Features & Columns

San Jose Jazz Clears Path to Music for City's At-Risk Youth

Progressions is an intensive program helping low-income,
at-risk youth develop their musical talents
San Jose Jazz' youth music program, Progressions, helps students develop learning habits that can carry over to all aspects of life. Photo by Trisha Leeper

Every time the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest comes around, not enough emphasis is placed on the educational arm of the San Jose Jazz operation. To focus on just one example, Progressions is an intensive program helping low-income, at-risk youth develop their musical talents, a process inseparable from learning teamwork, social skills and critical thinking.

The goal is to keep elementary-age kids out of gangs, in school and locked in a groove toward a creative life, so much so that the program is partly sponsored by the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force.

Progressions started in the spring of 2011 at Santee Elementary, which is part of the Franklin-McKinley School District. During its first year, the program taught kindergarten through third grade, with about 100 students. These days, in addition to Santee, the program has expanded to serve Jeanne R. Meadows Elementary and Robert F. Kennedy Elementary, with Stonegate Elementary slotted to come on board next. Over 200 kids now participate, learning general music through the third grade and then selecting a band instrument beginning in the fourth grade. All the schools are within a mile of each other.

"When we launched, the idea was that we would stay with students from the time they enter the program, and they would have the option to continue with us all the way through high school," says Progressions director Julie Rinard. "This year, we'll be serving students through eighth grade. And then next year we'll be talking about what kind of program we want to offer for high school students that have been with us for a number of years."

Now, whenever this topic comes up, I achieve the best results by relaying my own experience. And I'll be blunt. If it weren't for 20 years of arts and music education, from grade school through grad school, I probably would have turned into a criminal. I came from a dysfunctional family but grew up playing piano when music still thrived in grade school. Later on, music was the primary reason I attended and remained in college. Otherwise, I'd likely be dead or in jail by now. For certain, I would not have participated in "normal" society. Programs like Progressions give me hope.

What's more, for anyone who's grown up playing a musical instrument, the additional benefits are obvious—but we still take it for granted. For nonmusicians, it might not be so obvious. Learning to play at a young age produces a more diverse musical taste, plus it teaches persistence, resilience and focusing skills. You learn how to set goals, work with others and overcome obstacles. And creativity goes hand in hand with curiosity.

"Once the kids get over the novelty of getting a new instrument, they realize that it's hard, and they don't understand that they might have to practice the same thing a hundred times in order to get it right," Rinard explains. "That gets really frustrating and a lot of the kids maybe don't have the mindset to get over that hump, but once they do get over it, the feeling of accomplishment they have at realizing they have a way of tackling this, and mastering a skill, I think is a big one."

And here's where you, my readers, can help. The Progressions program is always looking for instrument donations or even spare instruments. So forage around your homes, your closets, or your families' homes and closets. Woodwind and brass instruments will especially come in handy. Generosity makes everyone feel good. When you see kids diverting away from potentially nefarious paths in life, their musical skills guiding them along the way, it leaves a rocking impression.

Progressions is only six years out of the gate, so we haven't seen any professional orchestra conductors emerge from its trenches just yet. But, San Jose Jazz also features a summer jazz camp, 20 years running, plus an all-star band that performs at every Summer Fest.

"We have a dream that one day we will have Progressions students who make it into the high school all-stars group, but that might be a longer-term goal rather than a short-term goal," Rinard says.

Even if kids don't make the all-star team, most of them are better equipped to handle whatever life throws at them. The results will keep them alive. Both literally and metaphorically.