WORCESTER — Pakachoag Music School of Greater Worcester has plenty of reasons to celebrate when it holds a 40th Anniversary Gala on Sept. 17 in Tuckerman Hall.
“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been for a number of reasons,” said Pakachoag Music School executive director Sarah Smongeski.
Smongeski can speak from quite a vantage point of continuity, as she’s been executive director for over 30 years.
But while there are also inevitably changes over the course of 40 years, some of the school’s biggest developments since it was founded in 1982 have been taking place over the past four years.
With the move to All Saints, just a short walk to Main Street at the heart of downtown Worcester, Pakachoag Music School has expanded its reach to children and youth of low income.
But not long after settling in at All Saints, where Pakachoag Music School leases 5,000 square feet of dedicated space on the second and third floors, along came the pandemic.
Pakachoag Music School went online, but while it still offers online programing, currently 96.7% of registrants are back to learning in-person.
“I’m happy!” Smongeski said recently. “We are at a solid place in the school’s history, and hope that more families will consider after-school/out-of-school music learning with Pakachoag. What we are teaching is a path for excellence and student success — and more importantly, lifelong fulfillment through the arts. After 40 years, we’re seeing that mission living in the lives of our alums, some of whom are now enrolling their own children with Pakachoag.”
The school has students of all backgrounds and ages from over 40 different communities in and around Worcester. Programs include early childhood Music Together, Suzuki Violin & Cello, private lessons, introductory keyboard and music literacy classes, theater with music, song writing, and small ensembles. The new Music Matters program extends access to over 100 children and youth through free programming offered collaboratively with community partners. Annual special events provide concerts and recitals for families and others in the local community.
Pakachoag Church of Auburn founded what was first called Pakachoag Community Music School in 1982 as part of a vision to offer something tangible to the community at a time when public schools were cutting their music programs. In 1989, the school was incorporated as an independent, nonprofit organization. The church maintained generous grant support for several years, but the school, in a sign of strength, began making a contribution for the use of the space. Another change, in 2009, was Pakachoag Community Music School changing its name to the Pakachoag Music School of Greater Worcester.
A looming issue, however, was that the school didn’t have a lease, and Smongeski said it was unclear what the future of the building in Auburn was going to be. Meanwhile, the school had a relationship with All Saints Church through a choir program and also a community outreach Afternoon Tunes program.
“We wanted a long-term lease. We had restrictions on what we could afford. All Saints wanted to find a tenant for their space. For a number of reasons we thought it made sense to come here (to All Saints Church),” Smongeski said. “We understood it would change our trajectory, but felt it was a good choice.”
The image some may have of a music school is of a place in the suburbs where children of the affluent show up for their weekly violin lessons.
In fact, “If you look at the history of community schools for the arts, they began in the settlement houses of New York and Philadelphia,” Smongeski said.
More recently, the national organization National Guild for Community Arts Education “has changed a lot over the last 20 years. It has become a much more diverse organization, and there is more of an effort to create more equal access,” Smongeski noted.
“We definitely value our history. We value all the community families that we’ve served. But why not be more accessible and diverse? And we can definitely do that better here (at All Saints Church),” Smongeski said.
With the move, Pakachoag Music School did lose some students, she said.
“The year that we moved, enrollment dropped back. It wasn’t a surprise. It did come back. It shifted a bit. Worcester has gone up. Holden has gone up a bit, and north of Worcester.”
Pakachoag also has satellite locations and is projecting Music Together (early childhood) classes in Sterling, West Boylston, Auburn, and Sturbridge for the 2022-23 academic year.
With the pandemic, enrollment dropped again for a while. “Things did go down a little bit, especially with the Music Together program. It’s beginning to come back up,” Smongeski said.
Private lessons remained fairly stable in terms of numbers as Pakachoag Music School switched to online learning.
“We didn’t grow during COVID. Growth was part of the plan when we moved, but there was growth in the spring, so we’re feeling positive,” Smongeski said.
In “normal years,” Pakachoag Music School enrolls about 400 students, she said. “It dropped a bit, came back up, dropped again because of COVID, but I think we’ll be looking to get back to that 400 number and beyond.”
The Music Matters program is the result of “several years’ work reflecting increased commitment for programming that reaches local children and youth who lack the resources traditionally needed for after-school learning,” Smongeski said.
To begin with “we were exploring ‘can we make all the pieces come together?'” Smongeski said. At first the program didn’t have a name and was referred to as community engagement. It included after-school enrichment classes such as ukulele lessons at Elm Park Community School. The classes were considered successful by Pakachoag and schools such as Elm Park.
“So now we feel we’re more landed in exploring this inner-city reach, and that’s why we named it (Music Matters) reflecting the commitment in everything we’ve done,” Smongeski said.
“With a second year of expanded community engagement starting September, the school has teachers, curricula and a portion of the $60,000 program budget (up from $32,000 three years ago) in place,” she said.
Music Matters will be at Elm Park Community School for after-school classes three days a week this academic year, offering ukulele, drumming and song writing. Pakachoag will also stay involved with the Black Excellence Academy, an after-school program held at Worcester State University.
New programming includes theater with music offered in partnership with Emanuel Lutheran Church. “We did have some musical theater, but with the move, we just sort of let go of it,” Smongeski said. Now with Emanuel Lutheran Church there is a true partnership, she said. “It’s not musical theater, it’s theater with music.” The name of the theater group is Quinsigamond Youth Theatrical Company.
With these outreach programs the hope long-term is to create relationships with the students that will bring them to take classes at Pakachoag Music School, Smongeski said.
Financial aid will also be a factor in that happening. Financial aid at Pakachaog Music School before the 2018 move was at about 12% to 14% of students. “That has moved up to around 18%. Our goal is 24%,” Smongeski said.
Smongeski, who is originally from England and still has the accent, also teaches flute at the school. She has performed as a flute player with several regional orchestras and also as a member of The New England Flute Duo. In addition to her playing, she developed an interest in teaching and education administration, and earned a Certificate of Special Studies in Administration and Management from Harvard University’s Extension Division.
When she first came on board at the school as executive director in 1991, she wasn’t always as happy as she is now.
“The second year was very stressful. There had been some changes, (I thought), ‘Well I’ve taken the job. I have to stay at least two or three years,’ ” she recalled. But likely no more.
“I got to three years and said, ‘Oh, I could stay another two or three years.’ Then it got to five years … ”
She said one reason she feels more optimistic than ever now is colleague Kristjon E. Imperio, the school’s director of programs and community engagement, who has helped lead the Music Matters program.
“He’s been such an asset,” Smongeski said. Imperio also performs extensively as a collaborative pianist and organ recitalist throughout New England and is a highly sought-after coach and instructor.
He came on board with Pakachoag Music School during the 2018 move.
“What drew me was the vision to grow and reach the community,” Imperio said. “I’m always drawn to places where there are limitless opportunities for growth and creativity, and this is an organization that does that well.”
Smongeski also cited Worcester itself as a reason for optimism. “Being in Worcester is a plus. It’s allowed us to really build on relationships that we’ve and had take them further. We’ve had a lot of support from foundations. We just had one of our teachers sing at Out to Lunch. There’s a new energy in Worcester about arts and creativity so it feels great to be here around for that time.”
The 40th Anniversary Gala music program starts at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 in Tuckerman Hall and will feature performances by students, alumni, faculty and special guests. The line-up includes Jane Shivick, Beth LaBarre, Lauren Rose King, NYC singing Cabaret Traditions with guests Mary Anne Slack and Richard Monroe, Piano for Six Hands with Pakachoag Piano Faculty, Harp selections, School Fiddlers and The Worcester Children’s Chorus. Tickets are $50 for a table seat with hors d’oeuvres at 5 p.m.; and $10 balcony. For details, visit https://pakmusic.org/40tix/.
There is also an associated 40th Anniversary Grand Campaign with a $240,000 goal.
Some of that money would be used to buy a grand piano of public performance quality.
In addition to inspiring student growth with a good instrument, the school also sees the piano as a focal point for faculty and guest special events that pre-COVID were programmed two to three times a year. The 40th Anniversary Grand Campaign will also provide the seeds of an endowment needed for instrument maintenance, upkeep and space costs. The campaign will continue through the school’s fiscal year 2023.
The school has nine pianos in its space at All Saints.
“We have some good pianos. We want very good,” Smongeski said.
For more information about Pakachoag Music School of Greater Worcester visit www.pakmusic.org