October 5, 2005

Cornellians Inspire Through Music, Art

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Zach Kaplan ’06 and Aryeh Kaplan ’04 have taken their Ithaca-based student-teaching organization well past a college community service project into a multi-state venture. They co-founded an organization called MuseAmerica that helps underserved children in rural and suburban areas learn about music and art.

Having been raised in a family that emphasized music, the two brothers felt that music was missing from their lives while at Cornell. Additionally, both were bothered by a lack of funding for music and arts education in public schools. According to Aryeh and Zach, many researchers have shown that students perform better in school if they have been exposed to music and fine arts.

“Those who have learned music push their kids to learn it; others don’t teach it to their children,” said Zach Kaplan, president of MuseAmerica.

After developing the idea for MuseAmerica in fall 2002, the brothers brought the idea to fruition during the spring of 2003, while both were at Cornell. They wanted the organization to tap into the resources of Cornell and Ithaca College students without being a part of Cornell itself. They felt that starting the program separately from Cornell would make it more permanent.

“[MuseAmerica] capitalizes on the fact that many college students have been involved with the arts but had to sacrifice this at some point for other things – Many of these students want to bestow that gift on children,” Aryeh said.

The program grew from the idea that volunteers could be recruited before a program existed, to get them involved in all aspects of the program. Using students from all schools and majors helped create the initial lesson plans, business strategies, computer science databases and grant proposals.

“We had a great patchwork quilt of people, including volunteers who just like kids and music,” Zach said.

Programs have been run successfully around Ithaca and Greensboro, South Carolina, the brothers’ home town. They are trying to expand to St. Louis and the surrounding areas, where Aryeh now attends Washington University. MuseAmerica was also thinking about expanding to New Orleans and saw the recent hurricanes as catalysts for starting the program. They are currently taking donations, finding community leaders to get involved in the program and plan to meet with the heads of schools before they reopen.

“We’re moving all over the place – and keeping centered in the Ithaca area,” Aryeh said.

Wherever the program moves, the members work with the school board, teachers and parent-teacher association to create a program unique to each community. Each program has its own identity to match with the desires and needs of that school. All the programs use the same fundamental principles but direct their efforts toward different demographics. According to Zach, the program has a 100 percent reenrollment rate so far.

The music program teaches children to read, play and compose music from around the world. While teaching most modern symphonic instruments, lessons encourage individual creativity and group cooperation.

The art program also introduces various cultures, with students reading and writing about different types each week. They also travel to local art museums and shows.

Recently a photographic expression program, inspired by Wendy Ewald’s I Wanna Take Me A Picture, has been developed. The students are given a camera and film and photograph parts of their lives.

After developing the film, students reflect on the photographs through writing. Through an acquaintance of an employee at the Johnson Museum, students are also able to communicate with a school in Ghana doing a similar photographic expression program.

Due to the large commitment volunteers must make to MuseAmerica, the student-teachers develop long-term relationships with the children. In this way, Aryeh feels that the enrichment goes well beyond music and art, providing the children with mentors. Moreover, MuseAmerica does more than entertain the children, according to Zach, by providing them with constructive learning that demands discipline from both them and their families.

“It’s a very humbling experience – to work with great people at Cornell and in the community, people who believe in things I do,” Zach Kaplan said.

The program hopes to move throughout the country, joining school districts with local colleges and universities to provide art and music to students who would not have received it otherwise.

“[MuseAmerica can] change music and art from being something people hope their children learn – to one they know they are going to receive, another thing like math and science that people take for granted in a good way,” Aryeh said.

Most of the funding for MuseAmerica comes from private patrons, colleges and universities. Many of the supplies, such as instruments, are donated or sold to the program at a discounted price.

“We capitalize on social philanthropy because there are so many programs that need funding from the government,” Aryeh said.

Archived article by Rebecca Shoval
Sun Staff Writer