Youth participating in ComMUSICation programs speak many different languages including Spanish, Hmong, Karen, Oromo, Somali, Thai, and Vietnamese.
The common language they all share, besides English, is the global language of music.
“ComMUSICation (CMC) is one of the only youth programs in the Twin Cities that uses music as the catalyst for social change,” said founder and executive director Sara Zanussi. She and her team empower young people with skills for success through music-making in St. Paul’s Frogtown, Eastside, and North End neighborhoods. They have no expectations about previous music experience or ability. Every interested child in fourth to 10th grades is welcome.
Closing achievement gap with music
CMC has been housed in the offices of the Mt. Airy Boys and Girls Club since 2015. At the start of the pandemic, CMC’s performance programs went online. While participation numbers have dropped with the stressors of the pandemic, Zanussi said, “There have been some silver linings. While these times have been uncertain, evidence of the transformative power of music is not.”
She described how the after-school choir program worked before the pandemic hit. While there were a few soloists, most of the kids sang together as part of an ensemble.
Zanussi said, “As an ensemble, our choir had no fear of performing – even in huge venues like at Orchestra Hall, the Mall of America, and U.S. Bank Stadium. Obviously, the pandemic has changed our ability to perform. The silver lining is that it has required our youth to take ownership of their own musical journey.”
Zanussi said, “Since March 23, our students have been broadcasting from their homes on ZOOM. We have a ninth grade choir member named Aaliyah, who used to be quite shy about her singing voice. She wouldn’t turn her camera on when practicing with the choir. Now she sings solo with her camera on, and exudes confidence. I was skeptical about the impact we could have virtually, but I see a new confidence growing –which is a significant life-skill for success.”
CMC is currently working with about 50 fourth to 10th grade students between two in-school programs and their afternoon choir program. Zanussi explained, “We’re committed to serving St. Paul’s historically most under-resourced youth and families.
“We provide young people a chance to experience group music-making in a safe, caring community. Our goal is to help close the education achievement gap through high quality, holistic music-making with a diverse core of teaching artists.”
Next Stage Initiative
CMC plans to move into its own space once COVID-19 is under control. Zanussi said, “We’re launching an initiative called The Next Stage to help us fund our new home. The proposed building is at Rice St. and University Ave., and will be very accessible for our families. It has everything we need: practice and performance spaces, an on-site homework help program that will also provide dinners, a parking lot, and easy access to public transportation.”
On average, families pay $20 a month for a child to participate in CMC. There are full scholarships available, and cost is not a barrier. In normal times, tuition goes toward staff costs, snack and dinner three times per week, uniforms, sheet music, bus transportation, and other costs associated with monthly performances. The actual cost to the organization is closer to $3,000 per school year for each student. “Grants,” Zanussi said, “are what keep us alive.”
She explained, “We’re working to provide a safe and caring environment for each young person. Our kids are surrounded by the effects of poverty in their neighborhoods. We’re breaking down participation barriers. We’ve introduced a number of virtual singing opportunities for St. Paul youth, and we welcome new singers. Our young people are continuing to sing and build community with other choir members and staff.”
Transformative power of music
Carey Shunskis joined ComMUSICation as music director two years ago. She leads the Performance Choir on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons, and Voice Class on Wednesdays. She said, “We understand that everyone is having their own challenges with the pandemic, but we have been impressed by how our kids keep showing up. We’ve had great attendance and great participation. We can’t ask for much more than that.”
Shunskis described a recent collaboration that 12 CMC youth participated in during November/December. The collaboration was originally designed to be held in-person, but was switched to a virtual platform. MPLS (imPulse) is the name of a semi-professional adult choir whose emphasis is bringing choral music out of churches and concert halls into non-traditional venues.
Their artists worked with CMC students and California-based composer Danny Clay in a series of composition and performance workshops. Musical games inspired each choir to compose their own sounds and phrases, which they notated and taught to each other. The final performances premiered virtually in December, and can be viewed at www.commusicationmn.org/social-media.
Shunskis remembered, “Our youth were kind of nervous at first. Not only were they being asked to sing solo, now they were in charge of their own music-making too. A fifth grader named Olive said, ‘I never thought of myself as a composer before.’ When all of the rehearsals were over and it was time to perform, our youth were emboldened.”
One of the immediate needs in their new space will be 20 music stands, which cost $50 apiece. If you’re interested and able to donate to the ComMUSICation music stand fund, email Sara Zanussi at email@example.com.
To learn more about the ongoing work of ComMUSICation, visit www.commusicationmn.org.