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  • Writer's pictureNathan Bellott

The Closing of Turtle Bay Music School Part 1: “Waking Up From a Dream Come True”

[Posted retroactively from my Facebook page] I started teaching at TBMS in late 2015. They originally interviewed me to teach there on a substitute basis the previous summer though at the time wasn’t the right fit. I wasn’t optimistic at my prospects, how many times had I heard that my resume would be “kept on file” at all the schools, cafes, restaurants and offices I’ve applied to in the past 10 years? I started subbing for the guy who beat me for the position. He wasn’t reliable or consistent, so I began in December 2015 teaching one 45 minute lesson per week to two very talented 9th grade guys who had recently completed TBMS’s renown Saturday Music Program. The SMP was a 4 year tuition-free music program that focused on bringing high quality music education to low income kids throughout NYC. Up until that point I had taught irregularly in PA and a bit here and there subbing around NYC. I had no idea how to teach a 16 week semester to these students and was shooting in the dark for a while. We had a lot of fun and I’m sure I learned more about teaching than they did from me about playing the saxophone.

Eventually the school gave me more students: saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano; all ages from 6 years old to a person in their late 70’s. I quickly realized that I needed to do anything possible to embed myself within the institution. There was something special about it- the history, tradition, the building, the teachers, the way the administration never asked me or told me what I had to teach. I did everything I could to be “around.” From practicing there all day when I wasn’t working my day job, to chatting it up with the other faculty, to becoming friends with the staff members and administration. Need a sub for a 30 minute lesson on a Saturday at 9am- I’m there. I volunteered to perform at the student recitals, volunteered at school events, bake sales and fundraisers. Anything I could do to be there I did, it was a great escape from working at the two coffee shops jobs I had.

Two years ago, TB offered me a part time job in the office doing administrative work which I still do. It allowed me to stop working in cafes and restaurants. It gave me flexibility- with proper planning I could accept the gigs I wanted to play, and of course I still had a small legion of private students. I was so happy: I was getting to teach at a great school and make most of my living doing it. I had a key to the building and could practice there until ungodly hours which I did MANY nights. I held sessions and rehearsals, many of you reading this played sessions with me there. When I was in Hal Galper’s Quartet we rehearsed there many times. I spent hours studying scores in the library, reading biographies of musicians, trying to understand Schenkerian analysis (a failing venture,) borrowed Bach scores and saxophone books long out of print. Some days I set up shop in the library and just picked through sheet music.

After a few years they offered me an Artist Series Recital, a great honor in the TBMS faculty community. I started doing outreach programs- teaching flute at PS123 in Bushwick, recorder at PS 261 on the Upper East Side. I played at the Lenox Hill Senior Center in midtown as well as several times for seniors with Alzheimer’s Disease in the Creative Aging Program.. Over the years I taught countless private lessons, group lessons, masterclasses, instrument demonstrations, performed many recitals, performed with my students, played at schools, played at senior centers, play at fundraisers and met many amazing people and made friends along the way. Trying to make it as a musician in NYC can be a dreadful experience filled with loneliness, disappointment, rejection, jealousy and uncertainty and the school helped me have a consistent and secure place to go.

Fast forward to yesterday, the school has publicly announced it can no longer operate and will close. The news was hard to hear but I had a feeling it was coming eventually (more on that in a different post.) I just want to say that Turtle Bay Music School changed my life at a time when I didn’t know if I could make it as a musician or just work in a restaurant forever (it often felt like the latter.)

TBMS was founded in 1925 by Eleanor Stanley White in 2 rooms of an apartment on 53rd Street in Manhattan and survived for nearly 95 years through several location changes. Countless people were impacted by its existence. Generations of families could say they studied at TBMS. It survived a depression, world war, conflict, domestic strife, recessions, gentrification, and the countless obstacles a non-profit faces to survive in a city like NYC. I am so grateful to have been a part of it. I recently discovered many great musicians have taught at TBMS over its long history including Lee Konitz and Scott Robinson. Some of my colleagues have taught at TBMS for over 40 years…it’s always been a point of pride to say I taught there and that was reinforced by so many of my friends that bugged me to get a job teaching there (I swear I passed on all of your resumes!)

It’s very hard to accept and hurts badly but TBMS will close January 30th, 2020. Turtle Bay transformed my life from working 2-3 day jobs at once to being able to teach music at a high level. Come January 31st, hundreds of children will no longer have a place to go to study music, they are the real victims here. My experience at Turtle Bay Music School often felt like a dream I never thought would end.

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