On June 1, Forest Park’s Gasse School of Music celebrated its 20th anniversary. The school, named after founders Daniel and Sarah Gasse, has run out of the same location on Polk Street the entire time, and has learned to adapt over the years, adjusting to changes in the economy and the pandemic. But one thing has stayed the same: Daniel and Sarah’s belief in the importance of music, not just for the sake of music itself, but the impact it has on the quality of life of people who play and perform.
“When you start learning music young enough, it creates a whole different world,” Daniel Gasse said. “It provides skills, yes, but also leadership and stage presence, teamwork and confidence.” The brain labor necessary to read music while at the same time transmitting signals to the body to play the notes is above what it takes to simply read a book, Gasse said. He referenced studies that show that kids who play a musical instrument tend to do better in school and even in sports.
“Music should be mandatory, like math or language,” said Gasse.
When the school opened in 2001. Daniel and Sarah were living in an apartment in downtown Forest Park, and they started looking for houses. They found their current home, though at that time it had no upstairs, and the basement, which now houses lesson and practice rooms, was just a concrete floor and two pillars.
But Daniel saw the potential immediately. “This is our school,” he said. Six months later, the school was built, and Sarah and Daniel, who had both been performing and teaching at other institutions, started taking on students. First, they taught one day a week. Then they slowly added days. A year later, they were up to full capacity.
Now, they have about 80 students, ranging in age from three to an 84-year-old cello student.
“I say we teach students from age three to 93,” Daniel joked. “If you’re 94, you’re out of luck.”
Daniel teaches cello and chamber music, and Sarah instructs students in the violin and viola. Early on, they hired piano and guitar teachers.
But both Sarah’s and Daniel’s love for music started long before they opened the school. Daniel, who’s from Argentina, earned his diploma in cello there in 1968. The following year, he began to play in the symphony orchestra, working his way from last to first cello over the next 15 years. But he hit the ceiling there, he said. He wanted to learn more.
At a summer camp in Brazil, he met the head of the string department at Yale University, who took Daniel under his wing. Yale was too expensive for Daniel to attend, but he got names and references of other professors and programs in the United States, and he sent handwritten notes to all of them.
He was awarded a full scholarship from the University of Illinois in Urbana.
He borrowed money from his father for a plane ticket to the United States, and with $200 in his pocket, one suitcase and two cellos, he landed in Miami. He was supposed to board another plane to fly to Urbana, but the airport wanted him to check both his cellos, including one in a soft case, and he knew it would get broken, so he got on a Greyhound bus and traveled from Florida to the Midwest.
“I was the oldest student in my classes,” Gasse said. Two years later, he’d finished his master’s degree. He was 33 years old.
Gasse moved to Chicago, where he performed, playing chamber music, and taught at different schools, eventually moving to Oak Park.
Daniel and Sarah’s own two sons, who will be a junior and a freshman in high school in the fall, grew up playing music, and Daniel reiterated the importance of music in the lives of children, including those with learning disabilities.
“When we communicate with them, and when we have high expectations for them, they feel respected. They can do it. It changes the tide,” Daniel said. He told a story of teaching in a Suzuki school years ago where there was a student who was disruptive. He’d break things and wouldn’t listen to the teachers. Daniel said he figured out how to communicate with that student on his level, and he let the student know he believed in him. He set expectations. And after a while, one day something changed.
“It clicked for him. And when he clicked on the cello, he clicked at school too,” Daniel said. It was a moment where the goal setting and practice and confidence all came together, not just when it came to music, but when it came to life.
At the next recital, the director of the school was sitting behind Daniel in the audience while the boy played. Astounded by the change, she whispered to a friend, “Nothing but a miracle.”
That was one of his proudest moments, Daniel said, and one of the things that drives him is helping students learn and grow.
Moving forward, Daniel said he’s hoping to take some time to visit family in Argentina and England and may use technology learned during COVID-10 to achieve that goal. If teaching remotely worked during a pandemic, it can work other times too. Hiring more teachers is something else he’s considering. He also wants to continue to collaborate with groups in the community. Recently, he and Sarah and their son Antonio played music outdoors during the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Forest Park Arts Alliance art stroll.
Daniel is 70 and had hip replacement five years ago and then again last year, which has made it more difficult physically for him to play the cello for long periods of time. It’s also impacted the way he teaches – less playing, more singing, he said.
He referenced Jacqueline Mary du Pre, regarded by many as one of the greatest cellists ever. Born in 1945, she died in 1987 at the age of 42, suffering from multiple sclerosis which ended her performing career at the age of 28. But even after she couldn’t perform, she was widely sought after as a teacher.
“I have to be like her,” Gasse said. “I will keep playing and teaching until I die.”
After 20 years teaching, Daniel and Sarah have some second-generation students, kids whose parents took lessons from them. They have previous students who have gone on to become performers and music teachers too. There are teachers who taught for the Gasse’s and now own their own schools.
“It’s much more of a legacy than just music,” said Gasse. “I’m sad they’re not with us, but I’m happy they are successful and spreading music.”