Armed with a grant, a local YMCA jump-started a music education program that keeps on growing
By Samantha House
The YMCA has a reputation for encouraging good health through exercise and athletic development. But to Hank Leo and countless kids, it is so much more. “The” Y is often perceived as just a gym, a weight room. But the body isn’t the only focus,” Leo says. “We also try to nurture the spirit and the mind.” And one way the Y tries to care for young minds is through music.
For the past eight years, the YMCA of the Greater Tri-Valley, with branches in Oneida and Rome, has provided its community with music lessons. Leo, executive director of the Oneida YMCA, says the Y provides students the opportunity to learn how to play a variety of instruments, ranging from the guitar to African drums. But in 2008, after three successful years of simply giving music lessons, Leo decided it was time for the program to crescendo into a recording program.
In 2005, Leo requested grant money from the New York Philharmonic. Leo, who has worked for the Oneida branch for the past 16 years, wanted to bring in accomplished artists to teach master classes and record music with the Y’s kids, a wish that required funding. And as soon as the New York Philharmonic Association granted the Oneida YMCA $182,000, Leo put that exact plan into motion with the help of the quintessential American music. “One of the best ways to teach American history is through the history of jazz,” he explains.
Although he doesn’t play any instruments, Leo knows a lot of musicians in the New Orleans area. After contacting some of them, 30 artists agreed to venture nearly 1,500 miles to Rome, N.Y., to make music with Central New York kids. “That’s sort of how the relationship started,” Leo notes.
And come the musicians did, bringing reputations bolstered by various awards. Among them: Grammy winner Jennifer Warnes, known for singing the female half of the famed duets “Up Where We Belong” with Joe Cocker and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” sung with Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers, who also participated. Melba Moore, a Tony Award winner, and Brenda Russell, a Grammy winner and composer of the film score for How Stella Got Her Groove Back, also traveled to New York to lend their expertise to young musicians.
Some artists donated their time to the recording effort while others made their way to New York with the financial aid provided by the grant. Some lent their vocal chords and string-picking fingers while others helped participating kids compose their own songs.
And through sharing their artistic knowledge, the professionals gave the budding musicians an insiders’ point of view. “It’s a level of expertise,” Leo says. “It’s someone who can provide insights to kids that they might not get elsewhere.”
Along with making music with and giving lessons to the 150 participating kids, the visiting artists explained why and how they created their music. “Kids were happy to learn the meaning behind a song,” Leo says. “It made them appreciate the music much more.” Thanks to the grant, participating children didn’t have to pay to learn alongside the famed musicians.
Although the musicians only made one trip to Rome, the one-time recording session proved fruitful. In fact, Leo says enough tracks were completed to fill five CDs and enough film was captured to produce a DVD. Since 2005, four CDs have been released, titled Mission Driven: Live From Rome Free Academy, The Big Easy Connection, Collaborations II: Jazz and Hope Is In Me: A Musical Journey and A YMCA Christmas. Included with that latter CD is a DVD documentary of the same title.
In Leo’s opinion, the recording journey was a great success. “The ultimate goal was to provide kids with a great experience and raise money for our program,” he says. “It was an incredible project.” The Feel Good Film Festival agrees. The documentary Hope Is In Me: A Musical Journey was a finalist in the 2011 Feel Good Film Festival, a California-based outfit that recognizes happy, amusing films at its annual showcase.
Although no plans exist to reunite and record with the New Orleans musicians, Leo says a few of the musicians— like Amanda Shaw—have returned to the Oneida YMCA to teach clinics.
Recently, Leo says, his YMCA’s music program was asked to record “Bells of Love,” the theme song for a missing children awareness campaign in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
While the program hasn’t recorded new material since 2005, the Oneida YMCA continues to nurture its community’s spirits through music lessons. The lessons, ranging from guitar to vocal lessons, are available to students of all ages for $20 for a 30 minute lesson, $30 for a 45 minute less and $40 for a 60 minute lesson. And according to Leo, people continuously contact him to express interest and share ideas for future recording projects. “It’s perpetuating itself,” Leo says. “It keeps going.”
For a more information on the YMCA of the Greater Tri-Valley’s music program and available music lessons, visit ymcatrivalley.org or call 363-7788, Ext. 232.