The Sky’s the Limit for Música Franklin Students

Singer-songwriter Orice Jenkins trained in classical music composition, recorded four CDs styled in jazz, soul, and hip-hop, and performed with bands touring North America.

Now, as the executive director of Música Franklin in Greenfield, a pint-sized eight-year-old, Izabella, is among Jenkins’s musical stars.

“She can play violin better than me right now. She makes me want to practice more!” he laughs.

Izabella is just one of 50 youngsters attending Música Franklin’s afterschool programs in Greenfield and Turners Falls. Students meet three-four days per week to learn singing, drumming, and violin, viola, cello, or bass. Talented teaching artists lead the classes. Monthly concerts (and the meals served after) are free for all community members to attend.

Photo: Música Franklin students [Credit: Sean Elligers]

The program is modeled after El Sistema, “the gold standard for music education in economically distressed areas,” Jenkins says. “Everything is as accessible as possible.” Programs are free, instruments are provided, and there are no auditions. Added Jenkins, “El Sistema brought in the idea of teaching music that inspires social change.”

So, on any day you might find Música Franklin students delving into jazz, cultural folk songs, or classical music. Weekly discussions explore the intersection of music and social justice and the contributions of musicians from diverse backgrounds. That’s important, says Jenkins, since 60% of Música Franklin students identify as Black or Latino/a/x.

He said, “In places like Franklin County where the population is overwhelmingly white, some people don’t expect much from Black and Brown children because of the systemic racism that plagues our society…it’s our job as educators to let all children know that anything is possible for them. The sky’s the limit. Whatever they work hard at, they can attain…So we give children and their families a place to be themselves, feel welcome, and not be judged.”

Many school districts around the country have defunded music and the arts, so schools lack orchestras, bands, or choirs. According to Jenkins, that’s why Música Franklin’s founder, Vicki Citron, chose the Leyden Woods community in Greenfield as the first site for music classes seven years ago. She wanted to bring music instruction to children who may have lacked the means to pay for private music lessons or the transportation to get to them.

Grants from the Community Foundation provided vital support to Música Franklin when COVID-19 hit.

“Providing opportunity for Black and brown children to find their voice through art education is racial equity work.,” said Jeffrey Markham Jr., program officer at the Community Foundation. “Upending unconscious racial biases by subverting expectations seeds the ground for systems level change.”

According to Jenkins, during the pandemic, Música Franklin was one of the few area children’s programs that remained open. It held classes in Peskeompskut Park in Turners Falls, on the porch of one of its teaching artists, and virtually. Now, social distancing precautions remain in place and new staff are on board to accommodate the surge in enrollment.

Photo: Música Franklin students [Credit: Sean Elligers]

As gratifying as it is to see children at Música Franklin experience the joy of singing and learning an instrument, Jenkins is even more impressed by their improvements in academics.

He says, “When they learn the instruments, lyrics, and how to sing songs, their critical thinking, language and math skills, and memories improve. We have them singing in seven different languages!”

Izabella has two other sisters in Música Franklin’s program, and their mother is a loyal parent who attends every concert.

“She really understands the value of the program,” Jenkins says proudly. “That’s why she keeps sending her children to us.”