Community Stories

Building Community Through Music

Read how Great Bend Center for Music fulfills their mission: music that builds community.

Ask Matthew Melendez why a preschooler should take online music classes through Great Bend Center for Music and you get a string of rapid-fire answers.

Increased vocabulary and listening skills. Exposure to teamwork and collaboration. Learning to respond to expectations and to take turns. Getting used to starting a task and following through (ie: homework practice).

During the early childhood music classes the nonprofit launched during the pandemic, Melendez also observed kids learning leadership skills, no matter how inclined they were toward music.

Otters Showing Their Notes, Great Bend Center for Music

Otters Showing Their Notes, Great Bend Center for Music

“They all got to find something that was their big contribution, where they got to be a leader in the class,” he says. “I think music makes that possible for kids in a way that most other subjects do not. The classes, by their very nature, function as training wheels for school readiness.”

Kids in the youngest group—the Otter Pod—spent half an hour daily in a virtual classroom (with a caregiver nearby), learning music through repetition, movement, ear training, pattern identification, music reading skills, and more. They were often asked to bring their favorite stuffed animal or puppet for counting games.

All of this is great for their brains.

The Unexpected Possibilities of Online Learning

Melendez is the founder and general director of the Union-based nonprofit, celebrated for its award-winning, non-auditioned community chorale. They also run a youth chorale and host singing-based events, such as their popular Beer Choir gatherings. Their flagship chorale is so accomplished that within months of its first performances, the ensemble was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall.

Melendez is quick to acknowledge, however, that the wild success of his choirs can obscure the organization's broader mission: to build community through music.

Since its inception, Great Bend Center for Music has looked toward creating programs that strengthen bonds between people. With that in mind, they aim to go far beyond their reputation as a choir-only enterprise. In fact, they were well on their way to implementing a community-wide music education program, complete with volunteers primed to deliver programs in local schools, when the pandemic took hold.

When Melendez realized they could no longer gather in person, the organization threw its energy into developing and teaching superb online music education classes for children and youth. They were shocked to discover the endless possibilities of online learning—and by the quick results.

Typically, an instructor in a class of pre-K or K-1 students devotes a lot of class time to behavior management before any real learning can happen.

But three-year-olds can sit in front of an iPad for thirty minutes, no problem. With kids nestled in familiar settings—and physically separated from other kids—Melendez could almost completely bypass behavior interventions and dive straight into the topic. Kids learned at a pace that far surpassed his expectations.

“I wasn’t anticipating that,” he says. “I can’t believe we made this much progress. They now read music better than my adult choristers. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Because of the program’s success, they’re planning to scale up. The classes already attract families from Mason, Lewis, Pierce, and King counties, and he’d like to expand even more. As schools open up, he’s envisioning a few trained musicians and a crew of volunteer docents who can help facilitate hybrid classes that incorporate the best aspects of online and in-person learning. In fact, they just hired three more teachers last month. During the 2021-22 school year, Great Bend plans to offer classes for preschool age (Otter Pod), K-1 students (Seal Pod), as well as classes for upper elementary and middle school students.

Music Can Do Even More

As exciting as their educational project is, Melendez envisions something even more far-reaching: a better social experience for the entire community through music-inspired social connections and mutual support.

Matthew Melendez, Great Bend Center for Music

“Our mission is to use music as a community development tool,” he says. “I don’t want to diminish performance—it’s of huge value as an art form. But I want to explore [questions like] how do we use it to reduce loneliness in seniors, which is endemic? How do we use it to create social capital in our community so information flows better and we’re better able to respond to economic crises? How do we use music to address homelessness?

“You can’t address that stuff through policy alone. You can only manage it. The social issues that underlie those problems—people feeling like they’re not in a place where they belong, feeling like they’re not wanted, feeling like they don’t have a connection to the community—you can’t solve that with a needle-exchange program; you can’t solve that with a shelter—even though these are vital programs. You can begin getting at it with a homeless choir that builds connection amongst people.”

Through their programs, it all starts with building social connections—in a choir, online, in a classroom, or at a bar. It’s about building bridges, he says. “We have more in common than we know.”

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