One sun-drenched Saturday in the early blush of spring, the Third Street Music School settlement lobby rang with the giggles of children and the squeaky sounds of an elementary-aged violin recital. The school was hosting a brunch for Beverly Harper, honoring her for 18 years of service as the school’s safety director. Regulars know Harper as an information czar who can name almost all 1,700 students served by the main campus — as well as the names of their pets. She is to be honored at the school’s annual gala on May 8 alongside Grammy Award-winning artists The Roots.
After a heartfelt toast, Harper wiped a tear from behind her spectacles.
“Third Street is my family,” Harper said. “From the day that I walked in this door, I inherited an entire community as part of my family.”
This sense of closeness has deep roots at Third Street. The school was founded in 1894 as part of the settlement house movement, a social movement focused on bridging socio-economic divides. Its founders were dedicated to nurturing the children of the immigrant populations of the Lower East Side. Executive Director Valerie Lewis, who takes lessons at the school along with her mother and her two children, explained the school’s family focused founding motives.
“Parents were desperately looking for a place to bring their child to help enrich them, to nurture them not just with music but with food and a bath,” Lewis said.
Emilie Wagner founded Third Street shortly after graduating from college, turning down medical school to pursue her goal of making music education accessible to underprivileged children. According to Wagner’s New York Times obituary from 1945, “she arrived in the city with only $50 in her pocket but with a technical knowledge of the piano and the violin and the courage of her convictions.” Wagner’s first class was held with a small handful of students in a church basement before she moved into the school’s original location on East Third Street in 1901.
The school has a century of accomplished alumni and former directors. One such director was David Mannes, violinist, New York Philharmonic concertmaster and founder of the Mannes College of Music. Modern alumni include stars such as pop and folk singer songwriter Ingrid Michaelson and songwriter for musicals Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and Book of Mormon).
Alongside their multitude of offerings, including instrument lessons, dance classes, a new recording technology course and a preschool, Third Street is also involved in partnership programs with local public schools without adequate arts funding. Third Street currently works with more than 25 schools serving over 4,000 students.
To forge a partnership, a public school approaches Third Street, which provides teaching artists and helps the school build a program based on its wishes and circumstances. Third Street also contracts with grant programs and the Department of Education to pool the necessary funds. With Third Street’s extensive selection of courses and commitment to financial aid, many students stay with the school from early childhood to high school graduation. James Hall, Third Street’s Assistant Director of School and Community Partnerships, elaborated on the school’s breadth of offerings.
“We’re really committed to a full year of robust music education, and beyond that we’re quite flexible, so we do everything from early childhood music and movement to orchestra, band, hip hop dance, African percussion,” Hall said.
Hall also commented on the way that Third Street goes above and beyond the usual standard of music education.
“There’s a lot of ways you can cut corners with the arts in schools,” said Hall. “Instead of teaching kids to sing, you can put on a CD and have them listen to it and have that be the extent of their music exposure. We do believe music is something we do, it’s something we participate in, not something we consume.”
Third Street also holds an annual open house for their partner students to visit the campus and try out instruments before making an enrollment decision.
David Moreno, the head of Third Street’s guitar department, weighed in on his decision to teach at this school full time.
“I mean it just seems so obvious, that’s the thing,” Moreno said. “It’s a special place. You feel it when you walk in there.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 1 print edition.
Email Emilia Yu at [email protected]