Dylan Jones considered himself to be a standard, angsty teenager, but after taking bass lessons in his hometown of Dallas during high school, he believed he finally had the tools to express himself.
His music teacher, he said, was the first person to tell him he was great at something when he was still unsure of who he was.
However, it wasn't until he began playing small gigs in Austin in the ’90s and volunteering his time at Austin schools that he noticed the void in schools for advancing lower-income students interested in music.
“I was volunteering with kids that didn't have this same music connection,” said Jones, the founder and director of Anthropos Arts, a local nonprofit that provides underprivileged children music education. “Kids without money don't go to [the Austin City Limits Festival]. There was this 16-year-old kid that said, ‘What's that thing?’ It was a bass. That's when I knew there was a need.”
Anthropos Arts has, for the last decade, been providing low-income middle- and high-schoolers at Title One schools — schools consistently identified as low achieving by federal regulations — in the East Austin community, the opportunity to take free music lessons, workshops and master classes.
Anthropos Arts, a name derived from the root “anthro,” meaning humanity, ensures that children from low-income families receive high quality music education in Austin schools and play alongside local professional musicians that serve as mentors. Currently, the program has mentors with backgrounds in most band instruments as well as a vocal program.
“I don't care about the level of talent; I care about the kid that wants to take advantage of this opportunity,” Jones said. “I'm more worried about [kids] showing up than being talented.”
A study conducted last June by the American Psychological Association found that taking music lessons as a child is a significant predictor of a higher IQ in young adulthood. For children, the study found a positive association between music lessons and higher school grades and higher scores on achievement testing in mathematics, spelling and reading. In a district with a graduation rate of 60 percent, students in the Anthropos program have maintained near 100 percent graduation rates with approximately 80 percent of those students continuing on to college, most on full or partial scholarships, according to the organization's website.
“The arts are often a huge cut, despite being such a great release of expression,” Jones said. “The focus is normally on test scores, but we live in one of the most unique, talented cities with musicians willing to give back.”
In the nine East Austin campuses Anthropos is serving this year, students must go through a qualification process to receive music lessons. Prospective students must also come from an economically disadvantaged family that could not otherwise afford private music lessons. Within the first few weeks of class each semester, band directors at participating schools identify students who have a great deal of musical potential but are struggling because of classroom lessons moving too slowly for them or because they don't have the resources to advance their musical talents.
“Band directors [at most schools] have to teach trumpet, clarinet and everything in between all at once,” Jones said. “You wind up having to teach down. You only get [the students] for 40 minutes a couple of times a week, but they are expected to play and march while they play.”
Anthropos Arts chooses approximately 10 students at each campus after an interview process, and each student receives as many as 12 private lessons from a professional mentor over the course of the semester during their regular band class period.
“I try to instill confidence. I try to be patient. I try to get them to achieve more,” said Isaac Pena, a trumpet mentor with Anthropos for the last five years. “A lot of times it's to get them to focus on their energy. Often they don't realize the power in the their lungs. I try to find ways to get them to enjoy what they're doing.”
Pena said his lessons give students the opportunity to challenge themselves through music when the classroom moves too slowly. After two to three months, he usually sees some amount of improvement in his students.
“My band teacher complimented me the other day on my playing,” said Analissia Montalvo, freshman at KIPP Austin Collegiate, alto saxophone player and participant in Anthropos Arts for the last two years. “I play with more confidence, my embouchure is better and my parents think it's good for me.”
In addition to these private lessons, Anthropos Arts also holds school-based workshops in Austin to bring each school closer together. The workshops expose the students to a wide variety of music from jazz to rock, while also providing the inspiration they need to stay in school and find a connection to music, Jones said.
“There's fights, gangs and truancy. And when we do these workshops it's such a ‘come together’ moment,” Jones said. “It's like a campus-wide dance party, and everyone is on the same page.”
This semester, the students will have the opportunity to perform in 10 gigs before May, including at South By Southwest and their annual showcase at Stubb's BBQ. For each performance, students from middle and high schools are combined, and their mentors play alongside them. Additionally, Jones requires each student play an improvisational solo.
“The solos are like storytelling,” Montalvo said. “You get to be yourself in that minute. It gives you freedom.”
The benefits for these students have already reached beyond the allotted practice time. Mentors have seen students increase their grades, decide to apply to college and even say that their mentors provide stability in their lives.
“In all honesty, it feels like they're role models,” Montalvo said. “I had Mr. Brad Houser as my mentor last year, but I still want to be like him when I grow up. He's a great musician.”
The mentors agree with Jones that if they can reach just one student, the program is worthwhile. All students need is the opportunity to have the same musical success that any school in the country can provide.
Jones reminds his mentors regularly that musical education isn't a luxury — it should be provided for everyone.
“It's a place for people to be themselves,” Montalvo said. “It's empowering.”