Spotlight On Our Community Partner: Community MusicWorks

Founded in 1997, Community MusicWorks (CMW) has connected musicians with their communities as educators, performers and mentors for over 25 years.
by Ayça Ulgen, Savanna Illinger
June 13, 2023

Spotlight On Our Community Partner: Community MusicWorks

Founded in 1997, Community MusicWorks (CMW) has connected musicians with their communities as educators, performers and mentors for over 25 years. Originally based out of a small storefront in Providence’s West End neighborhood, the program began with just 15 students. Today, CMW serves 150 young musicians from Providence’s neighborhoods. As the community has grown, so has the importance of a central gathering space. This year, CMW is celebrating the construction (now officially underway) of a new building: The Community MusicWorks Center.

The center will feature a cafe open to the public during the day, a grand performance hall, eight teaching and rehearsal spaces, practice rooms, a luthier workshop (where a violin maker can teach and make repairs on-site) and a media lab. Spanning from daily lessons with the Youth Program to a summer camp, fellowships, access to professional networks and more, it will be a space where many forces unite. CMW, as stated on it’s website, envisions this as a “central, inclusive gathering place in the heart of Providence’s West End that embodies CMW’s mission and values; an anchor in the community where students, families, audiences, and neighbors can comfortably engage with a remarkable spectrum of cultural activities.”

The Beginning of a Partnership

More than twenty-five years ago, Sebastian Ruth, then a Brown student, founded Community MusicWorks with start-up funding from the Swearer Center at Brown University. Ruth noticed that, over the years, both students and instructors often had to travel to various locations, even each other’s homes, to meet. Today, he is looking forward to having a reliable, inclusive program space for students and community members to host their numerous music education and community engagement programs. 

The flexibility offered by Brown’s open curriculum allowed Ruth’s initial vision for CMW to grow and coalesce through a series of explorations, discoveries and even frustrations as he submitted independent study proposals. At a discussion group hosted by the Swearer Center, Ruth presented his idea and found swift and enthusiastic support in then-Swearer Center director Peter Hocking. Looking towards sustaining a reciprocal relationship between Brown and CMW, Ruth envisions a future in which the boundaries between Brown and its surrounding community are much more transparent. He hopes the new performance art center will be open for public use by the greater Providence community. Reflecting on his engagement with Swearer when he was a student, he also hopes for an extended continuation of Swearer programs, such as multi-year community engagement programs for students. Brown students have always been active in CMW, and Ruth looks forward to their engagement continuing.

The Partnership Today

One such student, Royce Fellow Elana Hausknecht, recently presented her research at Swearer Center. She detailed her work on a capacity-building project supporting goals directly identified by Community MusicWorks through their Racial Justice Task Force team. Hausknecht, through family-based interviews with students persisting in the program through high school graduation, looked at how CMW’s “multiple commitments to music, to neighborhood, and to community and civic engagement play out in the student experience.” As the CMW’s new space rises, Hausknecht explored how the music and fellowship at the core of CMW’s work has uplifted those near the core of its community. Her presentation emphasizes the role music, as “an inherently relational medium,” can play in issues of place and power, and the ways Community MusicWorks engages in that work. A notable example is their Oral Histories project, titled “Traces,” completed by CMW in collaboration with composer Shaw Pong Liu, the Rhode Island Historical Society, and many neighbors in the West End. The project worked to develop the CMW community’s understanding and acknowledgement of the history of their neighborhood. 

Considering the growth of CMW, within that context of the West End’s history, Sebastian Ruth warmly recounts their 25th anniversary reunion concert last summer and how it brought together generations of CMW students and alums to create and listen to music collectively:

“The concert started symbolically on the site of what will become our new building. We had a circle of students and teachers standing on the land that CMW now owns. That circle was significant because a year prior, we had planted a circle of sunflowers on this site in conjunction with this musical event called “Traces,” honoring and exploring the history of the land we bought. As part of this event, all audience members got to plant a sunflower seed. There were no longer any sunflowers, but the circle was still there, so we all stood together, with a drummer in the middle, and felt the energy of that moment commemorating 25 years.”

The anniversary celebration was a beautiful opportunity to reflect on and commemorate the numerous accomplishments of everyone who has come together to form the CMW community and “drum up” excitement for all the new changes in 2023!

Get Engaged

Learn more about Community MusicWorks and explore upcoming events on their website. Join them this Saturday, June 17, at 4 p.m. for a special performance, "Songs of Refuge," a concert celebrating the vitality of Providence’s resettled communities through music and storytelling.