Since 1984, W.O. Smith Music School provides 50 cent lessons for low-income students


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – For more than 30 years, a local music school has offered 50 cent music lessons to Nashville’s low-income children.

The W.O. Smith Music School is generously supported by the music community it calls home, and after more than three decades it continues to thrive and celebrate the legacy of the man who created it.

Dr. W.O. Smith was a sideman – a sessions musician who played double bass with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

After rubbing shoulders with jazz masters of his time, he settled in Nashville and brought the gift of music to inner city children.

“One of the reasons I played was not for the money, but for the image I thought we could bring to black listeners,” he said. “You see, we do what we see is possible for us to do.”

Smith, who grew up in Philadelphia before moving to New York to study music at NYU, went out to play multiple musical instruments and even got his first paying gig with the legendary Bessie Smith.

“He realized that he was lucky,” said Jonah Rabinowitz with W.O. Smith School. “He had some good teaching. He had some people who helped him along the way, but mostly what he had was ambition and what he also had was an idea of what was possible.”

Ambition and a dream ultimately brought Smith to Nashville to teach music at Tennessee State University in the mid-60s. He was the first African American musician to join the Nashville Symphony and played for 18 years.

His most lasting contribution though came in 1984 with the opening of the W.O. Smith Music School located near Edgehill Public Housing and Nashville’s Music Row.

Now more than 30 years later, music still floats through the halls of the school, which has since moved to Eighth Avenue.

Despite moving locations, the mission is still the same – to introduce economically disadvantaged youth to the world of music.

“We thrive because Nashville is a music city,” Rabinowitz said.

Each week, 200 professional musicians donate an hour to give one-on-one private lessons to low-income students.

“I’ve been doing it ever since I moved here 20 years ago,” Volunteer instructor Shelly Bohan said. “I’m here every week and I’ve told them I will never give it up.”

To help them understand that learning has a cost, students pay 50 cents per lesson.

“At this school you are likely to get a full year of lessons for $15 or $16, which wouldn’t equal to one lesson if you had to pay for it,” Rabinowitz explained.

For many students who come to the music school more than once a week, it serves as an after-school refuge.

“We want this to be a place where our students want to spend their afternoons,” Rabinowitz said. “Where they want to come spend their time, where they can be with their friends, where they can be pro-active in the skill sets they receive and all those kinds of things.”

W.O. Smith Music School started with just 45 students and it now serves more than 650 each year.

Over the course of its existence, it has introduced thousands of children to the world of music.Click here to read more stories from Anne Holt’s Tennessee.

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