KEYS changes children’s lives with music

Kids Empowered by Your Support (KEYS) gives free music lessons to children in Bridgeport schools, teaching them to play instruments with one-to-one lessons by experienced music teachers. There is a KEYS orchestra and band, which can be heard every Saturday during the school year at the Klein Auditorium, 910 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport.

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Kids can be empowered by your support on Saturday, June 6, at 8 p.m. at a KEYS Jazz Band concert. Performers are from the Bassick High School Band, students of KEYS instructor Matthew DeTroy. There’ll be jazz, song and special guest performers. A $50 donation will benefit KEYS. The Jazz Concert is at Talmadge Hill Community Church, 870 Hollow Tree Ridge Road, Darien. For reservations, visit keysmusic.org.

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KEYS students are underserved children who otherwise would never have access to music lessons and it was to connect them to the joys of music that Rob Silvan started KEYS in 2004. He is a jazz musician, composer, music educator for over 35 years and KEYS executive director. KEYS started with four fourth graders at the Columbus School in Bridgeport. There was no music program, not even a piano. The only space was under a stairwell.

“When we started giving music lessons, kids came up and asked ‘What are you doing? We want to do it, too.’ Today, KEYS has taught over 500 Bridgeport youngsters in 14 schools and there’s a waiting list,” Silvan said.

Gina Wilson of Ridgefield is the new president of the KEYS board.

Gina Wilson of Ridgefield is the new president of the KEYS board. — Lois Alcosser photo

The latest good news for KEYS is that Gina Wilson has just been elected KEYS board president. She is a gifted pianist, a high-energy Ridgefield resident involved with many cultural activities. Introducing young people to music comes to her naturally. She is the founder of the Western Connecticut Youth Orchestra and was executive director for seven years. From 2009 to 2014, she was executive director of the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra. She has been the accompanist for The Ridgefield Chorale for over 10 years. She is a person of vision and a highly valued community resource.

Silvan said, “We are thrilled to have Gina Wilson accept the role as President of our Board of Directors. With her past experience and devotion to bringing music to students, she is a natural fit to help KEYS strengthen and expand our role in providing music education to deserving and underserved student populations in Bridgeport.”

Wilson joined the KEYS Board in 2014 and served as director and on the KEYS Development Committee. She said, “I am grateful to the KEYS board for the vote of confidence in electing me as President. I look forward to working with the board, Rob, and the KEYS staff to help position KEYS to meet the growing demand for its services.

“ It was my undying desire to be a jazz pianist that connected me to KEYS,” she says. “I was raised classically, but I always wanted to play jazz. I started taking lessons with Rob and he must have figured out that I was the founder of a youth orchestra. He asked me to join KEYS. That’s how it all began.”

There’s much documentation about what music can do for a child. Musical instrument instruction enhances fine motor skills, improves recall and retention of verbal information, advances math achievement, strengthens perseverance. KEYS proves all this is true, and more.

KEYS first funding came from Talmadge Hill Community Church in Darien, where Silvan is music director. Funding comes from private donations, grants and concerts. The first teachers came from the Westport Suzuki School. “There’s quite a network of accomplished musicians around,” said Wilson. “They learn about KEYS through word-of-mouth. We now have 30 teachers. They each have remarkable backgrounds (see Our Teachers at keysmusic.org).

“There’s a youth orchestra in Bridgeport but prior to this year they have never had anyone from Bridgeport. It’s an orchestra requiring auditions and those who were accepted all came from somewhere else. Now, because of KEYS training, there are several Bridgeport KEYS students in the orchestra.

“Music requires discipline,” Wilson said. “ It ends feelings of isolation, improves grades, and truly empowers children who grow up in poverty. The changes that occur are amazing. KEYS lessons are during school hours. The children are taken out of class for their music lessons. They have to sign a contract that they will make up their classwork. They have to be the sort of student who can make up their classwork. Instruments belong to KEYS and they go back and forth. Gently used instruments are always welcome. We just received a grant that lets us buy 12 child-size violins. Deprivation of music for kids is terrible. Music is one of the best ways to empower children.”

“KEYS is based loosely on a system that came out of Venezuela, El Sistema, dedicated to using music to better your life,” Wilson said. “Music defies age, gender, and economics. Our orchestra and band are non-audition. Anyone can join. Sometimes it’s hard for kids to get to the Saturday morning concerts at the Klein Auditorium. Our policy is ‘Come when you can.’  We get instruments through grants and donations. At the Chorale Holiday Concert we had an instrument drive. Gently used instruments are always welcome.

“We’re in a visionary time right now. We know we want to partner with other organizations. That kind of outreach is important because it spreads the word and helps us give our students more performance experience.”

Rob Silvan founded KEYS because he believes that all children deserve to have music: “ In towns like Ridgefield, Wilton, Westport, kids have options. In Bridgeport, there are no options. There are 20,000 children in Bridgeport and 90% of them qualify for school lunches. Music is considered an unnecessary luxury. The creative arts are the first thing cut from school budgets.”

KEYS makes music a part of these children’s lives. Being a professional musician isn’t the destination of most kids, no matter where they’re from, though many KEYS students are eminently qualified to become professionals. For all KEYS students, the most important result is self-esteem. “They say you have to play 10 years to be proficient. KEYS is the first step,” Wilson said. To see and hear KEYS students performing, go to keysmusic.org.

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