held the position of outreach coordinator for a few months, but she has already realized the greatest challenge: what does it take to get people through the door?