Perfect Pitch: How an Inner-city Music Program Hits All the Right Notes

15-year-old Keith walks five miles through the tough city streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut so he can take flute lessons. For the past eight years, this has been his routine -- a routine that has paid off. On May 3, Keith will be performing with 230 other student musicians at Carnegie Hall. These students are all part of a music program called KEYS.

KEYS, or Kids Empowered by Your Support, is a program that brings teachers and instruments to inner city children -- for free. Rob Silvan, who serves as the Executive Director, created the program after learning that that his son's school - in neighboring New Canaan -- was listed as the "Best School" in the state. He was amazed to learn that less than ten miles away, the "Worst School" was in Bridgeport. Silvan created this unique music program so that all students would be entitled to the same opportunities, regardless of zip codes.

"There is so much evidence to support that music helps make children achieve better academically. Music helps with social skills and teaches teamwork," Silvan explained.

The program had humble beginnings with Silvan teaching music lessons to students in hallways in many of the Bridgeport schools. More than one decade later, the program has 600 students enrolled with more than 400 students on a waiting list.

Kayla is Keith's 17-year old sister who has been playing the violin since she was in the fourth grade. Although she is not one of the students performing at Carnegie Hall, she will be traveling to Italy this summer with the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra.

"I am so grateful to all my teachers and for this program," says Kayla.

"This program kept my kids off the streets and gave them opportunities I never imagined," says Denise, Keith and Kayla's mom. "There were times it sounded like noise in my house but it now sounds like an orchestra. It is "music" to my ears every day."

The non-profit program is one of the only of its kind in the United States that is coordinating its efforts with the school district. There are thirty-one teachers who now provide one-on-one music instruction during enrichment periods. Students are never pulled out of academic classes, like Math or English, but can substitute study time or gym class.

The story isn't just about music lessons in an inner-city. It is also about a community coming together and economics.

In addition to personal one-on-one instruction at the schools, the Klein Center- located in the heart of the city - provides free space to the KEYS program so students can work with their teachers each Saturday. Music fills the hallways of this building as nearly one hundred students visit each weekend. Salina is a nine-year old violinist. Anthony is her ten-year old brother who plays the piano. Their father, Dale, escorts them to the center and also volunteers his time to KEYS to help with whatever the foundation might need, whether it's checking people in at the door or helping unload a van.

"I would never have been able to afford private lessons so I pay it forward," Dale says. "This program is incredible. My children have such self-confidence and love for this program and their teachers. We even go to Salina's teachers lacrosse games because he's now a part of our family."

That teacher, Andrew Crape, is one of the thirty-one teachers who works for KEYS, which is part of the economic success story of this program.

"Musicians usually make their money giving lessons after school or playing gigs at night," explains Crape. "KEYS pays me during the day when I normally wouldn't be working. And since I live in Bridgeport, I feel good to be able to give back to the city."

Sixteen year-old Jarreth received a free clarinet through KEYS, and he exemplifies the life-changing possibilities of the program, hoping to attend Howard and Temple University to fulfill his dream of becoming a musician. "Don't forget to ask one of us for a letter of recommendation," says Silvan when he hears about Jarreth's college applications.

Adds Peter Randazzo, an instructor for eight years, "KEYS isn't just about free instruments or music lessons or the local economy. We have become mentors to hundreds of kids and we are helping to mold their future. It's a win-win for everyone."

The program has an annual budget of $350,000, according to Silvan, and relies on the generosity of donors. Recently, the Franca and Gerry Mulligan Foundation awarded $1,000 to KEYS after learning of the growing success of the program.

"I can think of no greater gift than providing the gift of music," said Franca Mulligan.

Students from the KEYS program will be performing on May 3 at Carnegie Hall, West 57th Street and 7th Avenue.

KEYS is a 501©(3) non-profit organization. All donations are tax deductible. For more information, contact admin@keysmusic.org or call 203-761-0150.