Cover Story: Music is the Muse

Rosie’s House hasn’t had its own permanent home since 2000. But that hasn’t stopped its incredible growth.

Rosie Schurz believes in magic, at least when it comes to creating it. “The initial goal for Rosie’s House was to give a child who could not afford it a chance to take music lessons, something the war took away from me,” she said.

Now well into her 80s, Schurz still mourns the loss of her childhood violin. During World War II, Schurz’s family fled their home in Munich, forcing 7-year-old Rosie to leave her violin behind. Throughout her life — after immigrating to the United States and working as a nurse, photographer and volunteer helping the homeless community — she kept hearing music call. Finally, an encounter with Mother Teresa during the nun’s visit to Arizona inspired her to listen.

In 1996, Schurz and her late-husband Woody renovated a small house in Phoenix’s Oakland neighborhood. They put in a garden and ran off drug dealers to transform it into an inviting space that provided free music lessons to underserved youth.

Marvin Scott was there to see — and hear — the magic of Rosie’s House unfold. Then a Mesa Community College music student and now the program and community engagement director, he was hired to teach saxophone lessons on Saturdays. “I had maybe four students, and they were all neighborhood kids,” he said.

 Enrolling 15 students in its first year, Rosie’s House provided free music lessons out of its two bedrooms and had a desk in the living room for administration. “It was very small, but very welcoming,” Scott said.

The community got wind of the positive impact Rosie’s House was having on kids, so the nonprofit added more instruments and programming and before long started to outgrow the house. “From the beginning, the mission was perfect, and the sense of community and closeness. It just kept growing and growing,” Scott said.

Through a partnership with the Episcopal Church, they first moved to a space on 7th Avenue near Buckeye and continued to grow, adding mariachi and other performance groups as well as wraparound support services. Several years later, more growth would mean another move to Central United Methodist Church in downtown Phoenix.

In 2008, Becky Bell Ballard was hired to lead the organization. A talented French horn player from the Midwest, Ballard came to Arizona for ASU’s renowned brass program and stayed to manage The Phoenix Symphony’s education and outreach programs. Through that work, she saw the disparity in arts education in Maricopa County. “I realized how meaningful it was to be on the ground and very much part of both system change and change for the kids,” she said. “When I had those opportunities, I knew this is the work I wanted to be doing.”

Ask anyone involved with Rosie’s House and they will tell you: This place changes lives.

“We offer the entire opportunity, the instrument, and all of the classes for free to those who qualify for the program,” Scott said.

Kids literally grow up in Rosie’s House. “We are there every step of their journey as young people,” Ballard said.

The average retention at Rosie’s House is a little over five years, and there are many alumni who started when they were 6 and graduated at 18. “So if you think about your own childhood, anything you did for that length of time is a significant part of your development as a young person,” Ballard said.

Aldie Lopez, the assistant principal of Pastor Elementary School in Phoenix, saw this firsthand. Then the band teacher at Pastor, he pricked up his ears when he heard about this music program developed to target and support the students who need it most.

Lopez saw two of his students — twin sisters who came to Pastor when they were in fifth grade — grow with their involvement at Rosie’s House. One sister played flute, the other played saxophone, and Lopez watched their trajectories change. “They were good musicians, but I really saw them take off when they joined Rosie’s House. To see them getting that quality instruction from music educators and musicians, and watching them make strides and grow and achieve, was incredible,” he said.

Lopez now teaches clarinet at Rosie’s House while working as an administrator at Pastor. “It’s my outlet,” he said. “I don’t have to do it. I truly want to do it. One, because of the kids and, two, because Rosie’s House is so cool!”

So why is music education the catalyst for changing children’s lives? “Because it’s hard,” Ballard laughed, before citing some of the reasons music education is so valuable to personal development. “You have to work through challenges. You have to have the dedication and discipline to set up a practice regimen. And the goals that you’re setting are small and gradual and take years to have something big come together.”

Plus, music helps cognition and the brain. Scores of studies show that music training helps the brain learn to learn. And then there is the community that music creates. “That’s key to kids — having a place outside of school where there’s different relationships that can validate you and your identity,” Ballard said.

Rosie’s House has been offering that identity to kids for 25 years by eliminating barriers to high-quality music education. “We exist because there’s a problem in the system in terms of equity in access to music education. We’re trying to solve that problem,” Ballard said.

Rosie’s House is about more than music. Music is the start of helping kids develop their full creative potential, and their potential as young people. Accordingly, in addition to instruction in piano, strings, guitar, winds, choir, mariachi, digital music and advanced chamber ensembles, Rosie’s House provides a range of programs outside the classroom, including mentorship, service-learning opportunities, college-readiness assistance and even healthy meals.

The organization’s growth has been remarkable, even to founder Rosie Schurz. “Starting out in a tiny house with a dozen students, it was hard to imagine, even in my dreams, how the organization could reach so much growth and success,” she said.

But it’s not just Rosie’s House that has been successful. Its students have gone on to achieve big things, too. Take Ivan Martinez Morales, a musician who joined the Navy after leaving Rosie’s House. After four years in intelligence surveillance, he went to ASU to study computer science and went on to receive the prestigious NASA Space Grant Scholar Award.

“Ivan credits his whole trajectory as a young person to the opportunity that he had to learn music,” Ballard said. “The people at Rosie’s House — his teachers, the other staff members, the other families — helped him expand his worldview and have a vision for what his career and future could be.” Ivan’s younger sibling is now enrolled at Rosie’s House.

In this way, as kids are exposed to new pathways and opportunities, Rosie’s House lifts individuals, families and communities. In the past five years, 97 percent of Rosie’s House graduating seniors have gone on to attend college, compared to 53 percent of their peers. That’s why educator Aldie Lopez is so passionate about the organization. “Rosie’s House is that opportunity for our most needy students to be able to get that music education to truly be well-rounded, develop their leadership skills and develop their other inherent abilities to be successful in life,” he said.

Over a quarter century, Rosie’s House has served approximately 10,000 students between the ages of 5 and 18. Whether in that tiny house off of 17th Avenue and Van Buren or a church downtown, the organization has created a second home and community for kids, with its own culture of creativity, collaboration and excellence.

Now, after 25 years of service, growth and dedication to and from the community, Rosie’s House is looking to
put down roots. A state-of-the-art campus on Jefferson and 9th Street will be its new, permanent home, with a formal grand opening planned for later this year.

“The new campus will allow us to double the number of young people who can be a part of Rosie’s House,” Ballard said. “We initially started working on this campaign during the early days of the pandemic by talking with a small group of dedicated supporters. We are overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and shared vision for what Rosie’s House can be.”

Through the More than Music campaign, Rosie’s House has already secured more than $5 million in donations and is well on its way to achieving its $6.5 million goal.

That’s music to Rosie Schurz’s ears. “We finally are going to have our own home!” she said. “A young, dedicated generation has taken the school to the next level.”

Indeed, the new building will offer various classroom sizes, so that solo, ensemble and group instruction can take place in appropriately sized spaces. These classrooms will also double as meeting spaces and gathering spots for families. Meanwhile, a café in the front of the building will distribute meals to children. “We’re going to do about 5,000 meals this year. Basically, any kid that walks in this building that’s under 18, can eat a meal from St. Mary’s for free,” Ballard said.

Expect robust community-building activities, too, because finally the space will be their space. “We will get to grow and provide more services to the community with the time and the space. That’s really, really important,” Scott said.

Located downtown, right off of light rail, the new Rosie’s House location is accessible from most of the Valley. Both its accessibility and its permanence will be key. “Symbolically, it’s really important for Rosie’s House to have a permanent home. The community of Phoenix has seen the value in having a cultural asset that is around equity,” Ballard said.

“It’s around the idea that regardless of a child’s socioeconomic background, there should be a place where they can
have an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and be part of a community.”

It’s a community Rosie Schurz started in 1996, when she listened to the music and decided to bring that magic into children’s lives. Today, she is thrilled to see how the organization has evolved. Just ask Marvin Scott, who has known Schurz since the organization’s early years.

 “You can definitely see the joy in Rosie’s eyes about this place, knowing how far it’s come over all these years,” he said.

Music was the muse that tied her life’s work together. “Music has continually enriched and guided me throughout my entire life,” Schurz said. “My hope for Rosie’s House is that it will be a beacon of light and hope for the next 25 years and beyond.”

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About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.

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