LBC’s Free Instrument Lending Library: A Time Capsule Of Music Education For All

On a late summer day, inside a secure, temperature-controlled outbuilding on the LBC campus, an assortment of musical instruments fills the shelves that stack the walls and the ones that tower floor-to-ceiling up the middle of the room. Assorted guitars and guitarróns, violins, trumpets, trombones, flutes, saxophones, ukuleles, violas, cellos, and clarinets have been cleaned. Some have been repaired. All eagerly wait for the school year to begin, when students will finally breathe life into their silent forms, allowing each to unleash its unique voice.

This is Luther Burbank Center for the Arts’ free musical instrument lending library. More than 1,200 instruments now rotate in and out of this room, crammed in summer, nearly emptied in the fall. That’s when requests from schools in three surrounding counties (Sonoma, Marin, and Napa) are fulfilled. That’s also when LBC and its donors know that every student who wants to participate in the band, the orchestra, or a music class is equipped, regardless of financial circumstances. So far this year, that amounts to 780 students.

And that is Henry Trione’s vision realized.

Let Them Play Music

Before it became LBC’s Music for Schools program, the instrument lending library was part of the former Burbank Music Education Council (BMEC), which Henry Trione, one of Sonoma County’s great benefactors, started as a community group in the late 1990s. “He believed it was the community’s duty to put instruments in the hands of kids who otherwise might never play,” said Tracy Sawyer, who has overseen the lending library since July 2000, before it became part of the LBC. According to Tracy, Henry gathered 12 local music directors, choir directors, and teachers and asked, “What is it you need that you don’t have that will help you bring more music to kids?” The journey from its early days to the present reflects that vision – as well as the program’s resilience and adaptability – ensuring that more students can access a music education without unnecessary obstacles, like not being able to afford to rent or purchase an instrument.

Through his business and philanthropic activities in the 1950s and 1960s, Henry Trione had a hand in shaping Sonoma County. His “seven decades in Santa Rosa reflect the city’s transition from a farm market town to the financial and business hub of the North Coast,” according to Gaye Lebaron, Sonoma County historian and newspaper columnist. In a remembrance of Henry’s life’s work, LeBaron wrote, “While he steadfastly refused to discuss the reach of his generosity to charitable organizations or to estimate his net worth, there are few who would doubt that the figures for both count well into the millions or set a standard for civic responsibility.”

Henry grew up in Fortuna, California, where he had a music education while living with his family above a bakery. When he moved to Sonoma County as an adult, he noticed the music programs in local schools were struggling and wanted to do something to help. He noted that school budgets couldn’t always cover the cost of instrument maintenance and repair. “He agreed that the kids were going to think the problem was with them and not the instrument,” said Tracy. “And that would make them feel like they couldn’t succeed.”

To make sure that school children had access to free instruments that were functional, in 1999, Henry turned BMEC into a nonprofit. He hired an executive director, who, in 2000, hired Tracy to help build and manage the library. “He said, ‘To last, this can’t be just me. It has to be about the community taking care of its interests.” To cover purchases and repairs, as well as rent, phone, and salaries, Henry told Tracy she’d need to solicit donations, sponsorships, and grants. To help with that goal, BMEC’s board created a DBA, Music for Schools, which better clarified the need that Tracy would have to articulate to the community.

Early Days

Mark West Elementary was the first school to receive loaned instruments for one of its summer programs. BMEC borrowed violins from Petaluma City Schools, which needed them back at the start of the school year. Soon, donations from Community Foundation Sonoma County and Wells Fargo Bank allowed the program to purchase 57 basic band and orchestral instruments. Still, as word of the library spread, Tracy realized that there were not enough instruments to meet every request. Henry reached out to his friends and colleagues, the Codding family, proprietors of The Village Court at Montgomery Village, and, in 2003, the first Music for Schools Instrument Drive was born at the mall. Tracy’s strategic outreach proved successful, sparking a generous response from the community, with people arriving to hear music and donate instruments. Word of mouth ensures that a steady supply of donated instruments continues today.

However, the costs of repairing the instrument collection at the end of the school year and after summer camps end have increased over the years, outpacing the funds available to do the work. “It’s an honor to extend the life and usefulness of someone’s much beloved and gently used instrument, especially in the hands of a child who wouldn’t learn music without it,” said Tracy. “We are equally honored when the community supports our efforts to keep that instrument in good working shape so that the donation continues to serve its purpose.”

Music for Schools at LBC

In July 2003, with their missions and visions aligned, Music for Schools merged into LBC’s Education and Community Engagement program. Since then, LBC has served as the only community organization with a free instrument lending library in the North Bay.

In a swift and devastating turn of events in 2017, the Tubbs Fire wreaked havoc on the LBC, destroying some of the building and works of art. Catastrophically, among the casualties were most of the instruments in our lending library, since it was still early in the school year and few instruments had been loaned out. Inspecting the wreckage, one could discern the haunting outlines of a sousaphone, a trumpet, and a saxophone—heavy metals that succumbed to the intense heat of the flames. However, out of the ashes, an outpouring of community support and generosity flooded in.

Instruments arrived from many sources, including individuals from out of state. One woman donated a violin that had survived the loss of her home in the fire. A volunteer with the Red Cross drove up from the Bay Area four times with his car full of donations from contacts in San Francisco and Marin. In addition to an outpouring of support from the community, a very generous grant from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund allowed Tracy to purchase the rest of the instruments and begin rebuilding the lost inventory. “We were able to purchase violas, which we didn’t have before, as well as a bassoon and oboes, which teachers told us they needed,” said Tracy.

Today, the number of instruments in the library has tripled from the 450 we had before the 2017 fire. By 2019, enough instruments were coming in to meet schools’ needs. We ended the instrument drive and started Music Appreciation Day in its place. “The emphasis has always been on providing students the opportunity to perform for the public,” said Tracy. “Performance is essential to skill development. It gives students a goal to work toward, as well a way to measure their progress and build confidence. Whether they believe they’ve done well or not, students always go from good to better after a performance.”

Lasting Impact

Studies have shown that music education equips students with foundational learning skills, bolsters their engagement and achievement in academic subjects, and develops abilities essential for lifelong success. In other words, it helps make students more successful in school and in their lifelong pursuits.

We are gratified by our school partners who continue to secure instruments for the benefit of their students, and the demand is growing. Members of the community regularly reach out to applaud the value of this popular and successful program to our region’s youth.

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