Church-Affiliated Music Schools

August 27, 2015

A Rewarding Partnership

Joseph Ripka (M.M. ’11)

When my wife Erin and I first visited Stonington Borough, Connecticut, we were entranced by the idyllic beauty and charm of the historic coastal village. The thought of living in this serene, unspoiled setting and raising our daughter there was like a dream, which we were almost afraid to believe could become a reality.  The other factor that made the position of organist/choirmaster at Calvary Episcopal Church so attractive was the leadership of the recently appointed rector Reverend Alfred Tisdale, a man of integrity, compassion, and vision who placed high value on the quality of worship music in his ministry.

In discussing the position with Father Alfred, I learned that there was a music school associated with the church. This was very appealing to us, since Erin is a violinist and Suzuki teacher, and she could teach right on the church campus. Little did I realize the full implications of the presence of a music school within the church mission, in terms of the opportunities and occasional challenges that it presented.

Calvary Music School (CMS) was established in 2001.  When I started my position with the Church in 2011, Erin and I began teaching private lessons through the school.  I soon realized that the quality and reputation of the music school would be tied closely with my church music program. Both the rector and I felt that the school should be closely identified with the church and reflect the church’s commitment to a quality outreach mission. In order to make some needed changes in the administration of the school and facilitate improvements in instruction, a new board of directors was formed for the school, and I was appointed artistic director. This position was extremely helpful in enabling me to take a leadership role in our new initiatives.  

After four years at Calvary Church, I have found the presence of a well-run, quality music school to be a wonderful asset. There has been a mutually beneficial interweaving of talents and activities between the church music program and the school. The music school has brought students and parents to our church campus and increased the church’s visibility in the surrounding area. The treble choir program at Calvary, based on the Royal School of Church Music, is able to utilize the resources of CMS to enhance the musical education of its choristers and recruit choristers from that community. I have also used many of the fine CMS faculty in worship services for the church.

When ISM director Martin Jean invited me to a recent day of discussions around the potential of parish-based music schools, I was eager to participate. It was an honor to meet representatives from two other churches: Mount Olivet Music School (Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis, MN) and Madison Street Music & Arts Academy (Madison Street United Methodist Church in Clarksville, TN).  Lawrence Zukof, former executive director of one of the largest community arts schools in the country (the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven), also joined us and provided valuable perspectives on the state of music education and the need for a variety of programs to meet community needs.  As the individual  program offerings were described, we soon realized that while each school had its own unique challenges and opportunities, we also shared many commonalities, chief among them the goal of providing quality music instruction as part of a church outreach program.

Three Churches, Three Program Models

Calvary Church in Stonington, CT is located on a tiny peninsula reaching out into Fisher’s Island Sound in the southeast corner of the state. Calvary is a small church physically, seating about 180 people, with a worship attendance of around 170 between two services.  It is on this intimate campus—consisting of the church, rectory, parish hall, and chapel–that Calvary Music School serves roughly 150 music students.  CMS is an outreach program of Calvary Church under the umbrella of the governing vestry, yet functions independently as a non-profit 501(c)(3) school with its own budget and board of directors, employing a part-time business manager, artistic director, and sixteen independent contractors (music teachers).  CMS offers one-to-one instruction on most instruments, adult education classes, and children’s group music classes. At CMS, all teachers charge the same hourly rate for lessons, and the school receives approximately 30 percent of the tuition. This makes up the bulk of the operating budget for each year.  The cost of utilities is shared with the church, and the school pays the church’s financial secretary to manage the school’s finances.  Other expenses budgeted for each year are advertising, receptions, printing, computers, and software. The school undertakes separate fundraising for scholarships and financial aid.

 Mount Olivet Church in Minneapolis is a Lutheran congregation of roughly 13,000 members worshipping on two campuses.  The Mount Olivet School of Music (MOSOM) was founded in 2003 and currently serves approximately 600 students with one-to-one lessons, group music classes, summer camps, and band and orchestral ensembles.  Like CMS, Mount Olivet School of Music covers the cost of running the school through tuition. Unlike CMS, it operates under the oversight of Mount Olivet Church and is not a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  At MOSOM, the teachers set their own lesson rates, and the school retains approximately 25 percent of the tuition paid by students. The instructors are paid on a monthly basis, with a guaranteed salary based on the number of students registered for their studio. Expenses as well as income are a part of the annual budget of the church. MOSOM’s income exceeds expenses, leading to a net positive for the church. The school is overseen by an artistic director who is also the church’s director of worship and music.  The biggest challenge the Mount Olivet School of Music faces is space limitation.  Church activities such as confirmation, Bible study, choir, etc. take first priority in facility use. Consequently, church and MOSOM staff have developed creative and cooperative scheduling practices.

Madison Street Music & Arts Academy in Clarksville, TN, runs quite differently from CMS and MOSOM.  Founded in 2013, it was begun primarily as a mission outreach program for low-income families. The Academy is fortunate to have a completely renovated building separate from the church (purchased by the church), which houses only the music school.  They have grown to 250 students in a short time and continue to offer financial help to low-income students, including lessons for as low as fifty cents!  All of the 27 faculty receive 100 percent of the tuition per student because of the generous endowment and grants available to the school.

The value of networking with other music school directors became clear to everyone present at the ISM meeting that day, and we  agreed that the Institute could serve as a valuable educational resource for other churches that might be interested in starting or expanding a music instruction program.  With our full support and participation, Martin Jean committed the Institute to providing training and networking opportunities around this topic over the next three years. The first such offering will be a pilot one-day workshop—on Saturday, October 24 at the ISM.  (For information and registration, see I hope that this initiative will lead to the establishment of more high quality, parish-based music programs for the benefit of future generations.

  • Scene from Mount Olivet
  • Scene 2 from Mount Olivet
  • Orff class from Mount Olivet