Bringing music to the community in an affordable way
Violinist Marji Gere and pianist Dan Sedgwick are the co-directors of Around Hear, an organization that aims to accessibly enrich the city of Somerville with the art of music. They bring free concerts and music lessons to low-income residents, inviting people to “gather, listen, and learn.” I connected with Marji and Dan to ask them about the programs that they’ve created and how they’ve continued to pursue this form of expression.
Around Hear was created in 2017. How did you know that you wanted to create a music program together, and what was the inspiration for it?
I (Marji) got a grant from the Somerville Arts Council in the spring of 2017 to design and perform a city-wide tour of community programs as a violin soloist. The twelve performances I gave during that tour brought me in contact with many different, wonderful after-school programs and other community programs around Somerville, but the highlight of the whole experience was the set of visits I made to the Mystic Learning Center, which is based in the Somerville Housing Authority’s Mystic Activity Center. It should have been no surprise that I would feel most at home at the Mystic; I had volunteered with the the Welcome Project (based in the same building as the Mystic Learning Center) since 2014, and had gotten to know the scene at the Mystic pretty well already, and I knew I liked it. I received another grant in the fall of 2017 (from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in Boston) to offer more free community concerts in Somerville, and it made sense to partner again with the Mystic Learning Center and the Somerville Housing Authority to make those happen. Knowing that any long-term artistic project would need to involve Dan (my main collaborator and husband), Dan and I worked with Florence Bergmann, the (now-retired) director of the Mystic Learning Center and other powers-that-be at the Housing Authority to get a grand piano donated to the Mystic Activity Center. The experience of working with Florence and other tireless Mystic leaders to succeed at that challenge, and then to establish a regular free concert series and free music lessons program, has been the most rewarding experience of our professional lives.
You offer free community concerts and art based social and educational events. Can you describe what these are usually like and what draws you to the music you perform?
Since the spring of 2017, Around Hear has held free public Community Concerts at the Mystic Activity Center, a community center based in the Somerville Housing Authority. In our planning and implementation of these events, we consider the comfort and happiness of audience members of all ages and life experiences: in order to facilitate and enhance listening, we pair music with elements of theater, storytelling, visual art, puppetry, or dance; we provide printed programs in Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and English; our programming features our students and other artists of color and their creative work; we strive to create a stigma-free space where people are welcome to move, create artwork, come and go, and yes, even express themselves audibly as they listen.
A goal of this concert series is to create a longstanding community ritual of gathering for free, fun, high-quality, uplifting, inclusive public musical events in the Somerville Housing Authority. By providing irresistible, eclectic, unique programming, prioritizing access for low-income residents to these events, and welcoming music lovers and other curious people from around the Boston metro area, we hope that Around Hear will help to break down socio-economic, racial, cultural, and generational barriers that exist in our society.
Around Hear also provides free individual music lessons to low-income Somerville residents. Can you tell us what you enjoy about teaching, your approach to education, and what it means to be serving this particular community?
It is widely understood by music educators that regular, one-on-one instruction is essential to musical mastery. While affluent Somervillians may choose to enroll their children in private lessons, this option is prohibitively expensive for Somerville’s low-income residents. Consequently, despite the school district’s efforts to make arts instruction inclusive and accessible, there exists an artistic achievement gap in the school and city cultures.
The primary objective of Around Hear is to address that gap by providing free, weekly, individual musical instruction, performance opportunities, and concerts, and to make those experiences accessible by offering them in the Mystic Activity Center, based in the Somerville Housing Authority’s largest public housing development. Currently, we meet with 24 students, ranging from age 6-70+, for individual lessons each week.
As teachers, we continue to embrace the challenging, joyful work of helping each student find their own, meaningful way into music. Each week, we strive to provide opportunities for our students to expand their musical horizons, use their musical instruments to tap into their family and cultural traditions, and explore personal interests. It’s fun work that requires patience, humor, and commitment from everyone involved.
I know that Marji is a violinist and Dan is a pianist. What have your experiences as musicians been like and how did you first learn these instruments?
We both were lucky to grow up in families with parents who played musical instruments and listened to lots of music at home, and in cities with strong public school music programs: Marji in Davenport, IA, and Dan in Worcester, MA. We had the opportunities to play in a variety of high school ensembles: orchestra, band, jazz band, and other small groups. While Marji focused on violin and Dan on piano, we were also encouraged to explore other instruments: Marji played percussion and piano; Dan played French horn and guitar. We both went on to study music in college (Marji majored in violin performance and English, Dan in composition), and we were both also lucky to find our way to the summer festival of the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, in Nelson, NH in the late 1990s, where we met and began playing chamber music together.
You have a concert coming up just before Valentine’s Day. Can you share a bit about what this performance will be like?
Thanks for asking! Our next free Around Hear community concert is scheduled for the afternoon of Saturday, February 12 at the Mystic Activity Center (530 Mystic Ave). For this event, we’re trying something new: while we play music from 2-5 p.m., audience members are welcome to come and go as they wish, to stay for just a moment or for as long as they’d like. We’ll provide our usual communal drawing paper and crayons, plus some valentines to write on in response to the music, or audience members may bring their own art, writing, knitting (etc.! etc.!) materials to enjoy while they listen. We’ll be playing the complete sonatas for piano and violin by Johannes Brahms—the most romantic music we know of! For safety reasons, attendance for this event is limited. If you’d like to come, please RSVP here.
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.