Matvey Soykin rolls his alto saxophone, tied to a small metal dolly, around Paine Hall, home to the Harvard Music Department. A tall, lanky nine-year-old, Soykin may well weigh less than his instrument, and the sight of him pulling the case along, as if walking a large dog, is especially endearing as he walks down the hallway of austere practice rooms usually occupied by virtuosic Harvard musicians.
For the past year, Soykin has taken saxophone lessons with David A. Armenta ’17 through the Phillip Brooks House Association Harvard and Radcliffe Musical Outreach to Neighborhood Youth Mentoring program, which offers free private music lessons to Cambridge public school students. Matvey’s mother, Alisa T. Apreleva, never thought she would be able to find a saxophone teacher willing to take on such a young student—or who charged affordable fees. But when she received an email publicizing HARMONY, Apreleva gave it a shot. “I didn't think it would work,” she says, “but I just wrote ‘saxophone’ as the instrument [on the application form]…. And suddenly, there was David.”
HARMONY is one of around 10 student groups at Harvard that fall under the umbrella of arts service organizations. These groups vary in size, media, intended audience, and mission, from Harvard Artistz’s (HARTZ) 10 undergraduates bringing visual arts activities to the Cambridge Rehabilitation Nursing Center to CityStep’s 30 to 40 undergraduates and around 100 Cambridge public school students clapping, jumping, and stomping their way through original choreography.
Incorporating art into community outreach poses its unique challenges—most notably, ensuring that art-making’s technical aspect does not become a barrier between student artists and the people with whom they want to connect. The relationships and experiences these organizations make, however, also offer unique fulfillment. As the roles of service and art in society remain under debate, Harvard’s art service initiatives continue to evolve and expand, broadening arts access in surrounding communities and, in turn, shaping campus artistic life.
Student who participate in community outreach through art come from all concentrations and artistic backgrounds. Many became involved as a way to exercise their skills in a more casual setting and as a component of their general interests in public service.
Emma F. Stone ’19 didn’t have space in her freshman fall semester schedule for visual art classes, so she joined Harvard College Stories for Orphans to continue making art. She took a gap year before matriculating, in which she spent interning with an artist who illustrated story books. “I just want to constantly be doing or [be] engaged with the arts despite whether my academics or concentration involves [arts specifically]—just to constantly have that as an outlet,” she says. Stone had also done service work before, though none that actively incorporated the arts. Now, as artistic director for Stories for Orphans, she is using her talent to illustrate and edit personalized picture books for orphans around the world.
Rose M. Whitcomb ’16 has wanted to become a music educator since her senior year of high school, as her formative years of band and orchestra drew to a close. She spent two summers at Harvard directing Summer HARMONY, leading fellow undergraduates as they taught basic musical theory to students across PBHA’s Summer Urban Program. “Music has been a part of my life ever since I was small,” she says. “It’s a space where people come together…. And just watching how excited people were about what I was doing, let alone my own excitement, I knew this was something I wanted to continue.” Upon graduating with an A.B. in music, Whitcomb decided to stay in Cambridge, where she now works as a substitute teacher at Prospect Hill Academy, helping to restart the school’s drumline program.
Whitcomb’s desire to grant others access to art-making experiences as profound as her own is a motivation other volunteers and mentors widely share. Armenta has played saxophone for about 10 years, during which music has not only helped him develop discipline and rigor applicable to every aspect of his life but also served as a method of introspection. “There are a lot of moments when you stop and think, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I spending hundreds of hours learning this?’... and you're forced to figure out why you're doing it. I think a lot of times the answer you come up with is useful for the rest of your life.” Private lessons were essential to Armenta’s growth as a musician, but he realizes their prohibitive costs. “If I could offer whatever I can to people for free—at least help a young student grow and sort of expand their base of musical knowledge—I think that's a really cool thing to be able to do,” he says.
Those interviewed also overwhelmingly mentioned the opportunity to deeply connect with people as one of the most gratifying aspects of what they do. The enjoyment generated by the experience of dancing, singing, or painting together nurtures familiarity in a way that other types of service may not be able to. “For me, a lot of people look at volunteering as a chore or something you don't want to do but should do out of the goodness of your heart,” says Missy J. Dreier ’19, a co-director of PBHA’s Student Theater Advancing Growth and Empowerment program. “But I think for me, it's never really felt that way. I think of volunteering as something you should want to do and be excited about, and for me that kind of manifests in bridging my interests in theater and my love of kids with doing STAGE, which is something I love to do.”
Even as Stories for Orphans literally ships picture books across the world, art creates an extremely personal space: Each orphan sends a biography from which their writer-illustrator team crafts a narrative. “It's a way to connect with someone whom you would never know from any other aspect of life,” writing director Lance M. Johnson ’17 says. “It shows [the orphans] that they are important as individuals, that their unique qualities and preferences matter.”
Fellow writing director Andrea N. Colon-Perez ’18 agrees. “I feel like... you can kind of connect to the child instead of just doing something for them that might not really connect with…. You can do it better through arts if you have a story or music or crafts or stuff like that... instead of a general ‘I'm going to make food’ or stuff like that.”
For many students volunteering with arts service groups, however, artistic proficiency has required years’ worth of practice. Art’s technical demand raises the question of exactly how to reach out using such specialized activities, especially in the case of underserved or dispossessed communities. Groups that work with the elderly, for example, must navigate interactions with those in drastically different living circumstances, some of who suffer conditions that render even basic physical and verbal communication difficult. Volunteers teaching children who are very young or who do not have the bounty artistic resources many Harvard students have had must find innovative ways to motivate students and provide them with impactful experiences within their means. And looming behind it all is the peril of the unsavory power dynamic, which haunts every service-based interaction but may be especially exacerbated by art-making’s technicality.
Andrew G. Clark, Harvard director of choral activities and a senior lecturer on music, has brought these questions into a formal classroom setting: Last spring, he taught the first iteration of Music 176r, “Music and Disability.” The course’s syllabus spans the literature of music education and therapy, disabilities studies in music and arts activism, and cognitive neuroscience, among other topics; it also incorporates an engaged scholarship component that sends students to shadow various organizations in the greater Boston community providing inclusive art-making opportunities for people with disabilities.
“We were really careful, just for [Music 176r], not to frame this as service or outreach or help,” Clark says. “Our students were simply making music in a new environment, in an unfamiliar context, as a way of reflecting on how music can shape community; how music can contribute—or not—to one's quality of life; and how those experiences… informed their own musical values.”
Clark works closely with Music in Hospitals and Nursing Homes Using Entertainment as Therapy—which, since its founding in 1996, has followed a more traditional music outreach mold. Students arrive at the nursing homes, introduce themselves, perform, speak to the residents for a little, and then leave. After taking Music 176r and working with Clark through Collegium, respectively, MIHNUET vice president Alan Z. Yang ’18 and co-president Ryan B. Song ’17 have begun to reconsider the program’s structure.
“We’ve had wonderful relationships for the past two decades,” Yang says, “but then Dr. Clark's class got me thinking: How can we better engage the seniors? It's better to think about how we can perform with… instead of at or for.” Song and Yang’s brainstorming generated Crooners, which they now co-direct. Crooners is an initiative within MIHNUET in which the senior residents and undergraduates sing together in a circle, sometimes pausing to reflect on what songs mean to them or to listen to student performances and give the seniors’ voices a break. Residents who are nonverbal, unable to read the song lyrics, or unwilling to sing can follow the beat using small percussion instruments provided by MIHNUET.
So far, Song and Yang say, Crooners seems to be going well. But dynamic and impact remain contentious points with which individuals running the programs must constantly grapple.
Whitcomb always keeps music’s inherent limitations and finitude in mind. “It’s not just like… they’re going to have the same experiences that I have,” she says. “Music is such a personal thing to people…. And it’s always something you can worry about late at night: Does this really make a difference, or do these kids really believe in me?.... You question that of yourself too—like, do I really believe in my students? Those kinds of worries are just the nature of this type of work, and you have to confront those questions, otherwise you’re not connecting deeply enough. And they’re also kind of unanswerable. I can’t say whether I did a good job, only the students can really say… not even really in the moment, but years later, whether that program is effective for them or not.”
Despite the constant uncertainty, Whitcomb and her peers persist from moment to moment. “There’s a sense of completeness in that I helped somebody have a good hour of their morning,” she says. “Not that it was bad before, but I could just be part of having a good experience, of having a good moment.”
HARTZ co-director Jang H. Lee ’19 expresses a similar opinion. “It’s not just about the art-making,” he says. “For some of the elderly, they don't even care about drawing or painting, and we're completely fine with them. Some of them just want to talk to us.” He recalls a resident who initially would not participate in the art activities or interact with him at all. As the weeks passed and Lee continued to approach her, she slowly opened up. “Every time she sees me now she smiles and speaks and talks with me,” he says, laughing. “It’s really cute.”
American culture generally regards art as a luxury, a private activity for and accessible to only those with disposable time and income—or at least this belief seems to be the case, if government spending is any indicator. In the past two decades, the government has slashed public funding for in-school arts programs and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA’s budget decreased an astounding 50 percent in 1980, followed by a prolonged decline of over 77 percent to the present day. According to the Atlantic, the overall amount of public art grant money, adjusted for inflation, has decreased by 26 percent since 1995.
While Harvard’s volunteer-staffed arts service organizations operate on relatively low budgets gathered from across various College and PBHA grants, and typically only cover transportation and some materials, the questions remain: Why place art at the focus of service at all? What use do people have for art if they lack homes, food, motor control, a good education, or any of the other immediate needs that well-meaning volunteers could spend their time addressing instead?
André de Quadros, professor of music at Boston University and a mentor to the students in Harvard’s MIHNUET program, regards the last question—and the general attitude toward art as “supplementary”—as misguided. De Quadros has dedicated his life to building musical community: Among other things, he teaches music in state prisons and juvenile detention centers and conducts Common Ground Voices, a choir comprising Israeli, Palestinian, and Swedish musicians. De Quadros points out that Article 27 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the enjoyment of and participation in art a universal right.
“And that is perhaps crucially different from making a case on the basis of needs,” he says. “In order for me to say you… need music… I have to make a judgment about what your needs are. But if you have a right to music, then it's not up to me or anybody to decide.... There's also a needs-based argument, obviously, because we have a hunger for music. And I understand… about food and shelter and all those other things that are critical, but there is no human society, including in circumstances where people are suffering deeply… in which some form of music doesn't exist.” In de Quadros’s view, it is those most lacking in resources—whose engagement in art may be overlooked in the face of more immediate needs—who actually need art the most.
Winfield S. “Scott” Benner can testify to the importance of art, even—or perhaps especially—to the underprivileged. A series of misfortunes struck Benner between 2009 and 2013: The steel company he had been working for laid him off; he was diagnosed with Horner’s Syndrome, an optic nerve inflammation that caused crippling headaches; and his wife, who had been employed on-and-off, was diagnosed with cancer. By October 2013, Benner was living on the streets and spending nights at a shelter in Quincy. To alleviate the monotony and harsh reality of life in the shelter, Benner turned to drawing, his longtime hobby. Upon seeing Benner’s work, a counselor told Benner about a group that had come to his church and sold art by homeless and disabled artists. Benner searched “homeless artists” online and found the website of a company named ArtLifting.
Founded by Liz J. Powers ’10 and her brother Spencer Powers, ArtLifting curates and sells work by underprivileged and homeless artists. When Benner stumbled across it in early 2014, the company had just launched. Benner emailed Powers and, after a few meetings, signed onto the ArtLifting team.
“That was the beginning of the change of my life,” he says. “May of that , I did the City Art show… at the Prudential Center. That was the very first time I ever showed my art in public or intended to sell it, and I made 300-something dollars that afternoon. At that point, I probably hadn't had more than 10 dollars in my pocket at any given time for the last six months…. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can really do something with this art.’” Since that first show, Benner’s art has displayed in a solo exhibition on Newbury Street. He now lives in Maine, where he works on his art full time.
Regaining financial stability was undeniably critical for Benner, but the dignity and recognition of being able to lift himself up as an artist were also extremely important—not only to him but also to others at the shelter. “A lot of people were inspired by what was going on with me,” Benner says. “I had guys who didn't have artistic talent coming to me and asking for paper and pens and bringing me finished pictures…. I've seen some other guys... trying to make a go of it. I've seen pictures of some of them on Facebook… I know some of them are in the selling phase and doing that stuff.”
Though ArtLifting operates for profit, its philosophy, like those of its non-profit peers, is rooted in the belief that art serves as a powerful and integral aspect of human expression and dignity. Powers, a visual artist herself, worked with homeless individuals for many years before starting ArtLifting. “I did a lot of listening,” she says, “and a lot of my clients have said, ‘Liz, I don't want another handout, I just want an opportunity. Opportunity to change my own life.’ And that was why we created ArtLifting as a for-profit, as a business, because we thought: ‘People don't want to be charity cases; they simply want their invisible talents to be seen.’” In the future, she hopes to start more companies that allow people to contribute their hidden skill sets to the economy.
In addition to these more quantifiable benefits of artistic engagement, CityStep founder Sabrina T. Peck ’84 points to the body of research that ties art to neurological development. “An artistic experience is a critical piece of cognitive development,” she says. “And it's a critical piece of identity development…. All the research shows that children who are able to express themselves creatively, who are able to build a sense of identity from the inside out, do better. Do better in school, do better with peers, do better in society.”
Caroline A. Butler-Rahman has taught sixth and seventh graders at the Amigos School for more than eight years and now helps coordinate between the school and CityStep. Her daughters went through the CityStep program, too, for which she is very grateful. “Students... find it to be a safe and joyous place to find themselves and to get to know their classmates outside of school, outside of the academic, in a way where the playing field evens out,” she says. “It allows kids with equally strong but very different skills and strengths to feel really capable and be leaders.”
Apreleva can also corroborate the positive effects of music. HARMONY has provided the family with far more than saxophone lessons: HARMONY gives Soykin the opportunity to connect with a mentor and role model who is familiar with the language and culture, which, since Apreleva and her husband are both Russian immigrants, is harder for Soykin to access at home.
In Apreleva’s opinion, this aspect of HARMONY has made the biggest difference. “It was really difficult for [Matvey] to connect to other people [at school],” she says. “He really thrives on individual connection, and it is sometimes difficult to get this connection…. And here was an opportunity for him to… really know David and to really get known and be discovered…. I think it's huge for Matvey's sense of self-respect and self-worth. He knows that he can relate and he is worth something. It's about expressing yourself through music, and for Matvey that's a change we see.”
Though Soykin still speaks softly and sometimes haltingly, Apreleva says he has begun composing and singing to himself around the house—an outgrowth of self-expression that coincided with the start of his HARMONY lessons. And inspired by Armenta, who is concentrating in molecular and cellular biology, Matvey has set his sights becoming a scientist in addition to a musician.
“I think at that moment it is something like astrobiophysicist,” Apreleva says. “It changes all the time, but now he has this notion that you can be many things in life.”
For Peck, the most distinguishing aspect of service in the arts is its ability to foster rich, thriving exchanges that challenge and inspire all participants. “The reciprocal aspect of CityStep is extremely important to me,” she says. “That it is not just the benefit that these undergrads are providing students. It's that they, in turn, reap so many benefits from this service experience, because it is a life-changing experience.”
Laura E. Weidman Powers ’04, a CityStep alum, says that she learned at least as much from CityStep as she did in her undergraduate classes. “It was really influential in how I learned to work on teams and also lead peers,” she says. “It also showed me a lot about the power of using something like art as a medium and a message for connecting with folks who are from a different background or having a different experience from you.” Today, Weidman Powers channels CityStep’s spirit of growth and self-discovery as CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit that encourages and supports black and Latina women in tech and has received recognition from Fortune, The Knight Foundation, and the White House.
“I’m trying to, with Code2040, create a similar experience [to CityStep], where students can be exposed to, in this case, technology and what they can do with their academic skill set around computer science,” Weidman Powers says. “To create a chance for them to set themselves on a trajectory as a result of the experiences and exposure that they've had.”
Dreier thinks that her work teaching elementary school students how to write and put on plays directly benefits her other roles in theater. “I have mostly acted in my life, and now I’m actually directing [at Harvard], and I think STAGE has helped me a lot,” she says. “Being a director and being a teacher, there is a fine line… but I feel like practically it has… given me some useful skills in that way.”
For Yang and Song, MIHNUET has reshaped their perspectives as musicians. “[It’s] definitely helped me realize that as a musician, I have a responsibility to also make sure that I can make sure everybody, regardless of their age or background or socioeconomic status… has the means to be able to create and be involved with the music-making process,” Song says.
Yang adds that he has been rethinking why he makes music. “Sometimes it's all too easy to get trapped in a line of thought where we're pursuing… some very specific aesthetic ideal,” he says, “and I think my work with MIHNUET has shown me… that music can be collaborative and democratic. We don't always have to be pursuing technical perfection; we can think about how this experience can be meaningful for all those involved. And that was very liberating.”
Johnson, too, feels freed in his artistic perspective. “Working with Stories for Orphans has… made me think about this idea that any aspect of who I am can contribute something good to the lives of others when properly applied. I didn't think before that writing or art—just my hobby—would be something that does anything for anyone other than myself. And now it's a contribution.” As he works to confirm and support the humanity of the orphans he works with, they in turn have helped him confirm and support his work as an artist.
The impact community service has had on Clark transcends the bounds of art. “I've been doing this work for 17 years… because it absolutely continues to change and transform my life,” Clark says. “We’ve taken students to some music workshops in a prison here in Massachusetts, and we leave just so humbled—and not in a way that's like, ‘Oh, my life is so much better because I see what terrible suffering and oppression these incarcerated individuals are going through.’ It's actually quite the opposite: You sort of realize, ‘Wow, here are my prisons and my disabilities and what I'm working through as a human being.’”
Despite the national trend of funding cuts in the arts, Harvard’s arts service programs continue to strengthen and grow. Crooners is currently piloting its new group singing approach at Chestnut Park Assisted Living and hopes to eventually use it at all of MIHNUET’s partnered living facilities. ArtLifting now works with 72 artists in 19 cities across the United States. Harvard’s CityStep is working to expand to fifth through seventh graders at every school in the Cambridge public school system; higher up, Peck is preparing to launch CityStep.org, an undergirding platform through which the board will help facilitate and fundraise for program development across all four of its universities—and eventually, Peck hopes, make CityStep a national endeavor. HARMONY is eyeing a partnership with schools in Tunisia through Skype. And Clark’s class on music and disabilities was just one of 14 new courses that will be developed as part of the recently established $15 million Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship.
Clark, Song, Yang, and other members of Music 176r want to bring all of these currently disparate organizations together, united in their drive to broaden arts access for communities around Harvard and the nation. They’ve been working on projects within Arts First that would actively engage the festival’s audience in the art-making process. Current proposals include a series of workshops offered across all media, connected to the work of different arts service organizations at Harvard.
Peck thinks arts initiatives can play a crucial role in bringing together what feels like an increasingly divided world. “I was a social studies major, and I'm an artist…. What I see is: In our fractured society, CityStep uses dance and creative collaboration to build mutual understanding among children of different backgrounds, incomes, neighborhoods,” she says. “It's that mutual understanding… that community-building…. Those are the building blocks of why I think CityStep has such impact on young people and has such impact, potentially, on society.”
It takes two to tango—or to put on a play, or to harmonize. As Harvard’s student artists reach wider and wider audiences, we’ll be hearing the resonance.
—Staff writer Emily Zhao can be reached at email@example.com.