This month, the Turtle Bay Music School (TBMS) will hold its final artist series concert, the last hurrah of a nearly century old New York City arts institution. A nonprofit on the East Side that partnered with public schools, the school announced in November that it would be forced to close due to a lack of funding. The entire conceit of TBMS, summed up in its mission statement, was that every single person should be able to learn an instrument and enjoy making music. That “every single person” part was key — if you couldn’t afford lessons, tuition assistance could help.
The strained finances of the school were no secret. Earlier this year, the school was forced to relocate to Murray Hill after the sale of its longtime building at East 52nd Street. Amid the latest news, there’s been an outpouring of support and gratitude from former students and teachers for all that this institution accomplished, but the more one thinks about it, the more it becomes clear that it was truly wild that this school had to exist in the first place.
Much, if not all of the classical world is built on a myth of meritocracy. We’re told that if you are truly talented, “doors of opportunity will open for you.” This is factually correct, I guess. If you’re a knockout flutist or a generational-talent of a pianist, then conservatories and youth orchestra programs will welcome you, and sure, financial assistance might enable it. But there’s also the implicit assumption that “the instrument will choose you.”
That is patently untrue — this ain’t Harry Potter.
Pursuing music, especially in a city like New York, is crazy expensive. For those that want to go beyond an amateur level, you need funds to buy an instrument suited to the rigours of intermediate or advanced playing, not to mention pay for private instruction. That a school could exist to make both of these things possible? A veritable dream.
In September, the school released a video to highlight its achievements.
Among the reasons cited for the closure were “changing times in the cultural and educational landscape, and society’s shifting priorities,” which in turn rendered the school’s business model unsustainable. That speaks to the baffling injustice of this whole situation. Basically, nonprofits that provide “good services” can only exist if the donations are generous and plentiful.
Which means schools like TBMS are at the mercy or benevolence, if you will, of the rich. A recent Bloomberg piece railed against a wealth tax, arguing that it would spell doom for the nonprofit sector. Little consideration, however, was given to exactly what those tax dollars could achieve. It’s easy to imagine a world where music schools are publicly subsidized. When I talked to colleagues from France and Germany about the TBMS closure, they told me stories about their government-funded musical experiences, which greatly contrasted with systems here that, largely, are dependent on the largess of individuals and corporations, rather than the state. Here’s looking at you, Sweden..
Growing up in Baltimore, I was one of the few black students at Lutheran Day School, a parochial school that granted need-based financial aid. During the fourth grade, students were permitted to check out instruments and sign up for lessons, so naturally, it was a big deal for me. I had been wanting to play for some time, and it seemed that everyone around me was getting their jam on. My older sister played clarinet, and two of my best friends had picked up the saxophone, that gilded horn of such sweet sound. But when I took the forms home for my parents to sign off for my own sax lessons, they told me I had to wait a while. “I was not responsible enough,” they said. But 20 years later, when I revisited this topic with my dear mother, I found out that it was all a lie.
Turns out, the bar for being a functional eight year old is subterraneously low. Don’t cut class. Eat your over-steamed and unseasoned vegetables. Say no to drugs. Don’t get kidnapped. Eight-year old me wasn’t irresponsible, but eight-year old me’s family was broke as hell.
There’s a pervasive willingness to ignore just how kids, especially lower and middle-income ones, realize their talent. Gifted programs and aid are available to people who can prove their worth. But if you want to learn a musical instrument and you lack the finances to make that happen, it’s much harder to find out if you’re good enough to get into an advanced program, let alone the local youth orchestra. Many of the kids getting those opportunities had the cash to explore any talent they have at an even younger age. Our predilection to ignore that basic, crucial fact and chalk it up to “talent” is laughable.
Nothing is inherently wrong with nonprofits; the problem arises when one that provides a unique service shutters, and there’s nothing left to fill that void. We can’t force donors to open new music schools, let alone keep the ones we have alive.
This country has no uniform system in place for kids to just “pick up and play.” Turtle Bay Music School was among a handful of institutions that represented perhaps the closest thing to that, and now it’s gone.
James Bennett, II is a staff writer at WQXR who covers classical music.