Joan Hillsman wins grant for her program to provide promise for children’s futures
Playing the piano helps Raven Ford cope. One Saturday in April at a local church, as she settled behind the keys, the salve was Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles.”
“I like music because it helps me to relax when I am having a bad day,” Ford said.
Ford is no stressed-out adult, though. Rather, she’s a teen among a bigger group, mostly African-Americans, benefiting from the outreach of Joan Hillsman, a relative newcomer to Syracuse who wants to make a musical — and possibly lifelong — difference for such kids.
Hillsman is a 76-year-old, retired music supervisor of public schools in Washington, D.C., and a musician. She moved to Syracuse seven years ago after her son, Quentin, became the Syracuse University women’s basketball coach. Taught at age 6 to play the piano, Hillsman envisions the same for youngsters here.
Through the Joan Hillsman Music Network, she offers lessons to anyone who wants to play the piano or sing. She says her fees are flexible, and community sessions are free. She has been looking for youth talent for 45-plus years.
Hillsman recently won a $1,100 grant from CNY Arts. She has not received the money yet, but noted in her proposal that it would support her focus on youth.
“I thought that I could expand it,” she said of her efforts, “that talent needed to be shown, the cultural diversity and how especially in African-American children it can enhance their limits.”
In an effort she calls The Talent of Syracuse, Hillsman surveys the community looking for prospects. Her goal: teach them, then provide confidence-building opportunities to perform in the community. An event showcasing youth was scheduled for early May at Hendricks Chapel.
“I found out that there may be a lot of talent, but they may not be getting the exposure that could carry them to another level,” said Hillsman, who notes on her website that she worked on projects for former Mayor Stephanie Miner and was involved in the Say Yes to Education nonprofit.
Hillsman says she has coached many gospel singers, and has produced a book, “Gospel Music: An African American Art Form.”
She visits local churches and libraries looking for children to participate, and she helps them prepare for performances such as during a Sunday service at Southern Missionary Baptist Church.
Several smiling kids, along with Ford — all under Hillsman’s wing on a Saturday in April — seemed to prove her case as they lined up for choir practice, their teacher positioned at a piano. Destiny Jackson said she likes to play the piano and sing. Another child said playing the violin helps him to relax, just as Ford had said, and yet another said music is expressive. Several noted they play instruments in church; Zuriel Dickerson’s instrument is the drums. Some said they liked rock, some classical.
“A lot of them are not getting a lot of opportunity,” Hillsman said. “How are they going to move forward instead of being stuck in the same place?”
Hillsman’s efforts reflect those of Dick Ford, who for years offered his services to urban youth. He has provided access to instruments to students who otherwise would be left out.
“In my senior years, I wanted to combine being an advocate for music,” Ford said. “So I started a program for children in the city of Syracuse, who tend not to go into music because schools have a large dropout rate (and) kids aren’t making the progress they are hoping to make.”
Ford said he wants to make sure that kids are not living in a fantasy world, and he wants them to consider the next level in life by helping them identify realistic goals.
“The kids have to understand that I am preparing them for college as a musician, not anything else,” he said. “If that’s what you want, I will work with you,” said Ford, noting that some don’t understand the concept of practice.
Ford said he helped 32 of his students enroll in music schools at Syracuse University, Ithaca College, SUNY schools, Onondaga Community College and others. He said many have gone on to become successful professional musicians and music teachers, and others might not have chosen music as a career but still play on the side. Among those emerging from his ranks: Malik Clanton and Eveny Parker, who are music teachers, and Danielle Evans (known as Danielle Patrice as a performer), who is a professional jazz singer.
Hillsman said it is best to start children out early in something that is called Kindermusik, which has its origins in Japan. There, parents start their kids out in a process called the Suzuki Method, where children as young as 2 learn to play. Hillsman said this kind of exposure to music is difficult in urban communities, and especially so for African-Americans. She said by the time youngsters get nurturing, it might be too late.
“Unfortunately, in African-American cultures, it was not affordable to get music lessons. Many have the concept that I will not start that early,” Hillsman said.
Sarah Gentile, supervisor of fine arts in the Syracuse City School District, acknowledged that when budget cuts do happen, they usually affect urban communities and schools where minorities may be the majority. In city schools, that’s the case. According to the Syracuse City School District: 53 percent of the students are black; 12 percent are Hispanic; 6 percent are Asian; 1 percent are Native American; and 28 percent are white.
“Music is important for all youth,” Gentile said. “Unfortunately, urban students are the first to get cuts from their programming. They are often not given the same experiences as their non-urban counterparts.”
Gentile said that so far the district has protected music programs from cuts, and it offers music education as well as a summer arts program. In the high schools, there are musical theater programs and concerts.
Gentile said there has been an increase in the teaching of instrumental music: In grades 4-12, there are 2,500 students in the instrumental music program, and that’s the number of instruments provided. They include violins, clarinets, flutes, trumpets, saxophones and percussion instruments such as drums.
For grades K-8 and as an elective at the high school level, general music education classes are offered. In these classes, students learn about music from different countries and how to sing, but they don’t learn to play instruments. Gentile said keyboards are provided to students in this program.
Gentile said instruments are provided to students for free, whereas students used to rent them.
Ford said that he starts children out when they are older, 12 or 13, because they have longer attention spans. He said that this allows them to continue with music instead of quitting due to frustration.
“Kids don’t get encouraged to practice,” Ford said. “They are too young to figure out how to practice, and they quit.”
Gentile said children build self-confidence through music, and Ford and Hillsman said it’s a mix of all subjects, such as math, physics and writing.
Hillsman noted that it’s a positive way for kids to do something in their community.
“It gives them an outlet in which they can build social skills,” Hillsman said.
And for her?
“It is not about me,” Hillsman said. “It is about what I can do with the community.”
— Article and photos by Bianca Moorman, The Stand Staff reporter