Teaching music is a passion and a livelihood for Daniel and Sarah Gasse and they couldn’t have picked a better base of operation than Forest Park. The Gasse School of Music is located in their home at 7641 Polk Street. The school attracts students ranging from toddlers to the middle aged.
Thanks to Gasse’s Music For Life Foundation, the school is also able to teach students who normally couldn’t afford lessons.
This year, the school is celebrating its fourth year of offering quality musical education in the Western Suburbs.
When Daniel first arrived in Chicago, as a free-lance cellist, he found the city to have “fantastic” opportunities for teaching, learning and playing.
“But I didn’t like the oppressive city atmosphere,” Gasse said, “Forest Park is open, free, quiet, but close to the city.”
The Gasses moved to Forest Park in 1998 and opened the school on June 1, 2001, starting with nine students. Today they have grown to 130.
Daniel teaches cello, Sarah teaches the viola and the school has added two violin teachers and two piano teachers. Daniel hopes to one day outgrow the classrooms in his basement and expand into a bigger space. But, according to Sarah, the school will remain in Forest Park no matter what happens.
“We love Forest Park. It’s up and coming and has high energy. We belong to the Chamber of Commerce and have really found our niche here,” she said.
In addition, the school draws most of its students from Oak Park and River Forest but Sarah hopes to attract more Forest Park kids.
An international background
Both husband and wife developed their devotion to music while growing up in different parts of the globe. Daniel is from Argentina and came from a family of five.
“My parents loved music”my mother played the piano, my father the guitar”but they couldn’t afford to take lessons,” he said.
Because of this background, Daniel’s parents made it s a point to ensure their children could study instruments.
“I’m the only one of the five who stuck with music,” Daniel said, adding that his lessons were affordable because his music education in Argentina was otherwise free.
Sarah also benefited from free music instruction, growing up in England.
“My last two years of high school I was in a special program for students who were going to become musicians,” she explained.
Sarah said the couple first met playing as “ringers” in the string section of an orchestra, and then a violinist invited them to join a string quartet.
“In 1998, we were part of the quartet in residence at Blue Lake, Mich. for a month,” Daniel said. “The quartet dismantled but we stayed together.”
Besides making beautiful music together, the couple has a son, Ernesto, who is 2-months-old.
When the couple started their school, they wanted to give students the same opportunities they had growing up. So, they started the foundation to provide scholarships for children who couldn’t afford lessons.
“These kids are committed and talented,” Daniel said. “The scholarships we give are based on economic need.”
Finding money for these scholarships is, of course, a difficult task.
“We have had four fund-raising concerts,” Daniel said. “Not just Bach and Beethoven but ethnic music from the Middle East and Japan. These were free concerts as a service to the community but donations were welcome.”
Their most memorable fund-raiser was last February when some of his students played with the Tokyo String Quartet at Dominican University.
“The students competed for a chance to play with them. It was really amazing,” Daniel said.
So far, the foundation has awarded scholarships to 15 students but Daniel believes the future lies with other organizations providing the scholarship money.
“We are working with a church that is funding two students,” Gasse said “We are empowering the community to fund lessons. We are also talking with Mercy Home in Chicago to do a joint project. We want to create community involvement.”
To signal their involvement in the Forest Park community, the Gasse School gave free violin lessons at the Mohr Community Center for a year.
The couple simply wants to pass on the gift of music to as many kids as possible, they said of their active involvement in providing scholarships.
It’s an education
As for Daniel’s own studies, he was a professional musician in Argentina for 15 years prior to coming to America in 1982. He felt like he had reached a dead-end in his musical career and looked for a way to expand his education.
“I wanted to find a good school, with good teachers and I got a scholarship to the University of Illinois to get my Masters,” he said.
Daniel liked his studies in Champaign so much he stayed for his doctorate. His dissertation was on Argentinian cello music.
“I identified 400 cello pieces,” he explained. “They were European style with a strong taste of Argentina.”
After he received his degree, Daniel considered returning to Argentina to teach music to underprivileged children. Instead, he decided to reach out to the economically disadvantaged in his adopted country.
Daniel’s teaching method combines the Suzuki technique with giving students an early start on reading notes.
“They begin learning to read music at six,” Daniel emphasized.
Not that the school is neglecting the pre-Kindergarten crowd”The Gasse School offers a Musik Garten program for children ranging from newborns to age nine.
“It’s the best part of the day,” Daniel said. “The babies and toddlers are so cute. They ‘represent the music’ but don’t play instruments.”
A typical “representation” would be a class of kids pretending to be butterflies flitting about to the music.
At the other end of the age spectrum are Gasse’s classes for adults.
“I hear from adults who wish they hadn’t quit an instrument when they were young. I tell them to stop wishing and come and play,” Daniel said.
At the end of the year, the grown-ups have a recital that looks suspiciously like a party. “We have it at a house with wine, cheese and crackers,” Daniel said. “The adults become friends just like the kids.”
Friendships are promoted at the school by the formation of string quartets.
“Chamber music is a major tool in our program,” Daniel said. “Students learn the fun of playing together. They become great friends and start going to movies together.”
More importantly, being part of a quartet “accelerates their rate of learning,” he said. The student is transformed from a soloist reading music to a “team player.”
“They learn to become leaders and followers because there’s no conductor,” he said. “They have to cover for each other’s mistakes. They learn to play in tune and in rhythm.”
Some of the quartets “work like slaves,” Daniel noted but there is a small financial reward: “They get hired to play at weddings and parties. The kids not only have the ‘cute’ factor but they sound good. They start earning 20-30 dollars and they’re thrilled.”
Indeed, the school’s chamber program is so successful, Daniel said, that “kids are quitting soccer and karate to join a quartet.”
For those interested in lessons, or in donating to the foundation, the Gasse School of Music can be reached at (708) 488-8117. The school is something special ” it’s the dreams of two musicians coming true right here in Forest Park.