Connecting the Musical Dots… Helping to Create the Northampton Community Music Center and Building
by Meg Kelsey Wright
When I look back at the progression of events in my life, it’s so interesting to see the pattern that emerges, almost as if there was a clear plan unfolding…
Before moving to Northampton in June of 1978, I was one of the first teachers at The New School of Music in Cambridge, MA, where I taught piano and started their Young Child program. I also went to Nantucket Island on the weekends, where I ran a music program that included pre-instrumental programs for children, piano, chamber music groups, and an adult recorder consort group. Then, in June of 1978, I moved to Northampton to be with my now husband, Jonathan. I think it was he who introduced me to friends who wanted to start a Community Music School, right here in Northampton.
We began meeting in each other’s living rooms, sharing and developing ideas about how such a School might happen. What did the Community need? What programs might be offered, and for whom? We decided to call it the Northampton Community Music CENTER rather than School, because we envisioned it as a more broadly-based Community Center in years to come. We have in fact had the opportunity to host programs such as the Gay Men’s Chorus, the Alzheimer’s Project, and various vocal groups, among others. As I look back on the past 36 years of NCMC, it is clear that we have become a Community Center for our city of Northampton, and the larger region.
We opened our doors and programs in the fall of 1986. The first classes were held in the living room of one of our founders, at the Unitarian Society, and in other locations around the City of Northampton.
What programs did we offer then? Well, I was tapped to start the first Young Child, pre-instrumental program. I had done this twice before, and by 1985 my husband and I had a beautiful little girl who joined our family. When she was 2 ½ years old, she brought two little sticks in from the front yard and said, “This is my little violin!” I knew it was time for that pre-instrumental program to begin.
Kitty Hay, a flutist and friend, co-taught the first Young Child classes with me, and together, in 1988, we designed a 30-week program that we named “Music Discoveries”. The classes included folk songs from around the world, rhythm games, and visiting instrumentalists, including children studying Suzuki who played their tiny violins and cellos for the children in our classes. My own little girl, and then her brother and sister, Kitty’s two young daughters, and many of their friends all joined those first classes, which grew and then included many other children in the community. So, it was an unfolding process.
After a few years, those young children were getting a little older. Because we had musicians come and play for them, the children became interested in learning to play those instruments. And so the Suzuki program began to grow at NCMC. As they became more proficient, it became time to start a chamber music & ensemble program. The teenagers who were studying various instruments also needed a chamber music program. I partnered with oboist and friend Catalina Arrubla in designing this program. We started a Chamber Music Camp in the summer of 1992, and had groups and workshops within that summer program, which then grew into a year-round chamber music program that continues to this day.
Then, because I am in general a daily swimmer, I began meeting former musicians at the Y. And I kept meeting other people too - at the grocery store and at gatherings of friends and neighbors - all with an interest in playing music. It became necessary for a chamber music program to be created to connect the adult chamber players who were then returning to their instruments, or even starting to study for the first time. The Chamber Connection was born, in about 1996.
Since I also taught piano and had students of all ages, I realized that the younger ones had chamber music programs and people to get together with in community. But the adult pianists had no program to bring them together. So, the Piano Connection program was born in 2000. We met monthly, kind of like a Book Group, but with a piano focus. We had shared repertoire, and a year-long theme to tie the repertoire program together. Some of the over-arching themes included: “Dancing at the Keyboard: 300 years of Dance-Inspired Piano Repertoire” and “For the Birds! An Aviary of Pieces from Baroque to Contemporary” in style.
This year the theme is “Diversity”, and we are working with repertoire by Black composers, African composers, women composers, and others. We put together a concert video, which was recorded live with each pianist masked because of the pandemic, and had it professionally recorded by Jason Trotta, our wonderful director at NCMC. It was broadcast through NCMC in late January of this year, and is still available to enjoy through Youtube. Our concert video was offered as a gift to the larger Community, as well as a donation opportunity for those who watched the concert. The Piano Connection has grown to a group of about 15 adult pianists, and a few of the members have been with us since the start, in 2000. Under normal circumstances, we have played “for our own amazement”, and for others at area retirement communities and at nursing homes in the area, as part of the NCMC Alzheimer’s outreach program.
And so the creation of programs for and at NCMC has been an organic process, over many years. And it has been my great joy to be part of the creation of some of those programs. We have moved from being a disparate group of teachers and students of all ages, to becoming a Community Center, far beyond what we could have imagined. There is a whole world to explore from here, into the future. Let’s do it!