Free music lessons program helps Salem students win statewide honors

Gema Barragan Cruz has been singing for as long as she can remember, moving strangers to tears with her renditions of mariachi ballads.

But the North Salem High School graduate, 18, never expected to place in the state solo competition, even after winning districts.

“I just didn’t believe in myself,” she said. She was shocked at the late April competition as announcers read her name: first place in the state.

Her choir teacher, Arielle Chasteen, said private lessons Barragan Cruz received this year pushed her singing over the top by “fine-tuning her already masterful performance.”

Gema Barragan Cruz performs at a Salem-Keizer School Board meeting in the fall of 2023.

Barragan Cruz is one of hundreds of middle and high school students who this year received free music lessons through Salem’s Music Lessons Project.

The six-year-old nonprofit organization provided nearly 1,900 music lessons at seven schools with a high share of low-income students last year. They’re still tallying totals for the school year that just ended, but president Sandy Wiscarson said their reach should be similar. Leslie Middle School was also added this year.

Wiscarson began work on what would become the Music Lessons Project in 2012 after retiring from a fundraising job at Portland State University.

Wiscarson isn’t a musician herself, but her father was a band director at Salem High School, long enough ago that the school hadn’t yet added “North” to its name.

“I grew up sitting in those original seats when I was a kid,” she said, referring to the school auditorium.

She spent much of her career in administration and fundraising roles for arts organizations, and wanted a retirement project to support local student musicians.

Music lessons came out of conversations with Mary Lou Boderman, who was then the coordinator of music programs for the Salem-Keizer School District.

Wiscarson wanted to start something at McKay High School. Teachers there said what they needed most for students was private lessons.

Many reported that students would come to them seeking to improve and ask if they could get private lessons on their instruments. But when teachers mentioned the cost — often $50 or $65 an hour — students would say, “Oh,” and walk away with a disappointed look on their face.

“Those are the students we’re looking for — the ones who are eager and just can’t afford it,” Wiscarson said.

The group began offering lessons at McKay in 2013 and soon added North. Then, they branched out into the middle schools that feed into those high schools and incorporated as a nonprofit.

The district’s schools and music students regularly win accolades in state competitions. Twenty-five Salem-Keizer student musicians placed in the state solo competition, Wiscarson said. McKay’s band took second in state 5A band championships this year. South, West and Sprague took first place, second and third place in state orchestra competitions, while West won 6A band.

Lessons help level the playing field for musicians at the district’s less affluent schools.

The Music Lessons Project is intended to support students as solo musicians, whether their instrument is flute, violin, trumpet or voice. With private teachers, they work on repertoire they can perform — not pieces they’re playing in band or orchestra. But the school music programs benefit from the one-on-one help.

“If the student is increasing their confidence and improving their skill levels” that benefits the school music program too, Wicarson said.

Band, orchestra and choir directors get to decide their own process for selecting students. The organization allocates an annual budget for each school — spending about $58,000 last school year on lessons. The organization is volunteer-run, and aside from expenses like running a website and insurance, spends what it raises on providing lessons.

The McKay High School marching band performs to welcome freshmen to their first day of in-person school on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Wiscarson is seeking to grow the organization, moving toward offering lessons closer to weekly during the school year. Right now, students typically get 10 to 15 weeks of lessons.

She’s also seeking more board members, including a new treasurer. She’d like the board to have more diversity in terms of age, ethnicity and where in Salem people live.

Barragan Cruz and fellow choir senior Nev Kear said their lessons with Bryce Tomlin, a Chemeketa Community College vocal instructor, gave them a deeper understanding of the mechanics of singing.

“He explains what’s happening physically with your body when you sing,” Kear said. “That really helped me because I used to break into my head voice really easily.”

“He definitely brings the best out of us,” Barragan Cruz said.

Chasteen said a solo teacher can boost students’ skills significantly. She focuses on how the choir sounds together as a whole, and her education focused less on specific vocal techniques.

“Kids ask me all the time for piano lessons and voice lessons,” she said.Plus, as a full-time school teacher, she said her schedule doesn’t allow for one-on-one instruction.

Barragan Cruz hopes to study music education and wants to someday sing in her own mariachi.

“Sometimes I’m singing and I see people crying about a certain song because they’re remembering their mother who’s passed,” she said. “Singing is magical.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.