One year ago, 11 high school and middle school students entered Ashley Auditorium at Fresno Pacific University. Instruments in hand, they were the first class of the university’s Community Music School.

They were greeted that Sunday afternoon in January 2017 by a smiling Erik Leung; his wife Sheena, who serves as administrative assistant; snacks; and 10 FPU student instructors who may have been as nervous as they were. Always warm and friendly, Erik Leung, D.M.A., assistant professor and program director of music at FPU was especially excited because the group represented the culmination of his plans to help local school music and school musicians.  

The next two hours, and the next four months, were a whirl of individual and small-group lessons and large-ensemble rehearsals. By the spring 2018 concert, the group had grown to 20 participants. “It’s a joy to see them every Sunday,” Leung says.

By December 2018 there were 25 students playing in CMS. Classes will resume January 27, 2019, in Ashley Auditorium on the main FPU campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno.

The CMS grew out of Leung’s experience judging public school band contests in Fresno and Clovis. After joining FPU in 2014, the native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, jumped into the local music scene and quickly noted the difference between school music programs, finding that the schools with consistently stronger ensembles were those that directed students in the top groups to take private instruction. Other schools could not make this requirement because so many students couldn’t afford music lessons. “It just really drove home the level of economic disparity we have in the Valley,” he says.

Leung seeks to bridge that gap with the Community Music School (CMS). Students from any area middle school or high school, as well as those who are home schooled, may receive free music instruction from 1:00-3:00 p.m. Sundays during the school year, taught by FPU music majors and faculty members. Small-group lessons, full rehearsals and the two concerts each year take place on the main FPU campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno. “Our mission is to inspire a love of music by providing free private music lessons for all children regardless of financial limitations,” Leung says. 

The disparity Leung noted among students at different schools shaped his plans in more ways than one. Those healthy snacks are as important as music stands. “There’s no way the students could concentrate if they were hungry,” he says.

FPU student instructors find themselves teaching and learning. Junior Frank Velasco grew up three miles from the FPU main campus. “I really enjoy working with CMS because the students leave every day with a smile,” he says.

While most of his woodwind students have some musical experience, most come from schools with limitations. “Music in the general education system does not have many resources and struggles to bring music to life within young students,” he says. Velasco is keeping this in mind as works toward his degree in music education.

“I just knew that was something I wanted to do to give back to the community,” says Clovis senior Lauren Nichols, who is majoring in flute performance and studio art and plans to perform and teach privately after graduate school. “(CMS) is a unique thing—there’s not a lot of things like that going on in the Valley that I know of.”

Nichols wants to be a good role model to her students, some of whom are not much younger than she. “In some ways it’s kind of nice…you can relate to them,” she says. “I think it’s such a great cause to teach students who otherwise would not be able to take lessons.”

While most participants are from the Southeast Fresno neighborhood around the main campus, others come from Reedley and as far as Madera. “There’s one teacher who drives students one hour each way,” Leung says.

That teacher’s commitment is emblematic of the enthusiasm CMS has engendered among school educators, right up to Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino. The office provided the school $10,000 for the 2018-2019 school year. The Central Valley Community Foundation also gave CMS $1,000. Funds will pay the student instructors, who volunteered their time in 2017-2018, and provide scholarships for CMS students graduating high school.

“This is exactly the kind of program the superintendent loves to be involved in because it reaches out to students and gives them more opportunities to succeed through the arts,” says Aaron Bryan, director of visual and performing arts for the superintendent’s office. Bryan graduated from FPU as a music major and earned his teaching credential at the school. Yovino earned his master’s at FPU.

The Community Music School fosters change wherever its young musicians come from—and potentially wherever they end up. Strong school music programs make strong students, who make good citizens. “The CMS is here to augment school music programs,” Leung says, “one of the requirements for students is that they participate in their school’s program.”

From classical music to folk songs, musicians as disparate as Beethoven and Dylan have used music as a force of social comment and change. FPU’s Community Music School makes that trend local.

For more information on CMS, email Erik Leung at Erik.leung@fresno.edu.

 

PHOTO: Erik and Sheena Leung and the 2018-2019 student instructors for the Fresno Pacific University Community School of Music. Front Row (L-R): Haley Mitchell, Frank Velasco, Emma Montoya, Dakota Botton. Back Row (L-R): Sheena Leung, Courtney Smith, Lauren Nichols, Jason Datsko, Erik Leung. (FPU photo)