Eyes shut, Inez Brewington nods her head in time with the hypnotic music soaring from the Community Music School's piano, its keys pounded, caressed, then pounded by her grandson, Ari Moore.
As the last note still reverberates, I ask whether I should have recognized the moving song. Ari, who is 6-foot-1 at age 13, flashes a perfect smile then says shyly,"No." He made it up.
For nearly two hours on a recent afternoon, Ari's energetic playing provided the ambiance as members of a grant-giving foundation toured the school. State budget cuts have devastated the Community Music School, which gives private lessons to economically disadvantaged school-age children.
The school is one of the charities seeking help this year in The N&O's Holiday Guide to Giving. Find it at bit.ly/givingguide.
Never miss a local story.
"We haven't paid the rent for a couple of months," says Mary Cates, the former Raleigh City Council member who started the school in 1994. "If we get to the point we can't pay the staff and the teachers, I don't know what we're going to do."
Brewington, 53, cannot begin to measure what the school has meant to her family. Ari;s brother, Caleb, also takes lessons, and Brewington credits music with helping the 6-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, succeed in a mainstream class this year.
"With so many things teenagers can get into, music is Ari's escape, rather than getting into gangs and drugs," says Brewington, who lives in Raleigh with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. "Most kids play videos. Our kids play music."
Both boys started out playing drums at age 2. When Ari was 6, the family pulled together and got him a keyboard. From the moment he touched it, he has been able to play songs by ear. He still has no piano at home.
"This school has opened opportunities because he can read music now," says Brewington, who is retired after working for the DMV 20 years. "And it really helped him at school because Ari is an introverted person, but the music gives him a way of expressing himself. He can make up a song, snap, like that."
It's a rare talent that Brewington fears might have gone to waste if not for the school, which interviews prospective families and has them pay $1 for each lesson so a commitment is clear. More than 120 students are enrolled this year, with 50 to 80 on the waiting list.
"A lot of times parents like us can't afford the clubs and the ballet. Even basketball and Boy Scouts cost money," says Brewington, who takes every opportunity during Ari's laying to touch him and to cuddle Caleb. "There just aren't a lot of open doors. There are a lot of talented black kids on the street because they don't have anything else to do."
Something else there isn't a lot of for many poorer children is affirmation.
"To have them respond to the applause from the audience is just a thrilling thing," says Cates, who joyously anticipates the school's recitals. "They don't often get these chances, this personal attention. One of our mottos is that every child deserves to be applauded at least once."
Linda Frenette, the school's executive director, is passionate about all the ways music can alter a life.
"The self-confidence you get whenever you learn something and you're good at something," she says. "They have that pride and self-discipline as well. All of the life skills that you need you really can learn from practicing and learning an instrument."
On this afternoon, without one sheet of music in front of him, Ari plays song after song for the touring group.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" has barely ended when Ari gets a mischievous grin on his sweet face and breaks into a jazzed-up version of "Sweet Home Alabama." Caleb, who has been sitting on the bench nuzzling Ari without the pianist missing a note, giggles and starts playing the air drums. Grandma stands to dance.
"My passion for music is very strong," says Ari, who hopes to end up at Juilliard one day. "I love it. When I play, you can feel it. When it comes to music, you've got to feel it within yourself."
Asked how realistic his dreams would be if it weren't for the Community Music School, Ari looks down and blows air for several seconds before answering:
"This school was the only opportunity I had."