On a recent evening in a second-floor room of the University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, Joshua Pongsitiphon tries out the final chords of a funeral march on a slightly out-of-tune piano. His teacher, Katharine Batchelor, sits next to him on the piano bench. She asks him how the new piece feels.
“Difficult,” Joshua says.
“I think it’s difficult,” Katharine says in agreement. “Do you think it’s achievable?”
“Yeah, give me a week,” Joshua says, laughing.
Batchelor knows how to encourage the fifteen-year-old student. She’s been teaching Joshua and his younger brother Josiah for nearly seven years.
“It has been really neat to see how much they’ve grown,” she said. “They’ve really honestly outgrown my ability to teach them.”
Weekly piano lessons over the course of seven years could have cost Joshua’s family anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000. With help from Chapel Hill nonprofit Musical Empowerment, they paid nothing. The organization recruits college student volunteers to teach kids private lessons for free.
“If we have to spend money, maybe we cannot send them to a class like this,” said Joshua’s father, Jimmy Schwe.
Schwe is a member of an ethnic minority persecuted by the military government of his native Burma. He and his wife fled to the United States with their sons about eight years ago.
“As a refugee family, when we enter into this country, our financials were not very good,” he said. “So when they offer the class like this, it can also help us, too.”
Meredith Richard, executive director of Musical Empowerment, said private music lessons are “really a privilege.”
“They’re very expensive, and time-consuming, and so there’s a huge gap between the kids who can take paid private lessons,” she said, “and most kids from low-income families cannot afford to have a private lesson teacher.”
Students are referred to Musical Empowerment by elementary and middle school social workers and teachers. Since it was founded 15 years ago, the organization has grown to include more than 130 student-teacher pairs.
“It can be so meaningful for a child to have this college student who is really just focused on them, getting to know them, helping them to learn and achieve something with music, and also just these life skills,” Richard said. “And that will translate into so many other areas of their life.”
Researchers have found connections between learning a musical instrument and improved academic outcomes. One study led by Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern University, found that music instruction improves children’s memory, focus, and communication ability -- and that it could narrow the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.
Ann Daaleman has seen some of the benefits of Musical Empowerment’s private music instruction in her classroom. She teaches orchestra at Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill. Many of her students can’t afford private music lessons, she said.
“I can imagine what it feels like to be in a position where you see children who have everything, and you don’t have those things available to you,” she said. “And just -- it would be kind of defeating, to feel like, well, I can never be as good as them, because I don’t have these things in my life.
Daaleman talks about a little girl who came to orchestra with much ability on the violin, because she had been taking lessons through Musical Empowerment. But the student had some difficulty in school.
“She just had gorgeous bowing which made such a nice sound, and that’s from her lessons,” she said. “And so when I told her, can you model your bowing for the rest of the class, she looked shocked -- like, you want me to do something to show the rest of the class? And from that day on, she had a real confidence in orchestra that I think hopefully has helped her to be more confident in her other classes.
Music has inspired a similar kind of confidence in Alexa, who is nine years old. The fourth-grader has been taking violin lessons with a Musical Empowerment volunteer for three years.
“I’m happy that I have lessons,” she said. “Because if I didn’t have violin I feel like I’d be so stressed out .... It makes me feel like I can do anything in the world.
Musical Empowerment recently started chapters at Wake Forest University and N.C. State. And the program’s executive director hopes to expand the non-profit’s low-cost model of music instruction to other campuses in upcoming years.