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Being Instrumental

Being Instrumental June 29, 2022
Photo of drummer, Bob Halek.
Drummer Bob Halek is among the Skidmore faculty giving lessons to rural students.

Skidmore College’s reach extends beyond Saratoga Springs into the Adirondacks.

Thanks to Evan Mack, a Skidmore professor, composer and Ticonderoga resident, local students are now able to study remotely with Skidmore music faculty.

Mack, who founded We Are Instrumental, a program to collect and repair discarded and under-utilized music instruments, is collaborating with the organization ArtSmart to offer free lessons to students living in rural communities.

“ArtSmart provides those opportunities to kids living in cities such as Newark and Chicago, and I agreed to organize its rural equivalent,” said Mack, whose We Are Instrumental is now an independent non-profit organization. “We launched the program in March with twelve students receiving weekly lessons, and we expect it will only grow.”

Among the musicians participating in the program is percussionist Bob Halek, who teaches drums to a Ticonderoga Central School student.

It’s not as though Halek is in need of another gig. In addition to teaching Skidmore students and helping the faculty there conduct jazz and percussion programs, he teaches music in public schools and community colleges and plays roughly 250 shows a year.

But, he said, “If someone is interested in learning something about music, I’m there.”

Learning on Used, Donated Instruments

Evan Mack founded We Are Instrumental to find musical instruments for Adirondack schools, many of which lack the resources to supply instruments to all who need them.

It began in 2019 with an appeal to Skidmore students, faculty and staff to retrieve their own “gently used instruments” from closets and attics and donate them to an instrument drive.

With the help of the Ticonderoga Festival Guild, the drive expanded beyond Skidmore to reach communities from Dannemora to Silver Bay, even attracting the attention of music stores in the Hudson Valley and Long Island, which donated or sold at steeply discounted prices instruments from their stock.

Most of the students taking lessons with professionals such as Bob Halek are using instruments donated to We Are Instrumental.

Halek not only empathizes with students who can’t afford to buy musical instruments, he identifies with them.

“I’m one of those students,” he said. “When I was growing up in Troy, NY, in a family of five kids with no money at all, I played drums on boxes, pots and pans,” he said.

Next to making music himself, enabling others to find their voices is his calling.

“To me, a student’s age or level of skill when I meet them doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s important is the journey, helping them get to a place that’s farther along the road than the place where they started.”

Nor is his interest in teaching confined to students with professional ambitions or potential.

“The love of music is a life-long thing; it’s not something limited to what you hope to achieve within the next few days, weeks or even years,” he said. “Music is the universal language that brings people together rather than pulling them apart. Our society needs it; it needs musicians, but it also needs people who appreciate music.”

Building the Audiences of the Future

“These students are our future audiences,” said Mack, who noted that We Are Instrumental nurtures an appreciation for music among Adirondack students in multiple ways, including trips to concerts and performances at Skidmore and in Glens Falls. 

“The exposure to a concert presented by famous people in a state-of-the-art, world-class recital hall such as Skidmore’s Arthur Zankel Music Center is the sort of experience that leaves a memorable impression upon young people,” said Mack.

An April field trip, for instance, took a bus load of students from Ticonderoga to Skidmore for a piano recital by Lara Downes, who performed pieces by George Gershwin and Morton Gould to Billie Holiday, Scott Joplin and Florence Price.

“The students loved it,” said Mack. “Lara Downes is a great ambassador for classical music, and she was wonderful to the students, inviting them to be among the first to meet her.”

Mack said he himself loved listening to the students’ reactions on the trip home.

“They were so excited,” Mack said. “They talked about pieces they liked, what they didn’t like. They hadn’t expected to be so engaged.”

A Lake George-Area Instrument Drive

We Are Instrumental has just launched its summer instrument drive.

If Lake George-area summer residents have a clarinet, trumpet or violin in their closets which they no longer use, Mack encourages them to bring it to Lake George and donate it to We Are Instrumental.

“Instruments shouldn’t collect dust,” said Mack. “They should go the kids who will use them.”

Instruments can be taken to Silver Bay YMCA, which has volunteered to accept them.

Mack noted that the program also needs financial donations to refurbish the students so that doesn’t become a cost that falls upon the school districts.  As a 501C-3 not-for-profit organization, all contributions to We Are Instrumental are tax-deductible. For information, visit weareinstrumentalny.org.