The lessons here are about more than music — and they cost as little as $1

Esmeralda Barcenas, 13, plays during a piano lesson at the Community Music School, a Raleigh nonprofit that offers affordable private music lessons to low-income families, in this file photo for 2017.
Esmeralda Barcenas, 13, plays during a piano lesson at the Community Music School, a Raleigh nonprofit that offers affordable private music lessons to low-income families, in this file photo for 2017. N&O file photo

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Music lessons are a rite of passage for many youngsters.

Along with soccer, dance and other extracurricular activities, a weekly piano or guitar lesson can help students discern their depth of interest and potentially discover a burgeoning talent.

Children engaged in music at an early age also acquire intellectual advantages. Music lessons enhance children’s use of language-based reasoning, short-term memory, planning and other cognitive abilities, often leading to stronger academic performance, according to a 2018 research article in Science Daily.

“There are a host of studies out there that reiterate the importance of arts and arts education,” said Dennis De Jong, who was named in October as director of the Community Music School in Raleigh. “Studying music raises self-esteem, motivation, discipline, leadership — these are the kinds of consequences that stem from learning music in a personalized, individual setting.”

The Community Music School was founded in 1994 by a group of volunteers including the late Mary Cates, who strongly believed “all children deserve to be applauded,” De Jong explained.

Cates, a former Raleigh City Councilwoman and civic leader, died in March 2018, but her belief in access to music lessons for all children lives on. About 130 students each year are given affordable music lessons and use of an instrument by CMS.

“If your child qualifies for free lunch, they can get music lessons for $1 a lesson,” said Inez Brewington, who has a grandson attending various programs at the school and another who graduated from the Community Music School and is now in college.

Her younger grandson, Caleb, started taking lessons at age 6 and is now an eighth grader at Ligon G.T. Magnet Middle School. Brewington said his piano and drum lessons have improved his concentration and given Caleb more self-confidence.

“I started seeing a positive difference in him when he started piano lessons,” Brewington said. “It was wonderful. I love the school.”

The Community Music School hit a bump in 2016, when donations dropped and the organization’s budget went into freefall. Lessons were disbanded for several months while leaders reorganized and focused on fundraising. Reopening in 2017 with a $300,000 budget, the school has regained its momentum and recently hired its first full time director, De Jong, a professional musician and music educator.

“The board worked with a consulting group to put together a strategic plan, and that included putting in place a full-time director to give it full-time attention,” he said.

The Community Music School has brought music into the lives of more than 2,000 students since its founding.

Students all get personal instruction and access to practice instruments for piano, voice, brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion.

They may gain additional experience by participating in string ensembles, jazz bands, recording classes and other music-related activities. The school recently partnered with Berklee College of Music’s City Music Network program, which offers online learning opportunities focused on the technical and commercial sides of music, as well as composition.

“We’re really preparing students to be not only musicians but arts-advocates themselves,” De Jong said.

Key to the effectiveness of the program are those individual lessons by professional musicians who pass on musical knowledge, techniques, and, yes, good practicing habits to their students.

“The core of what we provide is one-to-one instruction,” De Jong said. “Becoming a musician is really about that private lesson, a personalized learning time for students to develop their skills.”

Students with special needs are welcome at CMS, and sometimes seem to get the most out of their lessons.

“A child might be an outlier in a class setting, but when we work with them individually, it opens doors in pretty powerful ways,” said De Jong, who has taught private trumpet lessons at the school and still performs locally and regionally.

“At heart, it’s about making something accessible; it gets to the heart of equity. Really teaching to the whole child. There’s a big push for personalized learning and adaptive instruction. We excel in giving those opportunities to students.”

Community Music School

618 Tucker St.

Raleigh, N.C. 27603


Contact: Dennis De Jong, 919-832-0900

Donations needed: Money.

$10 would buy a set of strings for a violin.

$20 would buy a piano instruction book.

$50 would buy one-on-one lesson with a professional music instructor.