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September 12, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music

TERRE HAUTE — Think a decade into the future.

You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.

“You changed my life,” he shouts.

Tears well in your eyes. (It’s cool. A true blues fan weeps occasionally.)

A far-fetched scenario? Actually, it’s more possible than you may realize, thanks to an inspiring local project.

A partnership between the Blues at the Crossroads Festival and the Terre Haute Boys and Girls Club aims to connect youngsters aspiring to play music with donated instruments and lessons at the club. Thirty-six kids — Boys and Girls Club members — submitted essays on “What Music Means to Me” in a contest to receive an instrument and instruction.

The winners will be announced Saturday, between acts, during the second night of this year’s Blues at the Crossroads. The following week, they’ll have their instruments and begin a year’s worth of free lessons, given by Indiana State University music students through the college’s Community School of the Arts.

The idea packs great potential, especially since the club moved from Third Street’s west side to a more accessible setting for neighborhood kids in the former Chauncey Rose Middle School facility on North 13th Street.

“There’s probably a child prodigy in this place,” festival founder Connie Wrin said, standing inside the club on Monday morning.

Talent is a terrible thing to waste. The project could prevent missed opportunities. “It’s going to give those kids an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Jimmy Smith, the club’s executive director.

Music affects people deeply. The longevity and popularity of the Blues at the Crossroads Festival exemplifies that power. Wrin and band of organizers started the event in 2001, managing to carry out the initial concert on Sept. 15 of that year, just four difficult days after 9/11. It’s grown, year by year, expanding in 2007 from a one-day blowout to a two-day bash. Hours of music, unfolding in the festive atmosphere of autumn at an historic intersection, grew into a cultural tradition here.

The kids who wrote the “What Music Means to Me” essays seem to understand the power of music. One wrote, “On the days I feel down, music makes me feel better.” Another said, “Music is a living, breathing thing that will change your life if you let it.”

They’re onto something. Scientific studies support the kids’ claims. Kids who participate in high-quality music programs score 22 percent better on English and 20 percent better on math in standardized testing, regardless of their socioeconomic status, according to statistics from the National Association for Music Education and VH1 Save the Music. The same sources say music serves as fine exercise for the brain, as directors of the crucial, difference-making middle-school and high school band, orchestra and choir programs can attest.

In the Boys and Girls Club program, the kids must fulfill their practice and lesson obligations, or turn in their instrument for someone else to use. “You’re teaching them responsibility, being dedicated and committed,” Wrin said. “There’s lessons to be learned. It’s all part of growing up.”

For some kids, such disciplined mastery an instrument may be an outlet for peace when their home life isn’t so tranquil.

They can find self-esteem, too, as they strum an acoustic guitar or breathe life into a tenor sax.

“It allows them to believe in themselves, and allows them to have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day,” said Petra Nyendick, director of ISU’s Community School of the Arts. The school, now in its second year, has funding through the university’s community engagement program to provide one year of lessons for 12 winners in the Boys and Girls Club essay contest. ISU music majors — recommended by their professors — will teach the youngsters at the club. “They’re just great,” Nyendick said of the students, who include both under-graduates and grad students.

Average Hauteans, musically inclined or otherwise, can help, as well.

Wrin and the Blues Festival, which donates funds for 50 memberships to the Boys and Girls Club beyond the essay contest, would like to get as many kids as possible involved in the instruments-and-lessons program for years to come. Though they have several donated instruments, including six guitars from The Music Shoppe, more would help. If you’ve got a trumpet or bass guitar collecting dust in a closet, imagine the impact it might have on a needy boy or girl.

Anyone willing to contribute an instrument — even if it needs repairs — can drop it off at The Verve (the nightclub Wrin operates at 677 Wabash Ave.), the Conservatory of Music (west of Honey Creek Mall), The Music Shoppe (at Washington and 25th streets), the Boys and Girls Club, or Maryland Community Church (south of town on Indiana 46). Better yet, anyone bringing a donated instrument — beat-up harmonicas, kazoos and novelties don’t count — gets free night’s admission to the Blue Festival, Wrin said. Give away music, receive music. What a good deal.

Likewise, monetary contributions to the ISU Community School of the Arts — targeted for providing the lessons to the Boys and Girls Club kids — can be made by calling Nyendick at 812-237-2575.

It could be a gift that keeps on giving, to the recipient and the community. As one of the young essayists wrote, “Music makes me have joy … music will always be in my life.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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