On my last visit to San Francisco’s Community Music Center on Capp Street, I was thrilled by the barrage of sound pouring from every window there. An adult chorus chanted from the top floor on one side, a violinist worked through a cadenza on the other, and on the ground floor, 40 guitarists nimbly plucked their way through an arrangement of a Beatles song. More joyful noise than cacophony, it was the sound of people making music for the sheer pleasure of it all, without an audience in sight. Just a typical evening at this lodestone for DIY music-making in the heart of the Mission District.
Founded by Gertrude Field over a century ago, the Community Music Center has been guided by a philosophy Field first articulated in the organization’s early years: “We are not primarily concerned about the evolution of concert artists, though we give special attention to and encourage those who show exceptional talent. Our aim is to create a musical atmosphere in the home by giving children the means of expression. Hence, ‘how beautiful,’ rather than ‘how well-played or sung,’ is the comment one hears oftenest in our classes.”
Over the years, the programs there have evolved from serving a few hundred students in a small number of disciplines to providing support and education to over 2,800 students last year — online and in-person — in all manner of musical styles, including jazz, blues, Latin, pop, folk, rock, and western classical. Through it all, Field’s vision for the CMC to be “provider of music that was not art for art’s sake, but art for life’s sake” has remained true.
AS CMC’s Executive Director Julie Rulyak Steinberg told SFCV:
Community Music Center’s mission of making high-quality music accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities, regardless of financial means, has remained unchanged for 100 years. We believe this mission is more important than ever — to celebrate cultures, connect people, and provide an accessible place to learn and experience great music.
This mission has only grown stronger through the years, transforming the lives of our students and contributing to the communities we serve through our tuition-free programs. Programs like the Young Musicians Program serving SF Unified School District youth, the Mission District Young Musicians Program providing a Latin music education to young musicians, and the Older Adult Choir Program which provides nearly 300 older adults in diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco with culturally relevant music curriculum are a few examples of how the mission has progressed through the years.”
Holding fast to that mission during the course of the pandemic has been no easy task, and Steinberg is justifiably proud of CMC’s efforts over the past two years. “The ways in which the CMC community of students, staff, and faculty persevered through the pandemic continues to be my proudest moment,” she said. “Like so many arts organizations we were faced with the unprecedented challenge of changing all of our operations to online learning in a matter of days.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget, as over 130 faculty members adapted to online learning in the matter of a weekend. I was proud to see the dedication of our students through it all with a 75 percent student retention rate through this transition.
“Our programs and the quality of our instruction have not just survived during the pandemic but thrived. We’ve created a virtual community, strengthened city partnerships, and extended the reach of our mission to new parts of the country and the world. Returning to in-person learning, while having the tools of virtual learning, has only made us stronger, and I’m grateful for it and excited for what’s next!”
It turns out that what’s next is quite a lot, indeed. Beyond the sold-out centennial gala held earlier this month (with an all-star cast of performers including tenor Pene Pati and soprano Amina Edris, the Alexander String Quartet, Frederica von Stade, and the Marcus Shelby Trio), the Center is focused more on looking forward rather than looking back.
“We are actively creating a vision for the future of arts access and reimagining musical community and collaboration,” said Steinberg.
Perhaps the most ambitious — or at least most visible — enterprise will be growing the Center’s physical plant. “We just had the groundbreaking on Feb. 16 for the expansion of our Mission District campus,” said Steinberg. “With this expansion, we’ll increase our annual student body by upwards of 1,000 students, enhance our current tuition-free programs, and launch new programs that address critical community needs. Our expansion also ensures ADA accessibility with new classroom spaces and thoughtful design.”
This expansion will allow the CMC to fulfill its intentions to reach every population in the Bay Area. As Steinberg puts it, “We are equally dedicated to listening to, uplifting, and amplifying the voices of marginalized people through our operations, partnerships, and programs. Our newest tuition-free programs, New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus for transgender, intersex, and genderqueer singers, and the Black Music Studies Program which teaches the foundations of American music through the indelible contributions of the Black community, are programs that speak to these commitments.”
Composer Cava Menzies has taken the helm for another of the CMC’s lofty goals for this centennial year: (Re)Imagine: 100 New Works from Cava Menzies and Community Music Center. Launching April 4, (Re)Imagine will result in 100 new music/video works to be broadcast online through May 23, with an in-person event on May 14. Fifty of the projects will be by Menzies and an international cadre of fellow professional artists, and 50 will by student participants in CMC’s Young Musicians Program (YMP) and Mission District Young Musicians Program (MDYMP).
Asked about how she coordinates such a huge project, Menzies told SFCV:
I’ve had the privilege to do onsite coaching sessions with students at CMC’s YMP and MDYMP program. Initially we did large group sessions together where we discussed the project vision and also helped students brainstorm strategies for approaching the various thematic options.
I have to give a huge shout out to the CMC faculty as well for their support in the project. They’ve been a huge part of its success in coaching students and sharing composition techniques and ideas. I have also been able to do more individual coaching sessions with each of the smaller musical groupings of students.
The beauty of this project is that it gives students the breadth of creative freedom to really explore anything they want to express. There are no "wrong" musical answers or approaches. This really suspends traditional music collaboration norms and allows every student a place to enter that meets their own technical skill and facility level. I do have to say, though, that I was pretty blown away by the composition level of many CMC students. There are some very talented budding composers there!”
Menzies said the student projects are delightfully varied and often profound. “There is such a variety of topics covered thematically, and I really feel like we’re getting to see some of the inner workings of each student’s creative mind,” she said.
“One project that stands out in particular was a trio that I worked with that was trying to emulate what it felt like to go to the beach to decompress. One instrument was emulating birdsong, the next was embodying the deep swell of the ocean, and the last one was imitating a flock of seagulls.” Said Menzies. “There’s something so special about fusing the imagination of a young person with music.”
Menzies is particularly impressed with how the student musicians have been grappling with the challenges in their personal lives, and how they were able to channel those themes into their projects. “Topics of gentrification, homelessness, the Delta variant, increased traffic, lack of parking because of construction, culture in the hallways at school, needing to escape to your imagination, and more were all explored in this project,” she said.
Menzies admits that she’s had some serious hurdles in the course of pursuing this project. “I think the hardest part is the amount of communication and organization that is required to successfully collaborate with so many people,” she said. “There is a lot of back and forth in the ideation process: sharing voice memos, videos snippets, text ideas, and so froth. My phone is holding so many videos and so many conversations around the pieces that we are creating together. That part can feel overwhelming at times, but the joy is in getting to see how many possibilities there are when creative minds come together.”
And getting creative minds together is the ultimate goal of the Community Music Center. Visit the CMC website to see even more about what the generous team there has in store for the coming 100 years.