How Kaufman Music Center’s Storefront Series Is Illuminating Music Education

New York’s music community is persevering though the pandemic with creative efforts like those at the Kaufman Music Center. The Upper West Side cultural arts destination, New York City’s largest community arts school founded in 1952, last month unveiled Musical Storefronts, a new series of live, staged performances taking place safely from behind a storefront window in the neighborhood.

Musical Storefronts concerts, held at unannounced times and dates to support social distancing, amplify music outdoors for passersby near Columbus Circle to enjoy a reprieve from today’s plethora of virtual events. Currently scheduled to extend through mid-March, the series is also shining a spotlight on its performers, many of whom are music educators and Kaufman Music Center artists-in-residence

“Musical Storefronts is a great fit for us because our favorite thing to do is bring live music to people in real time, which we’ve been missing during the pandemic, especially in New York,” says Kate Sheeran, executive director of the Kaufman Music Center. “Outside you see families and children dancing, and I’ve seen a lot of people in wheelchairs with their caregivers…you see people of all ages really just reacting to seeing musicians play live again in New York.”

Kaufman Music Center 2020-21 artists-in-residence participating in the window performances include composer and pianist Conrad Tao and composer Lisa Bielawa. The Jack Quartet and other artists will also work with students enrolled in the center’s Special Music School, or the city’s only K-12 public school that teaches music as a core subject. They also help lead the Lucy Moses School community arts school for all ages and the center’s new teen music program, Face the Music. 

According to Sheeran, all of Kaufman Music center’s programs combine music education and performance. As music funding continues to be cut from public school education budgets in New York City and other places around the country, the center has made technological advances and evolved curriculum to offer remote music education to almost 2,000 students of all ages.

Students at Kaufman Music Center have been able to continue performing safely on stage in small class-sized groups or alone with an audience limited to family members. Online recitals, video projects and virtual concerts have also increased to meet the national and international demand that the center has received from organizations and individuals seeking to connect with the artistic output of New York City.  

“Education and performance are tightly woven together at the center,” Sheeran says. “I hope that there are elements of the Musical Storefronts programming that we can incorporate into the ways in which we bring music into our community and our city. It’s really compelling how it took all of us to do this, and we hope that we’ve developed a model that can be repeated in other places to get artists back to work. Society needs to hear music and it needs the performing arts.” 

Sheeran explains that the new window series is a result of the local arts community banding together. The idea was inspired by violinist Jay Dweck, an advisory board member of New York Alphadyne Asset Management’s Alphadyne Foundation that is fully supporting the project. Because of the foundation’s support, Sheeran points out that artists, sound engineers and stage crew involved in the project are being paid. New York-based Milstein Properties donated the concert storefront, Steinway & Sons donated a piano and the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District has also offered its support.

The window series will include a total of 60 concerts featuring 102 well-known and up-and-coming classical, jazz, Broadway and other musicians. Following social distancing protocol, only small groups of one to three professional musicians perform together at one time in the storefront. Performing groups also include many family members such as husband and wife duos that are able to safely rehearse together at home. 

The new window performances have been well received, says Sheeran, who says that she has watched countless observers exclaim in delight. One young boy, she said, smiled as he stood in front of the performance window waving his arms like a conductor. 

Violinist Gil Shaham performed in a storefront concert yesterday and said, “It’s been time for all of us to really take stock of what we want, and I think we value our shared humanity more than ever before. And music has a way of bringing people together.”

Mezzo Soprano Chrystal E. Williams also performs in the series and added, “There’s a lot of healing and hope in music, and unity. Right now with all the isolation and everything that’s going on in the world, I feel like we need a lot more community to bring us together, and music is a great vehicle and language to do that.” 

Last spring, Kaufman Music Center launched a record label to release a student-produced instrumental and electronic music album. Looking beyond the window series, Sheeran says that the center is optimistic about discovering new creative partnerships with arts organizations and supporters to keep the community learning and working safely together.