The Gasse School of Music in Forest Park celebrated its 10th Anniversary on May 29 by hosting a tune-filled reception at House Red wine shop, 7403 Madison St. Guests were treated to two classical pieces, plus the upbeat sound of a high-school jazz trio.

 After the performances, husband and wife Daniel and Sarah Gasse gave tear-filled speeches of gratitude to their friends and staff – Daniel is the school’s founding director and Sarah is a violin instructor.  In addition to marking the school’s milestone, they spoke of how Daniel launched the Music For Life Foundation, a youth scholarship program.

 “Daniel and I grew up in countries with free music education,” Sarah said. “So, we started Music For Life to help students who couldn’t afford to learn music.” She went on to say that she hoped scholarships from the foundation would help students learn to “express joy through music.” 

 Luisa Vasquez is a Music For Life scholar who has found joy in music. Three years ago, her middle-school band teacher recognized her raw talent and urged her to apply for the scholarship. The fifth grader wasn’t really interested in music but she was awarded the scholarship based on her teacher’s recommendation and her financial needs. She was allowed to pick her own private instructor and the scholarship paid 90 percent of the costs for her clarinet lessons.

 Vasquez progressed from the back of the pack to first-chair clarinet, earning the band’s “Most Improved” award.  After adding the saxophone and guitar to her repertoire, the 14-year-old joined the Oak Park River Forest (OPRF) High School jazz band and symphony orchestra.

 “If it wasn’t for Music For Life, I wouldn’t have gotten to the point I am in music,” Vasquez said. “Private lessons have been so helpful,” she added, noting that the half-hour sessions were extended by 15 minutes, if necessary. Although her scholarship funds run out this year, Vasquez is already planning to pay for more sessions by giving hour-long private lessons to sixth graders.

 Studies show that learning music helps students in all areas of academics, and Vasquez is a proficient student with a knack for math and science. She hopes to become an astrophysicist one day, but maintains that she is grateful for the gift of music.

 “Music helps you learn how to focus and concentrate,” Vasquez said. “Performing in public gives you confidence. You develop discipline by practicing.” Her mother Maria added that, “Having an artistic outlet keeps you balanced.”

 Daniel envisioned students like Vasquez when he started Music For Life in 2005. Kevin Crowell, who administers the program, said that the foundation awards about $4,000 in scholarships annually. 

 “We reached out to local music teachers to identify students with great musical ability,” Crowell said, “Those who needed help to bridge the financial gap for private lessons.” He noted that students from this area who didn’t get private instructions often couldn’t keep up with their band mates and lost interest in music.

 After helping local students for six years, Music For Life encountered a problem: it was increasingly difficult to find suburban students who met the foundation’s criteria. Crowell said they decided to donate the scholarship’s remaining funds to the Merit School of Music in Chicago to provide lessons for city students. So, the foundation Gasse started no longer exists on paper, but its mission continues through Merit.

During his speech, Daniel noted they started out with only nine students and now they have over 200. Running the school had been a financial roller-coaster ride, but, thanks to sound business advice from supporters, the school survived. 

 Daniel said he started the school to serve less affluent communities, an in the beginning, they only had one Forest Park student. Forest Parkers now comprise about 10 percent of the student body, according to Daniel. The school has also been able to spread the gift of music to Berwyn, Maywood and other west-suburban communities.

As Vasquez declared, “No matter what happens in my life, music is always there for me.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.