I magine arriving in a foreign land, exhausted from an arduous journey, unaccustomed to the native language and struggling to get a foothold as you begin a new life. How would you acclimate? Where would you go for help?
For many immigrants who found themselves in the Elm City in the early 1900s, an answer to both of those questions was an artsy community center called Neighborhood House, now known as Neighborhood Music School. Founded in 1911, it allowed new New Haveners to turn to the universal language of music to help jumpstart their lives here. As Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Today, NMS is one of the 10 largest community arts organizations in the United States, according to school officials. Its 30,000-square-foot home downtown has 33 studios, practice rooms, a recital hall and a library. More than 3,000 students study there each year. The school was a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award finalist, chosen by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. (The award recognizes outstanding after-school and out-of-school programs.) Also this year, NMS received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.
More than 100 years in, Neighborhood Music School is a cornerstone of New Haven’s arts education landscape, though there’s a feeling that it doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves. “We’re well-known nationally,” says Jill Weaver, the school’s director of marketing, communications and planning. “But some people in New Haven don’t even know we’re here.”
For the unacquainted, there’s a lot to get to know.
NMS is a nonprofit, relying on tuition and private lesson fees to generate the majority of its cash flow, says Weaver. Its mission is “to provide the highest quality education in music, dance and drama” to students of all ages, abilities and economic backgrounds, she says. Budding musicians can take private lessons and group classes. Courses include jazz studies, rock studies and musicianship, among others. Dancers can study tap, jazz, ballet, modern dance, African dance and other styles. Theater classes range from beginner to advanced. Groups like the seventh-grade-and-up Greater New Haven Concert Band, pictured above with conductor Rachel Antonucci, lend valuable ensemble and performance experience.
Students can learn rarer skills, too, such as how to play the viola da gamba (a string instrument, similar to a present-day cello, dating back to the 15th century). Kids as young as age 5 can turn beloved children’s books into musical theater in NMS’s “Once Upon a Time” program. There’s even a preschool for students ages 2 to 4.
As Weaver puts it, “There is a lot going on here.” Outside of its main campus at 100 Audubon Street, the school also offers satellite programs at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge, First Congregational Church in Guilford and First Congregational Church in Madison.
The school’s impressive roster of classes is meant to be comprehensive but not intimidating, says Weaver. “Some people may get the impression that this is only for serious, orchestral training,” she says, but people of all ages, ability levels and stylistic interests are welcome to study at NMS.
Inclusiveness has been a tenet of the school since its founding, when it was located on Wooster Street. It was part of the “assembly house” movement, bringing arts to immigrants to help them engage with their new community in a meaningful way. It’s been known by the Neighborhood Music School name since 1945.
“We started very much with a mission of reaching out to the less wealthy and to people who are not in the mainstream,” says Weaver. “We’re still hoping to create positive change in the community.” One way it does that is through its City Initiative, launched in 2007, a partnership with New Haven Public Schools that allows 60 public school students to take lessons and participate in ensembles at NMS free of charge.
Because money talks, sure, but music speaks.
Neighborhood Music School
100 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Written by Cara Rosner. Photographed by Dan Mims.