Settlement Music School in Gtown opens opportunity for aspiring musiciansBy Eddie Dunn
It’s a Wednesday evening in Philadelphia, which means one thing: Settlement night for the Moody family.
“This is our day,” said Anne Moody, a registered nurse and the Moody matriarch.
Each week, the family, which includes mom, dad Mark, the eldest daughter Ashley, Kenneth, middle child Taylor, Nina, and youngest son Chase, arrives at the Germantown branch of the Settlement Music School ready to practice the instruments they’ve been playing for as long as they can remember. This year, the family was finally able to get every child’s lesson on the same night, as opposed to past years where they’ve come up to three different nights during the week.
“It’s much better being here for three hours at one time,” said Mark Moody, a general contractor, who was sporting paint-covered paints on this evening.
The Moody family has been coming to Settlement for many years. As lifelong residents of Mt. Airy, they’ve always kept their ears to the ground to find out what’s going on in the neighborhood. Many years ago, when Ashley was still very young and home-schooled at the time, the family found out about Settlement.
“We wanted to make sure that they had formal training,” said Mark. “And we read about all of the benefits of learning an instrument, how it opens the mind and things of that nature.”
Mark and Anne, although not musicians themselves, have always aspired to play an instrument. The two decided early on that they wanted their children to have the same passion for music that they shared.
“We just made a decision to give all of our children some form of the arts, because both of us just so happen to love it,” said Anne. “We love music!”
“We made a verbal commitment. My husband and I, we decided that we would send our children to music school and stick with it no matter what; no matter how hard or difficult it got,” she added.
History of excellence
Like many other families, the Moody family chose the simultaneously vintage and contemporary Settlement Music School which hides in plain sight along Germantown Avenue.
Prestige exudes from the exterior, and from within nothing less, where some of the future world’s finest musicians are being groomed. Unsurprisingly, some have passed through its recently renovated vestibule and felt as though they were walking into a concert hall instead of a school.
“They have so much to offer here,” said Anne. “It’s a great school.”
Upon entry, one can immediately feel the auspiciousness of the property. From its shiny front doors into the spacious and clean reception area, it becomes easy to trust the school that has pumped out musical greats such as NPR’s “Jazz Night in America” host Chris McBride, pianist Orrin Evans and organist Joey DeFrancesco.
Joining that list soon could be Ashley Moody, 17, a guitarist and saxophonist who is graduating from the Philadelphia High School for Girls this spring, with aspirations of a professional career in music. Her siblings: percussionist Chase, 9, guitarist Nina, 10, and pianist Taylor, 12, all have dreams of professional careers in music and entertainment. Kenneth, 14, has aspirations of being a lawyer, and is only learning piano to “show off at parties,” according to Ashley.
The Germantown branch at 6128 Germantown Avenue is one of six branches of the historic and prestigious Settlement Music School, an educational institution providing musical, dance and art instruction for students of all ages. The Germantown branch alone instructs roughly 700 students on a regular basis, from six-month-olds to senior citizens.
Settlement was founded in 1908 by Jeanette Selig Frank and Blanche Wolf Kohn as a music program in the Southwark section of Philadelphia. Initially designed to offer services to newly arriving immigrants, with piano lessons from volunteers costing only a nickel, Settlement grew to become an independent community school of arts by 1914. The Mary Louise Curtis branch building, built in 1917, served as the school’s single location until the late 50’s. In 1958, the Germantown branch became the second Settlement location, part of an expansion effort by then-executive director Saul Schoenbach.
Changing with the times
Today, the school teaches a variety of musical genres and has advanced chamber music ensembles, rock and jazz ensembles, student rock bands, orchestras and a children’s choir.
“It’s been an interesting expansion of our program, because for many, many years we were very much a classically-oriented organization,” said Eric Anderson, director of the Germantown branch.
Each branch teaches the same instruments, but each has a different focus. The Mary Louise Curtis branch focuses more on developing advanced students and pre-professionals looking for a serious career in music. The Wynnefield branch has a strong jazz focus while rock and adult programs are prevalent at the Germantown branch.
Fortunately for everyone, no experience is necessary if learning an instrument is of interest.
“The only thing that we ask is that you practice and show up for your lessons on a regular basis. Because those are the real determining factors,” said Anderson. “If you wanted to come and start guitar lessons, all you’d need is a guitar and a willingness to work on it.”
“I like it a lot,” said Ashley, who has been playing guitar for nearly a decade. “It’s something that I like to do, it’s not a chore.”
A lasting effect
Many who attend the Settlement school are dedicated to the craft. Those committed to a professional career in music frequent the halls each week after school. Even alumni find it difficult to stay away.
Dynasty Battles, a Temple university and Settlement alumnus, took piano lessons at the Germantown branch for many years and frequently returns to practice at the school, sometimes three times a week. Recently, he’s been practicing Beethoven’s “Tempest Sonata” for six or seven days a week as rehearsal for a concert series.
“The atmosphere here was just really, really great,” said Battles, recalling his time as a student. “It was really supportive because the adults understood what the kids needed to do, and the kids were motivated.”
“It was very fun, it was very motivational, and at the same time, disciplined,” said Battles, who declined to divulge his age because “artists never tell.”
Anderson, who has been working with the school since 1987, serving as director of the Mary Louise Curtis branch from ’87 until roughly five years ago, has noticed the effect that Settlement has on people.
“One of the things that she realized, when she became a pastor, that Settlement had done for her was [give her] the ability to stand up in front of an audience and perform,” he said, in reference to a former student who now serves as a Methodist pastor.
Said Anne Moody, “It’s just contributed to how well they do in school, and in everything.”
Legacies are not uncommon at Settlement either.
“I’ve been with the school long enough now that I’m seeing the children of students that I knew when they first started at the school,” said Anderson.
How it works
Settlement functions very similar to a traditional school. Although the school does not provide degrees to its students, nor is it affiliated with any institutions, it employs a paid staff of instructors comprised of music professionals and alumni all with bachelor degrees and an increasing number with masters and doctorate degrees. Each instrument has its own curriculum which allows for student progression and promotion as their skill level increases. Students are eligible to receive certificates of achievement if they pass their certification auditions in the spring. Each certification audition requires a student to play scales or selected pieces in front of administration in order to demonstrate their level of aptitude.
And like any music school, performances are a must.
Settlement Music School hosts public performance hours once every three weeks. Each performance hour is very informal and open to any student to perform, regardless of skill level. The school stresses the non-judgmental, supportive atmosphere of the performance hours, and encourages students to be willing to make mistakes, as per the learning process. Formal recitals are occasionally held on Saturdays and Sundays, and feature hand-selected, polished students.
Learning a new instrument can be intimidating for many, but Anderson assures that it can be done.
“Even people who aren’t talented can become very proficient musicians by practicing on a regular basis, by learning their music and by showing up for their lessons,” he said, and compared learning an instrument to practicing a sport, such as football. “What really mattered more is that you practiced and you read your playbook and that you understood all that stuff; and it’s the same thing playing an instrument.”
The current rate for Settlement instruction is $35 for 30 minutes, though that rate can fall to as low as $10 for 30 minutes based on financial need. Settlement provides nearly $2 million in scholarships school-wide, which can be awarded to students based on talent and achievement demonstrated during certification auditions. At the Germantown branch approximately 60% of students receive some type of financial aid, given out depending on personal financial situations and reasonable instrumental progress.
Improvements for the future
The original house at 6128 Germantown Ave. was built in 1854 by paper merchant Charles Magargee. In its life, the structure had served as a private home, school for boys, Young Republicans Club meetinghouse and as an African-American YMCA prior to Settlement’s purchase of the property in 1958.
Since 1958, the 2.87 acre property has gone through extensive renovations. The rear addition to the school, clearly distinguishable from the seasoned front portion, was initially constructed in the 1970’s. In 1987, the school added classrooms upstairs and the performance hall. Their most recent project, a large parking lot and new entryway, was finally completed in December 2015 after a long and arduous process.
“We needed it for a long time,” said Battles. “It looks great.”
The parking lot had been in discussion for nearly a decade, and was intended to be completed years ago, though the financial market fallout in 2008 had dried up much of the project’s funding. However, Settlement remained determined to make use of the vacant lot next door. After negotiating with neighbors and developing a storm water management plan for the stream bed located in the rear of the property, the project was given a green light and ground was broken on May 15, 2015.
The near $2 million project took seven months to complete, and “it was a difficult seven months,” said Anderson.
Funding for the project came in part from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in addition to individual and corporate donors. The completed lot allows for nearly 80 cars to park, and the new entryway, shaped like the lid of a piano, provides the “cherry on top.”
“It just looked awful [before],” said Anderson. “I think it’s made a huge, huge difference in the neighborhood.”
Even with these new renovations, the school continues to look ahead. Settlement plans on refinishing the exterior with new windows, followed by interior improvements as well.
Regardless of the changes that Settlement makes to its skeleton, on the inside the story remains the same: professional music instruction for those who want it most.
“With the music stuff getting cut at school, it’s definitely better to have something here,” said Ashley Moody.
“It’s been a good experience,” said Battles, who suggested that he will continue coming back to Settlement to practice.
“They have great pianos here.”