BY ANGELA BARBUTI
Kaufman Music Center has created a community united in its appreciation for musical culture. Located on West 67th Street, it is home to Merkin Concert Hall, Lucy Moses School, which is the largest community arts school in New York, and Special Music School, a public school for students with musical talent.
Lydia Kontos has been with the center since 1979 and was instrumental in helping it grow into the dynamic place it is today. She began there as head of the concert hall and was later promoted to executive director. Although her job is multifaceted, she cannot help but mention the strides the center has made for its young musicians when asked about her proudest accomplishments.
Because of her musical background, she brought with her a vision that every child would learn music in a classroom setting. This was due to the fact that as a youngster, she took piano lessons at her teacher’s apartment and it proved to be a lonely experience. “When I started as executive director here, kids would do their year-end recitals and see their parents, aunts, grandparents and that would be pretty much it,” she explained. “And I remember sitting in the back and thinking that one of my measures of success is going to be when this place has such a kid music culture that kids want to hear each other …When I see our kids perform now and they’ve got their music friends and they’re doing ensembles and working together, that is really was this was meant to be and I’m so proud of my role in bringing it there.”
What’s the atmosphere like at Kaufman Music Center? How would you explain it to people who have never been?It’s hard to characterize what it’s like for people who have never been because we have so many different ways of coming here for the first time. You might come as an audience member or as a student or as somebody who might want to learn more about a contribution. If I take it just from an adult’s point of view, what I hear from people who are in the building for the first time is that it’s a bustling, busy, warm place with lots of happy young people. It has a feeling of instant inclusion. People feel very comfortable here very quickly.
What does a typical day look like for you? It’s very hard to outline a typical day because there are so many different aspects to the place. But, ideally, a day for me includes hearing some students perform or rehearse. In running the organization with my colleagues, there is a lot of really smart and interesting conversation about what we’re planning, what’s next and how we can work together. There’s a great deal of collaboration among the staff. I’m really lucky; it’s a wonderful staff. Even though everybody has their own areas of responsibility, it’s not a place where people are competitive. They really enjoy who they work with and the atmosphere of the place. It’s great. I love it.
It was your idea to make the Special Music School a public institution. What are the benefits to that? I was very proud to be the person who conceived of the Special Music School as a public school. I have to give a lot of credit to the pianist Vladimir Feltsman, whose idea it was to create a music school really for musically gifted children. But I had this vision that it should really be a public school. And I think that was my unique contribution since I’m not somebody who really has the musical expertise to put together a music school. First of all, by being a public school, the Special Music School would be making a statement about the need for more music in public education. Second of all, it made sense not to try to compete with top private schools because those schools are really, really expensive. And if we tried to compete, we would have had to do a lot that didn’t even have to do with music. In this way, we’re not fighting for tuition dollars, instead, we have to raise money. It’s a different kind of struggle, if you want to call it that. And one that is a lot more focused on the outcome for the kids.
You recently wrote an article about the importance of music education. Why do you think it’s so crucial for students? In a way it’s very easy to answer, and in a way it’s very difficult. On the difficult side, I would say, ‘Why is math important?’ Everybody would have a different answer and I don’t think anybody would say it’s not important to learn math. Now when I ask why it’s important to learn music, I’m asking the same unanswerable question that I would ask about math. But the funny thing is there are so many answers to that question. People say music is important because you learn history better, it helps you with math, it makes you creative … But music as a subject is really what’s important because being musically literate is one of the important literacies for us as human beings. And I think the only reason it’s been so easy to cut from the schools is because it’s not cheap. But one of the catch 22s about music education is that it’s very hard for people to think in terms of earning a reliable living as a music teacher in a school setting because you never know when it’s going to be cut from the budget. Because of that, there has been very little research and design on effective ways of learning music.
What are your future plans?The work that we do is so unique and amazing. The way all of our parts integrate to make so many experiences available to so many kids and adults as well. I would like more of the city and even the country to know who we are. Kaufman Music Center is, in my personal opinion, a phenomenon. I would like people to know about it and, if they’re not from New York, I’d like them to go to their cities and replicate it. And if they are from New York, I hope they come here.