Hill native Caeli Smith was inspired to launch an online music school, Music Ally, that will match purchased class time with free lessons for less fortunate music students. by Pete Mazzaccaro As …
by Pete Mazzaccaro
As nearly every cultural event in the country was cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic in March, Chestnut Hill native, Juilliard viola instructor and New York City chamber musician Caeli Smith saw her entire calendar disappear. Everything from concert performances to in-person music classes for New York City public school kids disappeared quickly.
“In March I played my last concert. And then there was this sort of creeping sense of dread. I went through my calendar and I erased everything that was in there, all the rest of my performances,” Smith said. “I spent like a week, you know, being incredibly depressed feeling useless, thinking, what is the role of a musician in a pandemic? And also, you could say in general, with the role of a classical musician in the 21st century?”
What had not disappeared from her calendar, however, were private lessons, which like so much of American life over the last four months, migrated quickly to online ZOOM interactions. Her students, she said, were eager to continue, even if the lessons moved online. Smith said the transition was surprisingly great.
“There's a learning curve for everyone involved including me, but I have found for private instruction — that is, for one-on-one work with a dedicated student — online, remote learning is a really excellent substitute.”
Soon after migrating her classes online, Smith began to realize that online music education was more than just a good stand-in for the real thing. It also made music education much more accessible. In New York, where she was teaching a wide range of students, she noted an hour-long class became two to three times as long when you factored in getting to and from the lesson. And for younger students, parents would need to transport or accompany them. At home, there is no such demand on parents’ time
“An online hour-long class is an hour,” she said.
And for those outside of New York, a nearby classically trained musical instructor might be many miles and hours away. That’s not a barrier online.
So Smith conceived the idea of Music Ally, at music-ally.org, an online school that would bring together a group of her musical colleagues to teach a wide range of musical instruments from classical to jazz. Smith said she expects that continued closures of schools and businesses due to the pandemic will make Music Ally a great resource.
To further Music Ally’s commitment to making musical education more accessible, for every hour class that is purchased by a student, Smith and her fellow instructors will gift an hour class to an underprivileged student who otherwise couldn’t afford a one-on-one class. This was inspired by the world-wide protests in the wake of the police killing of Geroge Floyd. It was a way, she said, she could help level an otherwise uneven playing field.
“I was thinking about families that I know who wanted to contribute and give back, and who are really excited about their child taking lessons,” Smith said. “I thought if they had the chance that they could also support the musical education of another child who otherwise would not have that access to very specific high-quality resources like private lessons and an instrument that they would.”
Smith, 28, was born and raised in Chestnut Hill, one of four daughters of neurologist Larry Smith and writer and lit mag editor Karen Rile. She attended Project Learn and Masterman before finishing high school at a cyber charter school. The charter school was necessary in order to fit with Smith’s rapidly developing musical career and education.
She was turned on to a career in music at an early age, at first as a child watching her sisters learn to play instruments and then at a summer camp in which she took part in a four-person chamber performance of a Hayden composition at age 11.
“I will never forget the impact it made on me,” Smith said “It was my first chamber music experience. I was only 11, but I had this very strong feeling of being absolutely transformed. I thought to myself, ‘I like this. This going to be my life forever.’”
After high school, Smith went to The Juilliard School, the famous New York conservatory, where she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, excelling as both a violinist and violist. She went on to teach viola at both the undergraduate and graduate level at the school.
In addition to her work as an educator, she has built up a distinguished performing career. She was a concerto soloist with the Juilliard Orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. She has performed with the Spanish composer Jordi Savall at the Philharmonie de Paris, toured Spain and Germany with the Orpheus Chamber and has been a part of Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect.
Looking ahead, Smith is excited for the future of Music Ally. She said she created a “pen pal” program for students so that they can share performance videos and socialize over music online – an even more important aspect with continued school closures around the country. The program had 25 students in early July and Smith said the program is gaining exposure through word of mouth and social media. She plans on making Music Ally a program that will last long beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the sky's the limit. We're looking to grow the program and we actually offer lessons in every single instrument that you could picture on like a symphony stage, but also you know guitar and voice,” Smith said.
And most importantly, Smith wants to provide the sort of music instruction her students are looking for, even if that expands beyond the more high-brow realms of classical and jazz.
“I think, again, there's this problem with music in which the musician descends from their ivory tower to distill the gifts of their art on to you and you should be grateful for it,” she said. “And so, I'm really against that and I really like to have conversations and figure out what kids want, what they're interested in and what their families are looking for.
“My training and my passion is for classical music, but I certainly have experience playing a number of different genres and I have teaching colleagues who have played every single kind of music you can imagine. So, we are expanding, I want to say, into any kind of musical experience that you could dream of. That's what we want to offer.”
For more information, visit music-ally.org