Renovations unveiled at the Eastman Community Music School

Oct 1, 2018

A class in the 'hammered dulcimer' at the Eastman Community Music School
Credit Randy Gorbman / WXXI News

A dozen or so people gather in a rehearsal space at the Eastman Community Music School, near the corner of East Avenue and Gibbs Street. They are playing an instrument called the hammered dulcimer, which requires the use of small sticks or hammers to ping against the strings of an instrument which was developed hundreds of years ago.

But except for their teacher, Mitzie Collins, most of these students are not professional musicians, nor do they plan to pursue that career.

As Collins explained, they are just taking her lessons on the instrument because it’s enjoyable. 

“I love adult learners, because they’re not doing it to make anybody happy but them. I would say a certain number of my adult students have wanted to play an instrument but just time and money and things never made that possible.”

The Eastman Community Music School teaches a wide variety of people, ranging from toddlers to people in their 90s, and it’s been offering instruction for a really long time. In fact, it started in 1921, founded by George Eastman at the same time the Eastman School of Music began.

But unlike that collegiate level institution, the Eastman Community Music School does just what its name implies, giving people all over the community a change to get together and make music.

Now, officials are getting ready to unveil a $2.8 million dollar renovation project for the building that will house the school. The classes have been spread out around Gibbs Street, and while some of the current classes are in that building at East Ave and Gibbs, the situation wasn’t ideal. It had been used for offices for a bank, and it really wasn’t set up acoustically to handle the 16-hundred or so students who are in the community music school.

The new piano lab at the Eastman Community Music School
Credit Randy Gorbman / WXXI News

The renovations of that former office building now include 27 faculty studios, a piano lab, percussion studio and other amenities.

Senior Associate Dean for Administration and Finance at the Eastman School of Music, Michele Gibson says the new space has already impressed students who have started to use it. 

“You almost have to see the expression on the faces of individuals that come into the space and see it for the first time . I’ve seen the expression of a small student and she walked in and she just looked around and had this great big smile, and went, ‘Wow.’

The renovation project actually began about 14 years ago, but it took time to raise the money which came from a variety of sources including donors and a state grant.

Jamal Rossi, the Dean of the Eastman School of Music says the community music school is something that George Eastman really felt was integral to the art and culture he wanted to see developed in Rochester. 

“It is part of George Eastman’s vision; on the façade of the Eastman Theatre that this is erected for the enrichment of community life; his vision was that music matters and it matters in this community and he was trying to build a community that really valued education and art and many other things,” Rossi said. 

Walking through parts of the renovated floors in the Eastman Community Music School, you see diversity among the types of people and instruments being played, but the improved construction and acoustic work means that you don’t have to worry about the sound of one instrument bleeding over into a practice room where someone is playing another instrument.

For instance, a local internist, Dr. Nancy Shedd, was getting a lesson from guitar teacher, Lynn McGrath. 

Dr. Shedd says that she does have a background playing organ and harpsichord, but got interested in guitar after she was taking her daughter to the school to study with a classical guitar teacher there.

Nancy Shedd (L) and Lynn McGrath at a guitar lesson
Credit Randy Gorbman / WXXI News

“Kind of fell in love with the instrument, and at some point just asked him if he had time in his schedule, so I started it; I thought, hey, I’m a musician, how hard could this be, but I found it’s a steep learning curve,” Shedd explained as she chuckled about the challenge.

But that’s kind of attitude that Petar Kodzas appreciates. He actually used to be the classical guitar teacher at the community music school, but now he is the Associate Dean of the Eastman Community Music School.

And he says musical ability doesn’t have to be a barrier to deciding whether you want to take lessons here. 

“You’re never too old, it’s never too late to start music, the continuation of improvement is something that we strive for, so you can always improve where you are.” 

And Michele Gibson, the associate dean, says it is not just the students who take lessons at the school who will benefit, it will be that entire section of the East End.

“We are seeing an activation and excitement; children being dropped off, parents being here, just really animating this end of Gibbs Street by East Avenue, it’s absolutely wonderful, wonderful to see.”

The Eastman Community Music School will celebrate the completion of the Messinger Renovation project and the dedication of the Karen Rettner Community Music Center on Wednesday from 5 to 7pm. 

Video montage of the renovated Eastman Community Music School space  by WXXI's Jason Milton: