Free and low-cost lessons bring music-making to Pittsburgh kids one note at a time

This story first appeared on NEXTpittsburgh, which publishes Kidsburgh.

Photos by Kristy Locklin.

Bonnie Myers-Toward grew up playing music. Today, she makes sure that as many of Pittsburgh’s kids as possible have the same opportunity.

As a child, Myers-Toward could walk from her house in Verona to the home of Roy Shoemaker, a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He patiently taught her how to play violin and piano, a passion she parlayed into a career as Knoch High School’s orchestra director for 32 years.

She created the Western Pennsylvania Center for the Arts (WPCA) in 2015 to carry on Shoemaker’s brand of musical generosity.

The WPCA, which Myers-Toward runs with her husband, Ralph Myers, sells, rents and repairs instruments. But it also hosts performances and offers a variety of programs from group painting classes to private harp lessons that are free or low-cost through the nonprofit WPCA Academy.

On a recent Monday evening, WPCA’s high school orchestra gathered to practice. The ensemble is made up of 22 high school students from six districts. While joining the band or orchestra at many schools involves fees for instrumental rental and various additional costs, there is no fee to join this group.

“I want to see everybody playing,” Myers-Toward says. “For me as a kid, music was a place where I felt I really fit in.”

The group also gives kids a sense of community centered around music.

William Mitchell, 15, is a cellist in Knoch High School’s orchestra. But he joined the chamber group at WPCA to feel more connected to his fellow musicians. Anna Greco, 17, joined because she needed a place to play violin, since there is no orchestra program at Freeport Area High School.

The students have performed at Heinz Hall, PPG Place, Phipps Conservatory and at community events throughout the region. They will soon release a CD. And a “feeder orchestra” of about a dozen elementary school students started a month ago.

Through a $1,500 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation, the couple was able to purchase music stands, sheet music and folders for these budding Beethovens.

While the orchestra makes sweet sounds downstairs, individual artists take lessons in the second-floor practice studios. The center matches students with certified instructors, who determine their own schedule, rates and policies.

Many students practice on rented instruments. There are more than 1,000 currently in circulation around Pittsburgh.

Through a partnership with the Oakmont Carnegie Library, the WPCA also lends out ukuleles. Customers simply flash their library card and they can take the tiny string instrument home for three weeks. The center’s group “uke” lessons are popular with both kids and adults.

The facility itself is even inspirational: Before becoming a musical dream, the James Street building was a nightmare. The former tenant, the Spiral Staircase Bar, threw a Halloween bash in 1993 and went out of business the next day.

When Myers-Forward and her husband bought it in 2013, it was filled with fake cobwebs, Styrofoam tombstones and moldering cups still filled with beer. They spent years (and their own money) transforming the place into a beautiful venue, complete with an art gallery.

Ralph Myers, a virtuoso on both the bagpipes and the drums, says the hard work was all worth it.

“These kids come in, they’re real shy and reserved and afraid they’re going to fail,” he explains. “Then they start to realize, ‘I can do this.’ One note at a time, they start to make music and you can just watch it build — the confidence. You can’t take that away from them.”