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Settlement Music School Opens New Facility in Willow Grove

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Joe Barron
The Public Spirit

Settlement Music School piano student Michael Bruschi practices in the new concert space. (Bob Raines/Montgomery Media)

The Willow Grove branch of Settlement Music School opened Jan. 3 with bright, spacious classrooms, a recital hall expressly designed for the purpose and the promise of restoring the musical heritage of a community that was once the summer home of John Philip Sousa’s band.

The gray, oblong building on Davisville Road, near SEPTA’s Willow Grove rail station in Upper Moreland township, replaces the school’s Jenkintown Branch in Abington Township, where Settlement had offered lessons since it merged with Jenkintown Music School in 1986.

The Jenkintown Branch occupied the private estate of Lessing Rosenwald, heir to the Sears-Roebuck fortune. Teachers and students describe the old quarters as either cozy or cramped, depending on how nostalgic they are feeling at the time.

“The recital hall — what we called a recital hall — was a four-car garage,” branch director Marsha Hogan said Feb. 4 in her Willow Grove office. “But we had some very good things that went on in there.”

By contrast, the Leonard Mellman Recital Hall at Willow Grove, painted an eye-soothing shade of peach, boasts a projecting stage and room for up to 400 spectators. It is the crowning amenity in a music school full of amenities, including 29 classrooms and a third-floor studio, lit naturally by a skylight that will permit the branch to offer a dance program for the first time.

Cost of the building was $8 million, although Settlement got a break on the design, which was donated free of charge by George von Scheven, an architect who sits on the Settlement board of directors.

Violin teacher Jean Louise Shook gives a lesson to Malachi Kimbro. (Bob Raines/Montgomery Media)

Given the luxury of additional space, Settlement Executive Director Helen Eaton, who was appointed last year, said she hopes to increase enrollment at Willow Grove from the 800 students who studied at Jenkintown to 1,500 or more by 2012.

“This branch will be my first ‘big’ project to nurture almost from inception and one which I will treasure because I was here when it first opened,” Eaton said in an e-mail. “I will take personal pride in seeing its success and service blossom in this vibrant, growing community.”

While waiting for the benefits to roll in, Settlement’s veteran teachers are simply enjoying their new surroundings with all the pride and satisfaction of first-time homebuyers.

“I love it here,” said violin teacher Jean Shook, a faculty member for 36 years. “First of all, I have room to move.”

Shook can now fit an entire string quartet or piano trio into a classroom, she said, and still have room to listen to the players from a comfortable distance.

Of course, all moves involve some trade-offs. While the atmosphere at Willow Grove is undoubtedly more professional, both teachers and students noted it can feel antiseptic. The walls are bare, with only clocks and fire alarms for decoration. Shook said she would like to see a few homey touches — some paintings or posters, perhaps, or a few knickknacks on the windowsills.

Window treatments would also be welcome, she said, particularly on the south side of the building, where the sunlight can be blinding as it streams through high, unobstructed panes of glass. On one occasion, entering a classroom, Shook said, she bumped into a piano because she couldn’t see it.

“But it’s new,” she added. “There’s going to be a period of adjustment. Everyone I’ve talked to is just beaming.”

Cynthia Rasmussen, whose daughter studies cello at Willow Grove, also approved of the new building. Although she lives in Upper Dublin, she grew up in Willow Grove, just up the street from the school, and she was always aware that John Philip Sousa, the March King, brought his famous band to Willow Grove Park every summer during the early 20th century.

The Sousa connection gives the community a rich musical heritage, she said, and Settlement is bringing it back.

A dedication ceremony for Settlement’s Willow Grove branch has been scheduled for March.

Republished with the permission of The Public Spirit/Globe Times Chronicle

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