One St. Louis piano teacher’s vision paved the way for the Community Music School (CMS) at Webster University, which is celebrating its ninetieth anniversary.
The CMS provides music education and performance opportunities to more than 2,000 students of all ages across the St. Louis area, according to the CMS website. It offers individual music lessons as well as classes to infants through adulthood.
History of the CMS
In 1925, St. Louis piano teacher Edna Lieber founded the CMS. She put up a sign inviting students to study music. Students paid what they could afford, according to the CMS website. Faculty members were from the St. Louis Symphony. CMS Director Carol Commerford said the St. Louis Symphony musicians donated their personal time to the program.
“They taught a token amount to underprivileged children who normally wouldn’t be able to afford to have music lessons, especially with St. Louis Symphony musicians,” Commerford said. “We started in a settlement house, basically a boarding house, where Edna Lieber set up her initial studios, and now we’re here.”
According to the CMS website, the school began to grow in the 1930s under the leadership of Board President Alice Gerdine.
In 1974, the CMS joined with the St. Louis Institute of Music to form the St. Louis Conservatory and Schools for the Arts (CASA). The CMS headquarters also opened in University City on Trinity Avenue.
The conservatory part of CASA closed in 1989, but the non-degree music programs for all ages continued on. In 1994, CMS joined with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to become the St. Louis Symphony Community Music School.
In September 2001, the CMS program was acquired by Webster University from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. After four years with Webster holding CMS headquarters in the Trinity building, the Trinity building was sold by Webster to Washington University in 2005 for use by its music department. Webster used proceeds from the sale to fund construction of the new CMS headquarters on Webster’s campus, according to a 2005 article published in The Source, a Washington University publication.
CMS Community Relations Coordinator Melissa Peterson said that even though the CMS has changed over the years, the core mission and values have stayed the same: to provide high- quality music education to students of all ages, levels of ability and financial situations.
“It’s a really wonderful program and I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Peterson said.
The groundbreaking for the CMS building on Webster’s campus (located between Loretto-Hilton Theatre and the East Academic Building) was Nov. 17, 2005. In fall 2006, the CMS moved its headquarters to the new building on Webster’s campus. The CMS building includes 15 teaching studios, two rehearsal halls, a 470-seat concert hall and administrative offices. The debut concert in the CMS building took place April 15, 2007.
Commerford, who has been with the CMS since August 2002, said that something unique about the CMS is that it is a true community. She said children start at the CMS as young as infants in the Young Years program, and sometimes those students continue with the CMS all the way through their high school careers.
“We have generations of people who have been here,” Commerford said. “We have a teacher who has taught four generations of students. That family who is brought together by a love of music is what is so very special about this school.”
Peterson also said the sense of community is strong at the CMS. She said students come from all over the St. Louis region, and some students even drive in from Illinois and Cape Girardeau.
“They all play different instruments and are involved in different programs, but there’s a sense of community here that you wouldn’t get by going to somebody’s house and taking piano lessons,” Peterson said.
A partnership formed in Spring 2016 between the CMS and the St. Louis Public Schools to offer an after-school music program. The CMS currently offers programs at nine St. Louis locations, including the headquarters on Webster’s campus.
The CMS is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music and is a certified member of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts.
Commerford said the most rewarding part of being with the CMS is hearing students perform.
“Going to the concerts, going to the recitals, I love that portion of it,” Commerford said. “And I love the teaching. In my position, I get to sit in lessons and see the impact our teachers are having with the students. The teaching is just such high-caliber and amazing to me; it brings tears to my eyes.”
The CMS will celebrate 90 years with a student workshop at 4:30 p.m. Thurs., March 31 in the CMS concert hall. A celebratory toast for all ages will be at 6:30 p.m., followed by a concert performance by music trio Time For Three at 7 p.m. The concert will be followed by an after party for CMS donors and sponsors.
Time for Three performs classical and original music, creating arrangements from bluegrass to pop. This will be the first time the trio has performed in St. Louis, though they have performed across the US and at European festivals. The trio includes Nicholas Kendall and Nikki Chooi on violins and Ranaan Meyer on double bass.
“They’ll take a popular tune, like a Taylor Swift song, and they’ll use the themes from that song but they’ll incorporate their own style of playing,” Peterson said. “They are extraordinary musicians.”
Time for Three will also participate in the student workshop. The “Follow Your Dreams and Shoot for the Stars” workshop will have the trio demonstrate instruments and share their experiences as music students. They will also share their bullying-prevention music video “Stronger.” Commerford said the video is a powerful look at how children run into challenges when they are trying to make their dreams happen.
“It talks about how to deal with that, and how [Time for Three has] personally come through some of those challenges,” Commerford said.
The workshop is free and open to the public. For the concert, ticket prices are $50, $30, and $12 for children 12 and under. The tickets include the toast and performance. Tickets are discounted for CMS students and faculty. Tickets can be purchased online or at the CMS front desk.
To learn more about the CMS and its ninetieth anniversary celebration, visit http://www.webster.edu/community-music-school/.