New Mentoring Program Lets NYU Students Teach Free Music Lessons To Schoolkids

This fall, PS 19 and the East Village Community School will open their doors to Musical Mentors Collaborative, a New York based nonprofit that connects schoolchildren with undergraduate college students for one-on-one instrument lessons. This expansion, a significant step for the budding organization, relies on the future participation of musically-inclined NYU students.

“Music is being de-funded in schools of the country,” said Zack Susel, who cofounded the organization’s presence at Columbia University. “Even when there are music classes in school … group music classes are not generally sufficient to help a child learn how to play an instrument with any sort of proficiency.”

The program’s creation stems back to Bob Diefendorf, a New Jersey high school music teacher who provided free lessons to younger students within his district. Soon, Diefendorf began matching up high school musicians with elementary school students, thus providing both music education and peer guidance. Called the Small Miracle Foundation, the program spread to other nearby high schools and, in due time, Columbia University.

The expansive program dwindled once Diefendorf moved to Hong Kong in 2006. The high school chapters closed, leaving Columbia as the only operating branch. By the time Susel took charge in 2008, the number of mentors fell from almost 100 down to eight. Conversely, the wait list of children wanting lessons grew longer and longer.

Broad recruitment put the program, renamed Musical Mentors, back on track. In 2009, Columbia’s chapter doubled in size. Susel even managed to branch abroad while studying at the London School of Economics, an operation that continues to this day.

Musically-experienced college students represent an “untapped resource” within musical education, according to Susel. “…We trained for many, many years and we have an immense store of musical knowledge,” he said. “And that is something that we can reuse and…redirect to help kids who are less fortunate learn an instrument themselves.”

With Musical Mentors heading to NYU, a few downtown children will soon be given the rare opportunity to learn any instrument of their choice. Initially, following an examination of the availability of music education and instruments to students, organizers named just once school for mentors to visit. But in the end, the operation broadened to include both PS 19 and the East Village Community School.

“Right now, the biggest process has been finding the school,” said NYU senior Kristi Muniz, who oversees the operation’s expansion. “…You are working with the New York City public school system. You’re trying to get access to them. You are trying to talk to them. Set up meetings. Explain to them exactly what you do. So, it is a bit of a process.”

The final step involves securing both mentors and schoolchildren. Classroom by classroom, the budding musicians are signing up for the lessons free of charge. For those involved, practice goes on after school with a celebratory recital happening at the end of the semester. Yet, certain logistical requirements limit student participation. First, a guardian must sit with the child and undergraduate. If a particular instrument is not available at the school, parents may need to front the cost. (To help remedy this, Musical Mentors works with local music shops to help bring down cost.)

The new chapter at NYU is shooting to have 20 mentors spread across the two schools. Before the program can get into full swing, however, more undergraduate volunteers are needed. But according to Muniz, teaching music comes secondary to mentoring the student, who often times is underprivileged.

“Mentorship is more about the one-on-one lessons. It’s more about being there for that kid,” said Muniz. “Once a week, from half an hour to an hour someone dedicates just that full time to them.”

For more information on signing up as a mentor, email nyu.mmc@gmail.com. Additional opportunities are available for graduate students.

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