While music is a gift that can positively change lives anywhere, a quality music education is too often limited to those who can afford expensive private lessons. But the young men and women who volunteer at Songcatchers in New Rochelle are trying to change that. The organization offers one-on-one and small-group after-school music lessons for $8 per lesson, making it an affordable option for county residents.
“The young people are absolutely wonderful,” says Sr. Beth Dowd, founding director of Songcatchers, regarding the high school and college students who provide lessons to area elementary and middle school students.
Songcatchers began when Dowd finished teaching music at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School in New Rochelle in 1993. The organization began teaching in 1997 with 35 children and just eight volunteers. Today, enrollment is more than 100 children with the help of 60 volunteers teaching them each year. “And we really need all of them,” Dowd says.
The organization currently offers lessons in 12 musical instruments, and five professional musicians help mentor the volunteer instructors with the curriculum and teaching techniques. Dowd recruits volunteers through connections at local high schools, where she visits students to discuss the program. But many volunteers come from the program itself, having started out as students. One volunteer instructor, Iona College sophomore Nicolette Loaiza, started as a student in the program as a child. She joined the ranks as a volunteer teacher when she was in high school, teaching lessons four to five times a week. “As long as I can keep going, I’m going to keep [volunteering for] Songcatchers,” she says. “It’s like my second home.”
“I think we’ve made a few music teachers out of this,” says Dowd, noting that one former student recently went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in tuba performance — and currently serves as a mentor at the organization.
“We have been uncovering talent that may have never been developed.”
Get Started: Call Songcatchers at 914.654.1178 for more information on volunteering. Instrumental-music knowledge is required, and volunteers should expect to spend a minimum of one hour per week teaching.
Similar Ops: Check out JCY-Westchester Community Partners in Yonkers, the United Way of Westchester and Putnam in White Plains, and Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco.
Nicolette Loaiza, 19, New Rochelle
Songcatchers volunteer Nicolette Loaiza started going to the program as a 7-year-old student, taking violin lessons before moving on to piano lessons, then joining the choir. In middle school, she focused on piano exclusively and found inspiration in the form of her piano teacher at Songcatchers and the friendships she’s made there.
“My first teacher was so important to me in continuing to want to play the piano,” recalls Loaiza, “and it’s where I’ve met most of my friends since I was little.”
Now a sophomore at Iona College, Loaiza devotes Wednesdays and Saturdays to teaching music to students in the program, located in the basement of St. Gabriel’s Church. Before classes began at Iona this fall, Loaiza spent most of the summer at the program, teaching young children violin in the mornings, helping out with choir camp during lunch breaks and teaching piano in the afternoons. She has taught children ranging in age from 4 to 13.
Teaching children at Songcatchers has also influenced Loaiza’s career aspirations. “I’d like to work with little kids or be a guidance counselor,” she says.