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Jessica Garand's Opportunity Music Project

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Bringing Lessons to Kids

Aiyanna, center, a fourth grader, is one of the students participating in Opportunity Music Project, a nonprofit started by alumna Jessica Garand to bring instruments and music lessons to underserved children. Most of the project’s faculty members are Juilliard students or alums.

 (Photo by Yofred Moik)

Energetic and enthusiastic, Aiyanna stood in front of her fourth-grade class, at East Harlem’s P.S. 108, and told her fellow students about dynamics. She then illustrated her points on the violin and went on to play four more pieces, sometimes as part of an ad hoc quartet that also consisted of two Juilliard students and one alumna improvising harmonies. Aiyanna talked about what it’s like to practice every day, play in a string quartet, and overcome nervousness when she performs. 

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Aiyanna has only been studying the violin for two years, but she has progressed quickly. In addition to weekly lessons and monthly studio classes, she has received mentoring, all courtesy of the Opportunity Music Project (O.M.P.), which provides these services—and instruments—for New York City students who, like Aiyanna, wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise. Founded by Jessica Garand (M.M. ’12, viola) in 2011, O.M.P. stemmed from her realization that while all children might have the same potential for success, they don’t all have the same opportunities: music lessons are expensive and not every family has the resources to pay for them. Last spring Garand received one of five inaugural Jonathan Madrigano Grants for Juilliard entrepreneurs; she’s using her funding to pay teachers. The instruments are provided by Virtu Foundation and RentMyInstrument.com.

I met Aiyanna in November, shortly after becoming one of the program’s seven teaching artists; six of us are Juilliard students and/or grads, one went to Yale. One particularly unique aspect of the O.M.P. is that it includes a monthly studio class in which all of the students practice performing and provide constructive feedback for each other. (The classes are held in a vacant spot at the Lovin’ Life Learning Center, in midtown, where Garand worked as a cleaner when she first arrived in New York City.)

I didn’t have a regular studio class until I got to Juilliard, and I’ve made some of my closest Juilliard friends and colleagues from that experience. Attending an O.M.P. studio class in November, I saw the same type of experience forming for these students. Aiyanna and several of her peers each performed several short pieces for each other, their parents, and their teachers. Afterward, the faculty members made suggestions about technical aspects of performing. The parents praised their children for getting up in front of a room full of people and performing music. But for me, the most spectacular part was the students’ feedback to each other. One student complimented Vincent on his beautiful sound and suggested that he use a little bit more bow sometimes. Another applauded Aiyanna on her progress since the previous class. The studio class, Garand told The Journal, provides a “combination of performing and speaking for their peers that helps the students take ownership and pride in the work they’re doing.”

Parents are a key element of the program, Garand said, and she interviews the parents to make sure they’re committed to collaborating with the teachers and helping their children practice and learn. (Children are generally between the ages of 5 and 8 when they start.) Two years into the program, the students are doing fantastically in it—and doing well in school, too, Garand reports. At the same time, the parents have also become more involved in their children’s schoolwork and finding that the program is creating a supportive and encouraging environment to help them excel in all aspects of their lives.

The students are also developing leadership skills: another pillar of the program is that it allows students to share their music with communities outside of the standard concert setting (schools, senior centers, etc.). The idea behind this component of the program, Garand said, is that by performing frequently and sharing what they are learning from a young age, students develop the skills to become teaching artists. 

At the November workshop at Aiyanna’s school, I was part of the quartet that formed around her, along with Garand and violinist Sarah Koenig-Plonskier (B.M. ’10, M.M. ’12). In these workshops, Garand said, “all of a sudden the students see a lot of value in what they’re doing. When you have your entire classroom suddenly looking at you like you’re someone special because you just gave this cool presentation with these cool people, I think that makes it really click.” Aiyanna’s classmates were extremely enthusiastic and asked many questions about learning the violin. Several asked how they could join the Opportunity Music Project, so Jessica handed out pamphlets. And Aiyanna couldn’t stop smiling.

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