Technology is changing the way music is taught and Westchester County’s oldest community music school knows it needs to keep up.
To do that, the Music Conservatory of Westchester announced it would use a $500,000 state grant to expand and update its school facilities in White Plains. The funds, offered as a challenge grant, will cover half of the costs for the school to build a piano technology lab, recording studio and rooms for percussion, jazz, ensembles and music therapy.
The focus of the facilities upgrade will be on creating technology-focused music instruction, school officials said.
Joel Breitkopf, president of the board of trustees for the nonprofit school, said the conservatory recognized the learning and rehearsing of music had evolved and “so we too must evolve to meet the music education demands of the Westchester community.”
The school’s expansion, as described by Executive Director Jean Newton, is phase three of the organization’s ongoing construction of its 36,000-square-foot school on Central Avenue in White Plains.
Founded in a private home by a group of musicians in 1929, the conservatory moved to its current site in 2001. A multiyear fundraising campaign raised nearly $8 million for an interior renovation of the three-story building. The school added teaching spaces, administrative offices and a central lobby. A recital hall and additional studio space were included in the project’s second phase.
Phase three now will tackle about 4,000 square feet of undeveloped space on the school’s third floor.
The school features 34 teaching studios, including three dedicated to music therapy. The conservatory also shares the building with the Steffi Nossen School of Dance, which has been a tenant since the building was renovated in 2001.
The conservatory’s more than 80 instructors provide music courses to about 2,700 students each year. The conservatory offers a mix of one-on-one instruction, early childhood classes, music theory, adult classes and performing ensembles.
As a community music school, the conservatory “welcomes everybody,” Newton said. “Students of all ages, all skill levels. Our youngest are babies and the oldest students are in their mid- to late-80s.”
The school is one of only 16 non-degree granting music schools in the country to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. Only two other non-degree community music schools in New York state have the accreditation.
Conservatory students have gone on to pursue music professionally. The school’s former students include international concert pianist Garrick Ohlsson and New York Philharmonic flutist Mindy Kaufman. But Newton said that’s not the main role of the school.
“While we have students who are performing at the highest levels of the music business, the majority of our students, really everybody who comes here, these are the kids who are going to grow up to fill the concert halls,” Newton said. “We’re nurturing music lovers, future audiences and supporters of the arts.”
The conservatory also provides music therapy to around 1,900 children and adults each year. With a staff of 12 certified music therapists, the school can provide music-focused treatment programs for a range of disabilities, including Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s and head injuries.
For autism spectrum disorders, for example, therapists can use a child’s natural affinity to music to help nurture social skills, speech and emotional development.
The conservatory can provide those services at its school or at facilities such as nursing homes, where Newton said staffers often report calmer and more cooperative residents following a music therapy session.
In 2013, Breitkopf worked with the conservatory to launch Healing Our Heroes, a program that provides music therapy to military veterans in the New York metro region with a variety of psychological and physical injuries sustained on active duty.
A focus of the upgrade at the school will be adding to its music therapy facilities, which Newton said are “maxed out.”
While the school had targeted its lower level for an upgrade for some time, Newton said it became clear over the past three years what needs would have to be addressed.
“We wouldn’t need any more rooms for private lessons,” she said. “We needed rooms that would house groups of people. And we wanted facilities that would be technology oriented.”
That includes a new percussion studio and new electronic piano lab. The piano lab will feature networked pianos, which allow the instructor to move from instrument to instrument and listen in to an individual student’s progress in a group setting. The lab will also be equipped with music engineering software for composition.
A new large group rehearsal studio will feature a recording booth, allowing conservatory students and outside groups to record music for the first time at the facility.
“But even more than that, it will enable us to teach recording engineering,” Newton said. “Which many people are interested in, many young people especially. And for teens who are interested in sound production as a career, to have some professional-level experience in high school could be very useful.”
The additional space will allow the school to take on more students for its programming, Newton said, while also offering additional group learning options, which provide a more affordable alternative to one-on-one instruction.
The $1 million project is expected to be completed by the end of 2020. The conservatory expects to start fundraising for its half of the $500,000 challenge grant in 2018.