'Instruments are a huge need': How this organization brings music to students throughout Colorado

Mar. 12—When Melanie Hawthorne Long started teaching at Horizon Middle School nine years ago, there were about 50 students in the band program.

Over the next few years, that number rose to over 200. As the band grew, so did the need for instruments.

"All of a sudden, we needed a lot more instruments, and for my socio-economic area, not all families can afford to buy or rent their kid's instruments," she said.

But that didn't deter Long.

"I've made a really strong effort to make sure that I tell every kid money will never be a reason that you don't get to do band," she said.

With some help from Bringing Music to Life, a statewide nonprofit, the school has received nearly 50 instruments since 2017 for students to use in orchestra and band, alleviating much of the financial barrier.

"The first question I usually get asked is, 'Does it cost anything?'" she said. "To be able to have more instruments available, it makes me be able to say, 'If your family can't afford an instrument, I'm going to get you one.'"

For nearly a decade, Steve Blatt has run Bringing Music to Life, an instrument donation program now hosting its annual drive. Blatt's nonprofit has donated over 7,500 instruments to schools around Colorado, impacting an estimated 18,000 students.

"It's been remarkably successful," Blatt said. "Every year I think, "OK, we've now (wandered) every closet, basement, garage, in the state. There certainly can't be any more used instruments, but every year, there are more."

Blatt hosted his first instrument drive in 2009 while working at Colorado Public Radio. In charge of listener services, he got the idea from teachers, who emphasized the need for more instruments.

"I was trying to figure out what we can do to benefit our community," he said. "They said, 'Well, you know, it's certainly music education, but within that, instruments are a huge need, especially in Title I schools.'"

Blatt ended up collecting over 100 instruments in the first drive, and soon discovered another demand: repairing the donated instruments.

"It became clear that one of the big needs was not only getting the instruments, but making sure that they were repaired or reconditioned, so that when they were handed to kids, they'd be in excellent playable condition," he said.

Making sure that an instrument is in working order before it reaches the hands of a student is critical for the confidence of a new musician, Blatt said.

"If an instrument isn't working well, if you're brand new at doing it, you don't know if it's you or the instrument," he said. "And it's typical of kids to think it's their fault, rather than the instrument. So that was the other thing that I determined that needed to be done for sure."

He continued doing the drive for CPR until he retired from the station four years later. However, seeing the continued need, he founded Bringing Music to Life in 2014.

"We can just keep going. There are more people that have moved to the state. There are more instruments available," he said. "And certainly, there are more schools that need this help because the budgets just can't afford to buy new stuff."

Each year, Bringing Music to Life hosts a donation drive in March to collect instruments no longer being used. From trumpets to flutes to bassoons, hundreds of instruments are donated. Last year alone, the program awarded 684 instruments to 45 Colorado elementary, middle and high schools.

"(Instruments) have gotten more expensive, which is not to say the new ones are better than they used to be, but they are more expensive," he said. "It can range anywhere from a few (hundred dollars), and in the case of the big brass instruments or large strings, it can be several (thousand dollars)."

The program has 16 drop-off locations around the state, and volunteers stop by each week to pick up the donated instruments.

From there, the instruments are taken to one of four repair shops that restore the instrument at a deeply reduced cost, Blatt said. Even with the significant discount, repairs are still the largest cost of the operation, averaging about $165 per instrument.

Sometimes, the donated instruments are beyond repair. In that case, it is used for spare parts.

"It's almost like a recycling program where we take an existing instrument, instead of having it thrown away, we recondition it or repair it, and give it a second life," he said. "And, more importantly, give a child an opportunity to learn how to play music."

During the drive, schools can apply online for a share of the instruments. If the application is approved, teachers come to Denver in August to pick up the instruments.

"These instruments go all over the state," he said. "Our promise to them is when they receive that instrument, it's going to be the actual playable condition."

Each donated instrument comes with a story, including some that date back nearly a century, Blatt said.

"Some of them are almost new, some of them might be a year old or less. Some of these instruments, it's kind of amazing, may be 60 years old, but they're still very good," he said. "Some of the older ones are better than the brand new."

Sometimes, individuals donating their instrument leave a note about the impact it has had on their life.

"Some of these instruments have been in families for literally for decades," he said. "These instruments have a meaningful place in the lives of the donors, which means sometimes it's hard for them to give them up. But then they realize, this can benefit somebody, and I'm not gonna play, so how about handing it off and giving somebody else a chance?"

And when students discover they have that chance, their eyes light up, Long said.

"I think kids just in general that maybe come from a hard financial background have a little chip on their shoulder in the sense that they don't want to get their hopes up," she said. "To know that they get to do something, even though they might not have thought they could because of financial burdens, you can see them light up."

Participating in band also helps students excel at other things, Long said, like learning teamwork and other transferable skills.

"It doesn't just let them play an instrument. A lot of times, it opens them up," she said. "In band we see kids take risks, that maybe they didn't always do that, or become more vulnerable, become a part of a team."

Next year, Long is anticipating the band to grow to 300 students — almost half the school.

"It's huge to be able to provide instruments and get kids involved, because a lot of times once we buy the kids in and get them on an instrument playing, their parents become more invested," she said.