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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 17, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Finding the Work You Love
The third career of choice has proved a charm for Ellen
Saxon, who brims with enthusiasm as she speaks about her work as
director of the Trenton Community Music School. As she and co-founder
and executive director Marcia Wood prepare for the school’s annual
benefit events on Sunday, April 21, Saxon looks at the ways her
work — both paid and volunteer — built the skills necessary
for realizing a shared musical dream.
Launched in 1999, Trenton Community Music School (TCMS) is an
non-profit school that began life housed at the Blessed Sacrament
School on Bellevue Avenue. When Blessed Sacrament closed after that
inaugural year, TCMS found its second home at the Arthur J. Holland
Middle School. Beginning with about 50 students and a faculty of nine,
the school is completing its fourth year with over 150 students and
a faculty of 22 drawn from Trenton, Princeton, and Philadelphia. With
one entire room of its own, plus classrooms equipped with donated
pianos, the music school operates on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,
from 3 to 7:30 p.m., and on Saturdays, during the public school year.
"Six years ago, Trenton’s Board of Education eliminated all
instruction in the elementary schools and in most of the junior high
school," says Saxon, explaining that this budget-driven cutback
was one of the prime motivators for the school.
"Trenton was known for the excellence of its high school marching
band," she says. "That excellence depended on new talent
into the high school, but it no longer has students with instrumental
training coming up through the system. All the instruments are locked
up in closets in elementary schools all over the city."
Saxon started her working career as a research assistant
with Opinion Research Corporation. When she left 15 years later, she
was a research director working with the organizational research group
that did large-scale employee surveys. "My experiences there,
which included the chance to work with some terrific people, provided
me with a solid business background." She then served for three
years as media director of Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers
University. Her volunteer jobs have included the Coalition for Peace
Action and Ceasefire New Jersey, both of which took her to Trenton
as a lobbyist.
"I wanted to find a way to be involved in Trenton. I have lived
in Princeton for 32 years, and, not long after we moved here, Marvin
and Ingrid Reed took us to Trenton for dinner and showed us around.
"Now I feel involved in a bigger effort that’s going on —
revitalizing the city. With the Marriott hotel, the renovated War
Memorial, Sovereign Bank Arena, and Conduit, there’s lot of interest
in making the arts part of the revitalization of Trenton."
TCMS director Marcia Wood led the Trenton Children’s Chorus for seven
years, and worked with Young Audiences of New Jersey and the Opera
Festival of New Jersey before moving forward to follow her own dream.
"During her experience in teaching young children to sing, Marcia
began to see the need in the city for a non-profit music school,"
says Saxon, "one where high-quality music instruction could be
provided at affordable rates."
"We’re kind of joined at the hip in terms of administering the
school," says Saxon. Wood focuses her efforts on development and
fundraising, while Saxon works in marketing and public relations.
In fact, this 21st century music school is modeled after the
Settlement House schools that were created by and for immigrant
Saxon and Wood’s models include the Settlement School of Philadelphia,
founded in 1905, and the Newark School of the Arts. Student fees are
set at the local standard level (currently $18 for a 1/2 hour weekly
private lesson), and are adjusted on a sliding scale according to
family size and income.
"At first our work was a little lonely, but we quickly gained
a lot of support in Trenton," says Saxon. The school also joined
a nationwide mentoring organization, the National Guild of Community
Schools of the Arts, which has proved invaluable. The guild recently
gave its members a tour of the Harlem School of the Arts in New York
and Saxon believes it provides an impressive model for Trenton.
ideal," she says. "They have their own building and teach
in all the arts — music, dance, and drama."
Most of the school’s 150 students are studying individual instruments
and some are studying in groups. Guitar, drums, and keyboard for kids
are all offered as 15-week group classes designed to prepare the
for private lessons. The school also offers a successful "Success
with Piano for Adults" class taught by Marion Tignor. Semesters
end with shared recitals in which kids and faculty perform together
in a jazz jam. There is also a recital for adult students, and three
recitals featuring mixed instruments and voice.
A grant from the Mercer Cultural and Heritage Commission enables the
school to present jazz assemblies at all eight Trenton middle schools,
Trenton High School, and the Granville Charter High School. The school
also partners with the Music Together program of Princeton with an
outreach program for children, teachers, and parents that serves seven
Trenton pre-schools through a grant from the Dodge Foundation.
Fundraising is key to Saxon and Wood’s enterprise. The school depends
for support on grants both large and small, from corporations and
from individual donors. The Trenton Community Music School annual
benefit gala, comprised of a concert, reception, and dinner, honors
jazz trumpeter Bill Lacy. A native of Trenton, and a member of the
TCMS Advisory Board, Saxon says Lacy is "one of the most loyal
supporters of the music school from the very beginning."
A native of Trenton, Lacy began his own formal training at the age
of 13. In 1946, Lacy was drafted into the army, accepted for band
training, and sent to Germany to join the 427th Army Band, one of
the last segregated U.S. Army bands. On his return to the area, he
attended the Philadelphia Music Academy, played with most of the
bands on the Philadelphia jazz scene, and formed his own combo, the
Philadelphia Jazz Connection.
Lacy now performs at the Cape May Jazz Festival, the Trenton Jazz
Festival, and with the Trenton Community Music School’s Jazz Ensemble.
Retired from a 35-year career with the U.S. Post Office, Lacy and
his wife, Betty, are parents of a son and two daughters.
Saxon is clear about the value of finding work she loves. "This
is the job that has absolutely meant the most to me. People nowadays
should really think about having two or three careers. Your life
you want to try something new and different. And somehow, for me,
working with children and working with music where it’s needed is
so important," says Saxon, who is widowed, and the mother of two
"Every single day, I think of my first piano teacher, and my
and brother, all of whom played an instrument — and what a source
of beauty and solace music has been for me throughout my life. Our
students and parents are some of the most interesting and wonderful
people — we feel honored and humbled by their support and
"Our dream is to have our own building," says Saxon, with
a new urgency in her voice. With this in mind, can the reality be
— Nicole Plett
School , Har Sinai Temple, 491 Bellevue Avenue, Trenton,
Program honoring Trenton jazz trumpet player Bill Lacy and his
Concert also features Russian-born Tamara Syrtseva, faculty members
Keiko Ishikawa and Audrey Peterbark, and students of the String
at the International Charter School. $15 adults; $5 students.
April 21, 4 p.m.
A benefit dinner at Merlino’s Waterfront Restaurant is at 7 p.m. $75
includes concert ticket.
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