PITTSFIELD — In 1940, as the nation slowly emerged from the greatest economic downturn in history, a social welfare agency in Pittsfield noted the "need for affordable music instruction for gifted children among the city's impoverished families."
It was a tall order, given the lingering uncertainty that followed the prolonged period of national suffering, as Berkshire Music School trustee Jeff Bradway wrote in a recent newsletter.
"The Second World War was underway in Europe, and America feared for its national security," he wrote. "The nation was still struggling to pull itself out of the financial mess of the Great Depression, and many families could barely afford the necessities of life," let alone musical instruments and lessons.
But community benefactors knew that to find salvation in tough times, people need to find joy.
So Winnie Davis Crane — the wife of the Yale University-educated Bruce Crane, and later president and chairman of one of the county's largest economic engines, Crane & Co. — convened a committee of "music-loving, civic-minded society leaders," Bradway said, "to put their heads (and their wallets) together to form the Pittsfield Community Music School, as it was then called."
The fanfare came not with champagne and marble halls but through the volume of students that first came through the doors where the school first stood, in the old School Street police station. The school formally opened on March 1, 1941, with 84 pupils matriculated for the spring semester. That winter, the December enrollment increased to 151 students.
In the decades that followed, through economic depressions and wars, and also in times of prosperity and peace, the institution has remained steadfast in its role of serving children though adults of all ages.
The Berkshire Music School will celebrate its 75 year anniversary on Sunday, as exceptionally skilled musicians representing myriad genres take the stage of the Colonial Theatre for a gala performance. It is a reflection of how, when a community comes together in a truly altruistic and passionate endeavor, its mission and purpose can endure, no matter the circumstances.
And while the institution didn't change its moniker to "Berkshire Music School" until 2001, it did and always has served students throughout the Berkshires, from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
"The founding of what was then the Pittsfield Community Music School in 1940 created a place where individual expression came alive through verse, song and dance," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer in a written tribute marking the school's 75th anniversary. "Since that time, Berkshire Music School has established a rich legacy of creativity, learning, and engagement that continues to benefit the City of Pittsfield and communities throughout the Berkshires."
But as records show, the school has never really operated in the black, a matter that's less attributed to inefficiency of the music school's operators but more so due to the nature of the school's services — to offer musical instruction and performance opportunities to dedicated and driven students, while making hefty accommodations for many to make it affordable for them to play.
In its early days, Bradway wrote, a 40-minute private lesson plus an hour of ear training and theory instruction, cost about 70 cents — which would be about $11.50 today — on a weekly basis.
An Eagle report about the school in 1947 remarked how since its opening, students continued to be told to "pay what you can afford." And while, at the time, it cost the school $120 per pupil per year for immersive instruction, the average annual tuition payment collected was $66.76 per student.
The music school's solution for sustainability was not to scale back, but to scale up its efforts to bring in high-quality curriculum and orchestrate top-notch performances led by well-qualified and accomplished musicians, while managing a board of directors and stream of benefactors that were as passionate and skilled in or appreciative of music and education as the founders.
Miss Mary E. Jones served as the school's founding director, who established a faculty of men and women, whose affiliations represented a number of domestic and European orchestras and schools. Courses ranged from music theory to piano, percussion to bamboo pipe, violin to eurhythmics — the latter, a method of music instruction developed by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and being taught at the time in conservatories like Julliard.
To supplement the costs of operations, the school at that time held many concerts, also affordable with some admissions starting at 50 cents, and hosted events, earned grants and other donations from public and private donors, much as the nonprofit continues to do today.
In April 1942, the school had one of its first sold-out concerts, one that lined the Berkshire Museum auditorium "three deep" along the walls and closed the doors on other customers who had come too late.
On June 18, 1943, the school's board purchased the 16-room home, barn and gardens of former Mayor Allen H. Bagg at 30 Wendell Ave., where the school continues to operate today. Adjoining the courthouses of the county seat, the Berkshire Athenaeum, and Berkshire Museum properties, The Eagle noted, the addition of the school added to the creation of "a civic and cultural center in the heart of the community."
In subsequent years, the school's population and reputation grew, garnering the support of such luminaries and institutions as Tanglewood and Leonard Bernstein, Norman Rockwell; the Budapest, Coolidge and Pro Arte quartets; Empire Brass, the Massachusetts Councils for the Arts and Humanities (now the Massachusetts Cultural Council), among countless others. The school affiliated itself with national guilds and other credentialed programs, and offered graduation certificates to students who successfully completed the school's programs of study.
In 1954, under the co-direction of Jan Stocklinski and his wife, Marjorie, the school reached its peak enrollment of 453 students. Turnout to some of the school's larger concerts swelled to 700 and higher.
Marion Maby Wells came on as executive director in 1977, and ushered the school into the new millennium, retiring in the spring of 2001. Under her leadership, the school dealt with the waxing and waning of interest and enrollment; it created new programs and fundraisers, including the school's signature music marathon weekend; and continued to entice new generations of enthusiastic and dedicated faculty.
They are people like Paul Sundberg — an instructor and current trustee who is now celebrating his 40th year with the music school — and Fredric and Rosalyn Cohen, who traveled all the way from Albuquerque, N.M., this weekend to celebrate and serve as honorary co-chairs of Berkshire Music School's 75th Anniversary campaign.
Fredric Cohen was initially recruited to the faculty by Andrew Clarke, who led the school for a year prior to Maby Wells, but he stayed on for 32 years, teaching saxophone, oboe and clarinet. One of his most successful clarinet students is NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who will also be on hand Sunday for the gala performance.
A full-time music educator for Lenox and Great Barrington schools, Cohen said he would drive from South County to Pittsfield and teach until as late as 8:30 p.m. because, "I really loved going there."
He and his wife became fully engaged with the school. Their children, Rachel and Jonathan studied there, and they actively watched students grow up, attending the bar mitzvahs and later in their lives, weddings of some of their students.
"It's truly a great environment, it's like a family there," Rosalyn said.
It's because of those authentic ties to the school that the couple have endowed a scholarship fund at Berkshire Music School in perpetuity. The Cohens both lauded current executive director, Tracy Wilson, for carrying on the school's tradition of engaging students, families and the community in the crusade for continued, accessible, high-quality music education, now valued even more so as many public schools are scaling back their music programs under budget constraints.
"They give the chance for others to be taught, regardless of need," Rosalyn said.
But that's challenged by aging infrastructure of a historic building and the need to expand capacity, outreach and to modernize instruments and equipment.
"The public needs to give them the support they need," Fredric said.
Wilson said the school currently maintains about 300 students, with a growing enrollment of adults, and has 35 faculty members. In addition to music instruction for infants and toddlers on up, the school also offers courses in theater and other niche programs, like cabaret performance and a summer rock band camp.
Jen Glockner, director of Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Development, credited Wilson for always being willing to partner with city events, from providing students to perform in the 10x10 Festival to creating an original composition for a project known as "The Mastheads," a citywide effort to promote and preserve the legacy of American Renaissance authors like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"On the school's anniversary and every day, it's just so important to realize how much Berkshire Music School contributes to the arts and cultural scene in Pittsfield," Glockner said.
"We continue to be here for all people. In addition to being here for the students studying toward the conservatory level, we want to bring music programs to people who are here just for the love of it," Wilson said. "I think that's vital in remaining relevant in the future."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
What: Berkshire Music School 75th Anniversary Gala
Headliners: Madalyn Parnas, violin; Deborah Rentz Moore, voice; Billy Keane, guitar and vocals; Kari Steinert, composer; Ben Talmi, composer/pianist
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $28 (patrons); $45 (supporters); $150 (benefactors — includes prime seating; onstage post-concert reception; program listing)
For tickets, call 413-997-4444. All proceeds from ticket sales, live and silent auctions, sponsorship and advertising go to BMS education programs.
Info: To learn more about Berkshire Music School and upcoming programs and events, visit berkshiremusicschool.org or call 413-442-1411.