Thanks to a $120,000 grant, UMKC’s Musical Bridges program expands its reach

When the Youth Symphony of Kansas City played the first notes in its annual Christmas concert at the Folly Theater last month, Branden Taylor, wearing his “I’m focused” game face, sat tall in the fourth chair of the first violin section.

With hundreds of young musicians performing in one of the area’s most impressive children’s and young-adult musical groups, fourth chair violin is a big accomplishment, especially when you’ve been playing for just five years.

But Branden, 14, takes his music very seriously. Fulfilling his dream of being accepted into a top music conservatory will take focus, lots of practice and private lessons, which the Kansas City, Kan., teen can count on thanks to a hefty grant awarded last month to grow a University of Missouri-Kansas City program for young urban musicians.

At about $40 an hour, private lessons were more than Branden’s mom, a single parent working in the admissions office of Children’s Mercy Hospital, could afford to pay long term.

That’s where the Musical Bridges program stepped in. Through it, conservatory graduate students and faculty members give free, weekly, one-on-one lessons to promising urban student musicians such as Branden.

In 2012, for the first time, the Bridges program received a $120,000 grant from Kansas City’s Francis Family Foundation. In past years, the foundation has provided $20,000. The extra $100,000 will help Bridges “expand to include many more students,” said program director Mara Gibson.

“Our impact within the Kansas City community will deepen and grow from this cornerstone,” she said. “We are very grateful indeed!”

Musical Bridges started in 2007 with conservatory instructors giving lessons to seven students at Paseo High School of the Performing Arts. UMKC started the program after seeing a “tremendous” number of applications from local young musicians who did not have the grades or the musical skill level to compete for coveted spots in the conservatory.

“Most of them had participated in their high school band or orchestra, but that is not enough for them to compete for a spot in the conservatory,” Gibson said. “That one-on-one instruction makes a huge difference. The ability to reach the highest levels of artistry in music almost always depends on individual nurturing through one-on-one lessons beginning at an early age.”

Visiting the schools kept a lack of student transportation from becoming a barrier to getting sorely needed lesson time. Participants must maintain a 3.0 grade point average. And although Bridges encourages students to pursue music at the college level, equally important is “just that they go to college,” Gibson said. “Some of these students would never have thought about going on to college if not for their music.”

Bridges is now in 16 area middle and high schools and serves 55 students at a program cost of about $2,500 to $3,000 per student each year.

This year, Bridges also received a first-time $65,000 gift from the National Endowment for the Arts because of its work with urban youths.

Bridges measures its success in student successes. Several alums in recent years have been accepted into the UMKC conservatory, and several have gone on to other elite schools of music, Gibson said.

Branden, who practices at least three hours a day, never will forget making the cut into the Bridges program and stepping closer to fulfilling his aspirations.

“When I made it into Bridges, it was exciting. I could take private lessons again,” Branden said.

“I want to go to college at one of the big conservatories — Juilliard in New York or the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.”

And can Branden play his violin. On stage at the Folly, in unison with his fellow musicians, he rocked and swayed as his bow danced across the instrument’s strings. It was as if the music moved through him.

“I would never be as far along as I am without the Bridges program,” Branden said. “When I started with Bridges, a whole new world of music opened up to me.”

When a rookie Branden picked up the violin in fourth grade, it squeaked and squealed like nails on a chalkboard as he pulled his bow over the strings.

His mother, Lisa Bowie, said she never had to pressure Branden to practice. He loved the feel of the instrument tucked under his chin and knew it would be a real challenge to make his music sound as good as the violinists he’d heard on YouTube.

“I would listen to YouTube and think to myself, ‘I want to be able to do that,’ ” Branden said. “I hear even some of the other musicians in the Youth Symphony play, and they are so good. I tell myself I really have a long way to go still.

“So I just work harder.”