OEBGMC Gives Back!

Did you know that the Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus uses part of all ticket sales for a community cause? For the Summer 2017 Concert, “Come Swing With Us,” the chorus Board decided to support a cause close to our hearts, and one with which we have partnered for more than three years, the music program at the Willard Middle School (Berkeley Unified School District) afterschool LEARNS program. This music program is run by member of Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus, Billy Lawley (Bass), and this summer, I sat down with Billy, to discuss his career and how he got interested in this kind of teaching.

Billy was trained as a Music Therapist at Southern Methodist University, and in his practice he saw the effect that teaching music could have on kids with a variety of special needs. He then became an elementary music school teacher in the Dallas, TX, Independent School District under a grant from the Wallace Foundation, and he worked with underprivileged kids for 5 years there. From this background, Billy knows that this kind of work takes patience to build long-time relationships, and it takes flexibility. He says that it takes someone who is willing to step back and look at the big picture, especially to avoid getting stuck in the details.

Billy approached OEBGMC Board to provide funding for him to teach piano and music lessons to 6-8th grade kids in the afterschool program. These lessons have been, for the last three years, group lessons with stations to rotate through, including hands-on keyboard and computer games to teach music literacy. This was to enhance the music program at Willard—traditional orchestra, concert band, jazz band—with piano and music reading skills. Because of variability in attendance and skill level, as well as the difficulty in tracking improvement, the group lessons are being discontinued and private lessons are beginning this summer and fall. The after-school program considers Billy a volunteer and does not offer any funding; the grant provided by the Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus allows Billy to receive a living wage for his professional work with these kids, and allows underprivileged kids to receive professional music training.

The initial seed funding for Billy’s work was given to the chorus by a generous donor, Jeff Parrett, a long-time supporter of the Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus, who wanted to form a scholarship for music education, said former OEBGMC President, Lawrence Turner. As ideas began to percolate, the Board selected Billy’s idea in part because Billy’s skill was known as a teacher, instructor singer, soloist, and small group ensemble performer within the chorus (He was most recently seen as Gay Noir in the Spring 2017 concert, “Prairie Homo Companion”).

When asked about his dreams for the new format of individual lessons, Billy said he wants to see students grow from basic skills to learning to play piano, gain confidence, grow as an individual, and have a positive influence on society. These lessons offer more than music—they also offer guidance on behavior issues, and Billy told of times when he saw himself as a positive influence on youth whose fathers are not in their lives, or who are facing difficult times in school or home. Billy periodically holds a “Showcase” of his students, and he invites both his private self-paying students and his Willard students to play, and all of them receive a certificate of performance. As his relationship with the community grows, he hopes the program might expand, and with more fundraising, the program might go to other schools.

The Director of the Willard LEARNS program, Kemal Stewart, wrote this about Billy and his work, “Working with Billy has been great. He continually finds ways to teach our students with limited space and resources. When we first started, I warned him that we only had one piano, a few miniature keyboards and 4 outdated Mac Books. Billy was able to combine his materials with ours and offer small group instruction to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students on a weekly basis. Some of the students had experience, while some were beginners. Billy has showed and proved that he has the ability to work with kids on all levels.

“By having Billy be a part of the team, we are able to attract students that would not have been interested in our program before we added piano lesson to our course offerings. He’s also helped us keep our more music oriented students enthused about coming to after school and learning more about piano and song writing. With individual teaching, I am hoping this will help both the teacher and students get more out of their time. I also hope that this encourages students and parents to stick with the course throughout the semester and/or school year.”

Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus and City Swing raised $800 at the Come Swing With Us concert for these scholarships. We continue to celebrate Billy’s success, and we look forward to seeing this relationship with Willard afterschool program flourish and grow. If you would like to donate to this program, go to the giving page on the OEBGMC Website, click on the donate button and designate it for the Scholarship. To learn more about Billy, check out his website, www.lawleylessons.com. To learn more about lessons offered through the Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus, go to http://oebgmc.org/communitymusicschool/


A Praire Homo Companion Skit

Tony Clark
Tenor 2