In the early 1980s, Peggy Senter conducted a feasibility study for a classroom project at Radcliffe College, to see if a community music school could be successful in Little Concord, New Hampshire.
A busy Boston musician at the time, Senter’s working hours were divided between independent piano concerts and teaching at the city’s community music schools, and her social hours were consumed by a group of friends from across the city. New Hampshire, humorously dubbed the “Dunbarton Gourmet Society” monthly dinners. Senter, who preferred to live in a small town, found herself wanting to move to the Granite State, but none of the musicians she knew had established successful musical careers there.
“These people were all passionate about it, but they were all doctors, teachers and bankers. There was just no way to make a living as a musician, ”Senter said. “I saw my friends at that age give up their musical life to become a computer programmer or whatever, for a day job. I kept saying, ‘I’m not ready to stop being a musician.’ “
Her friends encouraged her to complete the feasibility report, which was only half-jokingly titled “What if I had a music school and no one came?” “
“Everyone kept saying, ‘you could start a school, like the one you teach in,’” Senter recalls. “And I said, ‘oh, that sounds like a lot of trouble.’ “
But what she found in her study opened her eyes. The demand for high quality music education existed in New Hampshire in the 1980s, and it was not being met.
“People, if they wanted their kid to take oboe lessons, it just wasn’t available statewide, so they drove to Boston,” Senter said. “The doctors were so passionate about their piano lessons that they drove to Longy in Harvard Square. There was a lot of interest because there just hadn’t been this kind of institution with a paid faculty before. “
Senter then created the Concord Community Music School, which has grown to accommodate 1,500 weekly students aged 6 months to 90 years. Senter will retire on July 15, after 37 years as a director.
“It has been the honor of my life to work with incredible faculty and staff, administrators, supporters and colleagues since 1984 to build this great musical family,” Senter wrote in his letter to the board. administration of the music school. “I have learned so much and have been influenced personally, musically and professionally in ways that I could never have imagined.”
The roots of community music schools are linked to the Settlement House Movement, as efforts to provide quality music education to low-income urban immigrant populations. Although they were popular in big cities at the time, Senter said there was no precedent for a philanthropy-funded music organization in New Hampshire, and she wasn’t sure if it was going to catch on. .
The first location of Concord Community Music School was the second floor of the Kimball-Jenkins Mansion on N. State Street, uninhabited at the time except for pigeons, known to fly through the wide arched windows and leave droppings on the piano. Senter, the only teacher, offered early childhood piano, music theory and music lessons.
“What I liked about her playing the piano was how expressive she was,” said Peggo Horstmann Hodes, vocal teacher and one of Senter’s early piano students. “It wasn’t just about following dynamic notes and markings, it was really a piece of her heart running through her playing. That’s why I wanted to take lessons with her.
It wasn’t long before Senter’s studio was full. She began to develop the operation, with 10 music teachers coming to teach piano, guitar, voice, violin, clarinet and flute. Some of its mature piano students – mostly doctors – became its first board of directors, and in the summer of 1984, Concord Community Music School was formally incorporated.
The school has grown rapidly, growing by around 100 students per year. In an effort to find more space, the organization moved to the yellow house on the Kimball Jenkins estate, then to a building behind the Gas Lighter restaurant on North Main Street. They bought the current location on Wall Street in 1987.
“She’s what I call an alpha entrepreneur because she started off with a blank sheet of paper,” said John Blackford, a retired management consultant who has been both a board member and a student. on guitar at school. “It wasn’t like she got a franchise from one place, she had an idea and started it right from scratch, which is really a wonderful thing.”
Over the next two decades, under Senter’s leadership, the school continued to grow, expanding to include jazz, folk, and traditional South Asian music. Being a piano teacher has always been central to Senter’s identity and she continued to teach in school, accompanying piano students from childhood through high school.
“I feel like teaching beginners is the hardest thing you can do, if you do it right,” Senter said. “Because you are preparing them for the rest of their lives. “
Senter wanted the school to be as ‘barrier-free’ as possible, which they worked to achieve by making the building physically accessible and spending $ 200,000 per year for free and low-cost education. Offerings such as the Sunflower Singers Choir for Adults with Developmental Disabilities and music lessons for New American children at Manchester Housing Authority are all part of Senter’s long-standing goal of making music more inclusive. .
“We’re trying to break down the barrier that people think only other people can make music,” Senter said. “We think everyone is a musician.
The school, which operates on 50% tuition income and 50% philanthropy, has had its share of challenges. The Great Recession hit hard and in 2017 a water pipe burst causing flood damage that was difficult to recover financially. The school has made significant reductions in administrative staff. Senter took over as chief financial advisor, with no previous experience, until they were able to hire a real one.
“Peggy understands the details, she explores what she doesn’t know and finds out,” Horstmann Hodes said. “It has made it possible for the music school to function in difficult times.”
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the music school closed for a week, then reopened remotely. The teachers gave private lessons via live video. The recitals were pre-recorded videos posted on YouTube. Members of the female vocal ensemble The Northern Lights used FM broadcast headphones to have remote rehearsals in the aisle. Enrollment for private lessons fell 18%, but surprisingly, the school had the highest summer enrollment it has ever had in 2020.
“Seeing everything being so well managed was very satisfying,” Senter said. “We have never stopped doing what we have been doing.”
The Concord Community Music School board will select a one-year interim principal by the end of June, after which the board will conduct a nationwide search for a permanent principal. For nonprofits, the transition from original leadership can be a tricky time, but Horstmann Hodes says she believes Senter has created a strong team who will be able to make things work after she leaves.
“Peggy has created the conditions that allow us to move forward, to continue to grow and to pursue the dream we started,” said Horstmann Hodes. “We will miss her, and the flip side is also the excitement that there will be someone new, someone with a new style and who will also produce growth.”
In retirement, Senter plans to take long vacations, reconnect with pre-pandemic friends, and return to a more consistent piano practice routine, which she said she couldn’t dedicate enough time to. time because of work.
“There is such a deep well of experience here that it feels like ‘of course’,” Senter said. “It’s in good shape in terms of people, and we’re an organization of people. If your people are good, you are in good shape.