Interview with Dr. Leslie Jones, executive director of The Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School (fmdgmusicschool.org)
By Barbara Chacour
SURPRISING HISTORY: The New York Lighthouse for the Blind was started in 1905 by sisters Edith and Winifred Holt (of the Holt publishing family), who had been inspired by a group of blind schoolchildren’s enthusiastic attendance at a concert. Decades later, philanthropist Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg provided the school funding and an endowment (hence the name change).
SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT: Lighthouse Guild terminated the school’s residence last year.
INSPIRING VISION: The school, with its dedicated staff, donors, students, and parents, is moving ahead as an independent organization.
The latest concert promoted by WestView News took place on May 25, 2019, at St. John’s in the Village and included Schubert’s “The Trout,” sung by soprano Elizabeth Tarr, a student at the school for the blind and visually impaired. Tarr was introduced by Leslie Jones, executive director of the school, who told the audience that last year Lighthouse Guild severed its relationship with the music school and evicted it from its studios on 64th Street and West End Avenue (along with its Braille and large-print music library and its instruments, including 14 grand pianos). Jones told of how they have carried on and she expressed optimism about the institution’s future as an independent school.
Subsequent Interview with Leslie Jones
Jones said Lighthouse Guild had decided to orient its services to health and social services for the broader visually impaired population and away from arts education. She said she prefers to look forward rather than dwell on the rupture, difficult as it has been. She feels that today’s climate of inclusion and mainstreaming is very positive for people with disabilities—and that students are empowered by learning musical skills and presenting themselves to the public.
The school was able to open on schedule for its spring semester in four locations: Saturday children’s classes at the 92nd Street Y, adult lessons at the Kaufman Music Center and Funkadelic Studios, and rehearsals at VISIONS at Selis Manor. At the moment, the organization’s office work is being carried out from the homes of the three administrators—Jones, Dalia Sakas, music director, and Amanda Wheeler, music administrator. One casualty of the rupture with Lighthouse Guild was last year’s annual concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had been held for 21 years. Happily, the concert will be back at the Met in April 2020.
The school’s staff and faculty of 19 remain intact. As to the attrition in student enrollment, a drop of about 30%, to 75 students. Jones pointed out that it takes time for students with vision loss to learn how to access unfamiliar locations.
Tuition payment, heavily subsidized, is a small percentage of the school’s revenue, with grants and donations the major portion. Transcription of Braille and large-print music for other organizations is another revenue stream. Outside of the Library of Congress, the school has the largest Braille and large-print music library in the United States.
Given rental prices in Manhattan, the organization is not currently looking for studio space of its own but settling into its current partnerships and concentrating on expanding its donor base. Jones feels that they are at least stable, a big achievement indeed.