“Changing Lives Through Music,” a Colgate University Profile of Music & Youth Founder Gary Eichhorn

By Anne Stein, Colgate Scene, Autumn 2014 Issue

Gary_ColgateNews_Photo_imgsizeMore than a decade ago, technology guru and amateur jazz guitarist Gary Eichhorn ’75 had a vision to provide underserved youth access to a music education. Today, nearly 1,000 youngsters ages 10 to 18 take free weekly lessons through his Boston-area nonprofit Music & Youth Initiative, and this past spring, the group’s 13th location (“clubhouse”) opened in Lowell, Mass.

“Music’s become one of the programs that’s been decimated in schools,” he said, explaining the impetus behind Music & Youth (musicandyouth.org), which he co-founded with wife Joan. “Surveys have shown that teens particularly enjoy and want to be exposed to music.” The clubhouses, which are located in YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other youth centers, provide year-round music programming in a safe environment while also exposing kids to tutoring and other services those groups provide.

“Lowell was lucky number 13, and as a Colgate guy, that’s significant,” said Eichhorn, a chemistry major who went on to a highly successful career in computer/medical technology.

Seventy percent of Music & Youth participants qualify for school lunch assistance, and the vast majority come from single-parent families. And while learning to play, perform, and compose is important, the real goal of Music & Youth is to help urban kids who normally don’t have access to after-school activities like music lessons develop self-confidence and self-esteem.

“It’s about giving kids something that’s interesting and motivational, and to learn something they can be proud of,” said Eichhorn, who started playing guitar at age 8, took a break from music in his 20s and 30s, then began jazz guitar lessons at age 40. “When you do that, it ripples through everything they do. It helps them socially, in school, at home — you can see a transformation in the kids who go through the program.”

The program has been transformative for Eichhorn, too; he’s transitioned from a full-time technology and consulting career to spending nearly all his time as Music & Youth’s CEO, developing the curriculum, programming, building partnerships, fundraising, and managing staff. “Over the past 10 years, it’s become clear this is the most rewarding professional opportunity I’ve had by far,” said Eichhorn.

Each clubhouse is staffed by a full-time director along with work-study students from local universities, including Berklee College of Music and Northeastern. A fellowship established by the Eichhorns supports full-time paid summer internships for Colgate students to teach and mentor at Music & Youth clubhouses; this year, seven took part.

Thanks to contributions from foundations and corporate partners such as cymbal maker Zildjian and audio/video hardware-software maker Avid Technology (along with fundraising by each host organization), sites are stocked with the latest instruments and equipment to play, create, and record.

“We want to offer our kids the same or even better facilities than kids in more economically advantaged communities have,” said Eichhorn. Over the past decade, Music & Youth has added voice lessons, beat making, and recording studios to its clubhouses. A new program teaches how to plan, storyboard, and edit music videos, and two clubhouses now offer a music therapy program for children with autism and other disabilities. “We’re always trying to make it a richer and better experience as we go along,” he said.

There are hundreds of success stories from Music & Youth, Eichhorn said. Karine, now 14, was a D student with behavior problems when she started vocal lessons two years ago. Her self-esteem soared, and today she’s on her school’s honor roll and volunteers to help other music students. Each clubhouse also hires older students, called youth leaders, to teach and mentor younger students. It’s often their first paid job, and these leaders, said Eichhorn, tend to excel in school and stay active year-round in their clubhouses.

“[These kids] are all so eager to learn,” he said. “It makes us even more determined to provide as many kids as we can with the opportunity to grow and reach their potential.”