July 21, 2020

What started in a hallway at a Connecticut grade school is now a thriving music nonprofit that serves 700 students

A professional musician rallies his community to give an opportunity and a voice to underserved kids in Bridgeport.

A KEYS violin student practices her craft in Bridgeport, Connecticut. KEYS founder Rob Silvan built up his music nonprofit from a weekly music class in one school to a citywide program that's embedded in 25 schools. Photos courtesy of KEYS

KEYS started with a conversation with a friend in the spring of 2004. Me being a professional pianist, the conversation got around to music. My friend, a 4th grade teacher at Columbus School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, told me about the situation there. There was no music room, no piano—a minimal music program, if you could even call it that. The school system was severely limited budget wise. In a city where 1 in 3 kids live in poverty and the majority of public school students are eligible for federally subsidized lunches, one-to-one music lessons are a luxury not many can afford.

I got the idea that I would go up and teach a few kids myself. The next week, I went up to the school, set up my keyboard in the only available space—a stairwell—and started teaching four kids. I came every week to give them each a half-hour lesson, just like when I taught kids from Wilton, Westport, Darien, and New Canaan—all cities in Connecticut’s wealthiest county.

After a month of this routine, more and more kids—whole classes of them—noticed us in the stairwell. They had never seen anyone learning music, actually getting a one-to-one lesson. But they wanted in on it. There were so many kids that wanted to take lessons that within a month there was a waiting list of dozens of kids.

I was staggered by the unfairness of it all. These kids needed a way to cultivate their desire to learn and play music. This idea served as the foundation for KEYS.

I talked to the board of directors at the church where I was the music director. I secured seed money, hired two teachers, and came back to Columbus that fall as a volunteer director with our first 22 piano students.

Suddenly, we had a program! And KEYS—which stands for Kids Empowered by Your Support—was born. It began to grow steadily and organically. We added students, we added schools.

Besides its one-to-one instrument lessons in Bridgeport schools, KEYS organizes group music programs and workshops, runs a non-audition orchestra, two bands, and chorus at Bridgeport’s Klein Auditorium.

I used my connections in the music world to hire professional teachers. I met all the students and often chose them for the program, and I got to know donors and all the stakeholders. I had never applied for a grant before, and now all of a sudden, I’m a grant writer.

Our waiting lists grew. The more kids we taught the longer the lists got. In time whole schools were on the waitlist, which was seven schools long at one point. KEYS expanded from piano to teaching all the instruments—strings brass, winds, guitar.

[Read more: This Alabama music nonprofit teaches kids the art of drumming and teamwork]

I myself grew, through many bumps in the road, into my role as an executive director, something I had never trained to be. I improvised, I also asked for advice and got plenty of help.

As we grew our offerings and our student list, another vital need also grew: our need for funding. KEYS pays teachers a market rate. So in order to raise funds, we created a series of in-home concerts where we would connect these incredible kids with the communities that had the means and the desire to support them. The concerts featured our professional staff and KEYS student performers who played jazz, classical, and all kinds of music. It proved to be a powerful connector.

Within 10 years, we had grown to 25 teachers and 500 students, and last year we had nearly 700 students in 25 schools with 35 faculty members. We created a Saturday program that included an orchestra, a volunteer program, a college internship program, The KEYS Chorus, and the Keys Family Network to bring together KEYS parents—all to serve the needs of this diverse community.

But our predominantly in-school, one-to-one lessons and Saturday ensembles were all closed down instantly due to COVID. Our goal during the pandemic is to keep students engaged and to maintain a sense of hope and normalcy for them, and to keep our faculty employed.

Both students and teachers would need to learn to do lessons online. And they did- with Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and WhatsApp. In spite of some discomfort with the technology, all the faculty consulted together on a regular basis and figured it out. Students kept learning, teachers kept working. KEYS kept going.

These online modalities have actually improved matters in some ways, allowing us to become closer to parents and families. Now, we can better monitor practice. We will for sure be maintaining some degree of online connection when we return to the schools. Vacations and snow days will never be the same.

In the last year, we’ve changed our tagline from Kids Empowered by Your Support to Changing Lives Though Music. As our vision expands and our reach extends with it KEYS sees itself as in a position to create something that is needed in the wider expanse of this vibrant but disadvantaged city.

If we are in the business of changing lives we find ourselves considering aspects of a student’s life that go beyond music: their health, their living situations, their academic careers, their college prospects, their professions.

As we collaborate with Bridgeport organizations whose missions may be other than music and arts, we begin to see ourselves as supporters and co-builders in a revitalization effort here. There will be even more to rebuild and create after COVID. We envision that this effort would be lead by inspired youth. KEYS is in a position to guide our students towards opportunities where they can be creative leaders.

This last important piece: As we enter now a new era of racial awareness in a city that has long been plagued by the insidiousness of systemic racism, we continue to do the work of creating what is needed: KEYS will continue to diversify our board and faculty and to deepen our self-examination—as individuals and as a music nonprofit—to better learn to be a constructive part of a diverse community.

Learn how KEYS is changing lives through music and find out how to donate at www.keysmusic.org.

Rob Sylvan founder of KEYS music education Bridgeport Connecticut

Rob Silvan


Rob Silvan is a jazz musician and composer and has been a music educator for 40 years, teaching classical, jazz, blues, popular music, improvisation, and composition. He is the Music Director at the Talmadge Hill Community Church in Darien, Connecticut, and the former Music Director at The Montessori School in Wilton, Connecticut.
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