Music is better than medicine

“Music is better than medicine.” That’s what 11 year old Alma told Westchester legislators.  Alma went to Albany with Sister Beth Dowd and ten other youngsters of Songcatchers on Valentine’s Day to deliver some love songs and to ask for a boost in arts funding.  Songcatchers is an organization that works out of St. Gabriel’s basement in New Rochelle teaching music to hundreds of youngsters at $8 a lesson.  How they do that is with lots of volunteers, mentors and prayer, all of which Sister Beth learned in the ministry as an educator and musician. Starting in 1997 in one room with 35 kids, eight volunteers and four instruments, Songcatchers now occupies four rooms, has 200 students, 70 volunteers and teaches 12 instruments. With the motto “Reaching for Peace Through Music” most youngsters participate in the choir and also play two instruments.  Musikgarten, Choir Camp and Composers of the Future are just a few of the programs Sister Beth runs on a budget of $165,000, only $1,000 of which she received this year from an Arts Alive Grant from ArtsWestchester, which is funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

I was curious as to how important that $1,000 was to Sister Beth, so I asked. “It’s not much money, but it gets us lots of mileage,” she said. I didn’t understand.  She elaborated. “We never could have taken the growth steps that we did without the support of ArtsWestchester, which over 12 years totaled $46,085.  This support helped us raise private donations and secure additional grants.  For example, the Arts Alive Grant allowed us to team up with Barry Hoffman’s Westchester Chamber Orchestra on Composers of the Future.”  This program encourages kids to compose music, which is then performed by the orchestra.  “The funds were never huge, but despite ups and down, they were steady.”

Songcatcher’s grant this year is one quarter of the $4,000 it was in 2000. Then too, NYSCA’s budget for grants this year is $31.6 million as compared to a high of $54.3 million in 1990.  The best news we have heard in a long time is that Governor Andrew Cuomo has recommended level funding for next year.  Yet, statewide arts advocates at are asking legislators to add another $4.5 million for programs like Sister Beth’s throughout the state.

Neil Watson, director of the Katonah Museum, who traveled to Albany this year said, “For cultural organizations like Katonah Museum of Art, NYSCA support is a main artery.  As important as the funds are, NYSCA support also represents a seal of approval that enables us to raise private funds, enlarging and diversifying our base of support.”  Dominick Balletta of the Jacob Burns Film Center echoed these sentiments. “The funds Jacob Burns receives from NYSCA are effectively redistributed throughout Westchester because people from all over Westchester come to the film center.”

While no promises were made, there was a genuine recognition of the importance of NYSCA’s community partnership. State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins told us, “New York State Council on the Arts is the smallest agency in the state, but its impact far exceeds its size.  Because of NYSCA, the state has developed an arts sector that stimulates the economy, builds community and transforms individual lives. In Westchester, The Decentralization Program that makes possible Arts Alive Grants puts the arts at the heart of community life.”  Sister Beth agrees.  “The arts build communities.  It unites us.”

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