Mentoring Hits a High Note: A music-tutoring program in Pittsburgh pairs college students with their middle-school peers
By Brian Willoughby, www.tolerance.org, February 25, 2004
Thirteen-year-old John O'Neill is banging out better grades, improved study habits and more self-confidence, one drumbeat at a time.
The young drummer is among about 40 young people in urban Pittsburgh taking part in an innovative, bridge-building tutoring program that matches Carnegie-Mellon University music students with middle and high school students at neighboring schools. The two-year-old program is supported by a $250 Mix It Up grant from Tolerance.org; the money provides sheet music and music books for the students.
O'Neill works on African drumming and other percussion exercises with his tutor, but he says the music lessons have helped him develop skills for other classes, too.
"He taught me not to wait for the last minute for everything, to practice and prepare," O'Neill said. "He taught me to focus on a goal. My drumming is better, but so are my grades in math and reading and English. I've learned that when you procrastinate, the results aren't as good."
Violinist Aleksandra Zaytseva, a 12-year-old seventh-grade classmate of O'Neill's at Sterrett Middle School, agrees.
"My music teacher says I'm really improving," she said. "It's really helped with music and school and everything."
Annie Savarese, 21, a senior studying music and French at Carnegie-Mellon, is the force behind the music-tutoring program.
"I wanted to do volunteer work, and I'd heard about drama and art (students) doing outreach, so I figured music could do the same," Savarese said.
Savarese launched the program with 24 Sterrett students in the fall of 2002. This year, the program expanded to about 40 students and also includes Peabody High School.
Both schools are predominately black - 54% at Sterrett, 85% at Peabody, according to Schooltree.org. Carnegie-Mellon is predominately white - 57%, according to the most recent U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges."
At Sterrett, about 30% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a commonly used poverty indicator; at Peabody, that rises to about 50%. Carnegie-Mellon is a 104-year-old private school, considered "most selective" by "America's Best Colleges," with tuition verging on $30,000 annually.
So music becomes a bridge-builder, bringing together people whose paths otherwise would not likely cross.
"It completely opened my eyes to what these kids have to deal with on a daily basis," Savarese said. "I always took for granted that I would go home and dinner would be waiting every day, the sort of thing I never had to worry about. I'm teaching them about music, but they're teaching me about the world."
About 50 Carnegie-Mellon students have been involved in the music tutoring, with 20 or more of them active at any given time. Most volunteer one afternoon a week, though some commit to as many as three afternoons each week.
"We become their friends, not just their tutors," Savarese said.
'A nice moment'
Savarese said there are many potential impediments to such a program, which requires school approval, parental permission slips, transportation planning and so on.
"It's a lot of meeting with principals of schools, a lot of letters to parents," she said.
Finding an ally at Sterrett was one key to successfully launching the program, Savarese said. That ally was Elizabeth Birru, a French teacher at Sterrett who had previously been involved in an academic tutoring program involving Carnegie-Mellon students.
Jasmine Clarke, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Sterrett, has been working with a math and reading tutor for two years. Her grades have risen from Ds to Bs, she said. "I can multiply fractions now."
Adding music tutoring to the academic offerings, Birru said, was a natural progression for the program.
Now, after school, Birru doesn't just hear the sounds of Carnegie-Mellon students discussing math and English with Sterrett students; she also hears the strains of music.
"The kids coming here from Carnegie-Mellon are not only nice, they're cool," said Birru, who has been teaching for 19 years.
Even cooler, she said, is watching the tutor-student relationships grow.
"I don't think there's anything more wonderful than to see a young person in the midst of discovering something they didn't know before," Birru said. "My only wish is that we had more tutors, more often - all the time, for every student in the school."
How much of a change can one tutor bring?
Savarese recalls a young flutist she tutored, a shy girl who never learned in her regular music class how to actually bring a note out of her instrument.
"She went to band class every day, but all that was happening was she was making air move through her instrument," Savarese said. "No music was coming out."
In one tutoring session, with one-on-one attention from Savarese, the girl started making music.
Savarese's joy is apparent, though her words are understated:
"That was a nice moment."