In 2009, Steve Blatt noticed something missing in many schools' music programs: instruments. Working as the head of community outreach at Colorado Public Radio, he decided to launch an instrument drive.
“In talking with a number of musicians who were also music teachers, [it came up] that even when schools had music programs, they often didn’t have enough instruments,” Blatt explains. “So all the kids who wanted to take part couldn’t take part. So we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try this — people probably have old instruments in the house that they're no longer playing. What if we collected those and made them available to schools?'”
In its first year, the drive collected ninety instruments. Then Blatt's group took a year off to refine the logistics and ensure that each instrument was actually playable.
During that time, Blatt met with the president of the Colorado Institute of Musical Instrument Technology, Dan Parker, who offered to contribute repairs at half price.
“It allowed us to get more instruments out in the world,” Blatt says. “The next drive collected hundreds of instruments, and then it just kept on rolling.”
In 2014, Blatt resigned from CPR and founded Bringing Music to Life in order to support the drive’s growth. Overall, the instrument drive has collected and distributed 3,800 instruments to 160 schools across Colorado.
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For last year's drive, Blatt estimated his group spent $90,000 on instrument repairs; each repair costs around $150.
“Everything we get, we want to guarantee that it’s in actual playable condition before we give it forward to a school,” he says. “Otherwise, if it’s not working correctly, the kid is going to get frustrated and they’ll stop or quit. That’s the last thing we want.”
Learning to play an instrument teaches students about more than just music, says Blatt.
“They learn all sorts of life skills, even though they aren’t aware of that at the time,” he notes. “They learn how to listen carefully, and they learn about being disciplined, how to persevere and keep going. And if you do [keep going], good things can happen: critical thinking skills, the good kind of risk-taking — being willing to get up and perform in front of somebody and have the confidence to do that. Suddenly, their self-confidence and self-esteem grows.
"One teacher told me, ‘My student, the only reason she came to school was to play in band, but history is right after band, so she came to that,’” Blatt recalls.
The drive focuses its efforts on low-income schools. Having these instruments available has strengthened student motivation and a sense of community.
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“For a lot of kids, [band or orchestra is] the reason they come to school,” Blatt says. “There was an eighth-grader at Northglenn Middle School that said it was like a chosen family…and that’s great! That’s a pretty terrific feeling, especially for teenagers who feel they’re different, strange or not part of the group. And here they are, all taking part with each other.”
Blatt believes that music is an opportunity for students to participate in something bigger than themselves.
“I never put music as opposed to athletics,” Blatt explains. “I don’t think it’s an either/or thing…but you don’t ride the bench in music. You may be the fourth or fifth stand in your section, but you’re still playing. You’re still a part of it. You’re still making noise with someone else.”
The Bringing Music to Life instrument drive runs Monday, March 5, through Saturday, March 17. To donate instruments, find out which of the sixteen drop-off sites is closest to you.