For most adults who played music in high school, college, or into adulthood, it’s hard to let go of a once-cherished instrument, even if it’s been collecting dust for years. To WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station, the nostalgia is wasted potential: Those unused clarinets and violins could be in the hands of students, instead of languishing in closets.
To encourage lapsed musicians to share their old flames with new musicians, WQXR is hosting an instrument drive from April 8–17. Their goal: Gather 6,000 instruments from New York, New Jersey, and beyond (they are also taking mail-in donations) for distribution across the city’s public schools. They’ve done this once before, in 2014, when their goal was 1,000 instruments. Instead, they wound up with 3,000.
Graham Parker, the general manager of WQXR, says organizers were overwhelmed by the response the first time around. He says the last drive was “an emotional experience. [Donors] remembered being young and loving playing that instrument. They made friends, played great music, really had their lives changed, and they want to pass that transformation on to students.” What they didn’t want to do, Parker explains, was throw an instrument away just because they weren’t using it. The drive gave them another option. “I’d say only about 1 percent of the people said they’d hated playing music,” he laughs.
The students who eagerly await these instruments are scattered across all five boroughs and New Jersey. While Graham is quick to point out that New York public schools enjoy relatively robust arts programs, Natalya Duncan, Assistant Principal of Art, Music, and World Languages at Long Island City High School, says the donations can still transform lives. She oversees a music program of over 600 students, a handful of whom will play in a small ensemble at the launch of the drive.
“Instruments we receive through the drive are much higher-quality than what we can buy,” Duncan says. “Students love playing them. They point out the craftsmanship, particularly the mother-of-pearl keys and buttons. And they last much longer.”
There’s a middle step between donation and fulfillment, though, since many of the instruments aren’t quite ready for the spotlight. Sam Ash Music Stores, which has donated its time and expertise, refurbishes donations to get them playing as smoothly as possible. Some 25 percent of the instruments are not worth rehabilitating: They are badly damaged, too old, or otherwise not useful to students. But, as Graham says, the drive is a zero-waste project, so WQXR donates the retired items to Materials for the Arts, a nonprofit offering supplies to artists.
Graham is confident the drive can reach its admittedly lofty goal, even though the last one cleared out a chunk of previously hidden stock. For one, he says, the funding was much easier this time around. “[In 2014] people were hesitant, but this year, they were astounded and signed up with enthusiasm.” Investors saw the success last year and told him the drive was “an example of why they give money away. We created an impact measure and galvanized the community doing what we said we’d do.”
That funding makes it easier to reach a wider audience, but Graham also expects some holdouts from last year to finally make the leap after seeing how profound the change was for students. “We heard from people last year who had an instrument but weren’t ready to drop it off,” he explains. “They said it was just a bit too emotionally difficult.”
The WQXR Instrument Drive offers numerous donation locations and events throughout the boroughs and New Jersey. For more information about getting involved, visit the WQXR Instrument Drive website.