Mind the Music

Written by Jennifer Blot | Photography by Craig Lee

As executive director of Community Music Center, Julie Rulyak Steinberg is as focused on the next century as she has been on honoring the organization’s past. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee.

While flying somewhat under the radar, a 100-year-old San Francisco nonprofit is still making noise.

Though a century old, San Francisco’s Community Music Center remains something of a city secret. Maybe it’s because CMC is truly an old-school establishment, a place where word of mouth (in this case, in many different languages) eclipses social media. And where one of its greatest gifts — the magical union of voices and instruments played by people of all ages — comes to those who are lucky enough to stumble upon the joyful cacophony emanating from the open windows of a stately Victorian on a tree-lined street in the Mission.

“Joyful cacophony” are the words of CMC Executive Director Julie Rulyak Steinberg, who is filled with palpable pride and passion when talking about the soundtrack of her work life. She joined CMC in 2017, lured from New York to helm the under-the-radar nonprofit that immediately struck her as a place that “walks the talk” with its unwavering mission statement to make “high-quality music accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, regardless of financial means.”

For the past two years, this has meant some attrition amidst new ways of reaching students with online courses and choruses. Thanks to overwhelming community support, Steinberg is currently basking in the glow of CMC’s monthslong centennial celebration, filled with events, including last month’s sold-out gala, and the upcoming performance of the new work A Song of Triumph: The History of Black Music by Maestro Curtis at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on April 23. And audiences around the world will be able to check out the organization’s ambitious birthday undertaking: From April 4 to May 23, CMC’s website is posting videos each day debuting portions of its (Re)Imagine collaboration with composer and educator Cava Menzies, in which Menzies teams up with local and international musicians and CMC students and faculty to produce 100 original pieces of music.

In 1921, Community Music Center’s founding director, Gertrude Field, embarked on a mission to make music accessible to all.

Steinberg is already thinking about the next 100 years of the organization, which was founded at 544 Capp Street in 1921 as the Community Music School by Gertrude Field, who drew a formidable board of supporters that included matriarchs from some of the City’s most prominent families — Lilienthal, Crocker, Hellman and Fleishhacker, to name a few. Among those early fans was Rose Shenson, who laid the foundation for her own family’s legacy of CMC scholarships and continued support, including that of Fred Levin, who signed on as CMC’s centennial chair and spearheaded a robust fundraising campaign.

“Family lore has it that my great-aunt contributed to this organization or donated to this organization in its inception — this was the family’s first venture into philanthropy in the music world,” says Levin, a fourth-generation San Franciscan. “I think she felt it was so important for those who could not afford private lessons to still have the opportunity to learn.”

Other local philanthropists who have lent their support include Cissie Swig, Michael P. N. A. Hormel (the late James Hormel was also a big fan of CMC), Dede Wilsey, John and Marcia Goldman, and Bill and Sako Fisher.

Over the years, CMC has continuously expanded its reach, from constructing more rooms at its flagship building and opening a satellite branch in the Richmond to putting on concerts around the City. But the Capp Street Victorian — which has nine studios for private and group lessons, a concert hall and a low-cost instrument lending library — still needed more space to accommodate its staff of 12, faculty of 120 (providing instruction in multiple languages) and annual roster of about 3,000 students, who get involved with CMC through on-site and online classes as well as school and community partnerships, including the 13 senior centers that take part in the Older Adult Choir Program. The nonprofit also needed to make its home more physically accessible with modern Americans with Disabilities Act–compliant upgrades — something that has long been problematic given the architectural blueprint of its 19th-century building.

In February, CMC broke ground on an expansion of its Capp Street campus, which includes a neighboring building that will meet ADA standards and provide more classrooms and another recital hall. Thanks to grants, private donations and last month’s benefit gala, funding is in place for construction and the continued commitment to free programs and scholarships.

Community Music Center students from the 1930s gather with their piano teacher. Today, music still emanates from its location at 544 Capp Street in the Mission. The campus is in the process of expanding to better serve its student population, which currently numbers around 3,000.

Scholarships are one of the key ways Levin’s family has been contributing to CMC over the years. “I’m a product of the San Francisco public school [system] and we had music education — we don’t have that anymore in our schools,” he says. “The Community Music Center, between their two campuses, offers an amazing opportunity for not only children but adults. Anybody who wants to learn about music can go there, and there are scholarships if they can’t afford it.”

Steinberg notes that word of CMC’s offerings often gets spread through what she calls “six degrees of CMC” — people who have experienced classes and concerts spreading the word to others. “We have an incredible patchwork quilt of donors made up from some of the most well-known philanthropists in San Francisco and beyond to our students and community members who give really generously each year,” she says. And CMC is committed to passing on some of that generosity to its instructors, whose compensation has increased by 20 percent since 2019. “It was a strategic priority to raise the rates of our teaching artists — this is not a volunteer gig. Our faculty is the beating heart of the school,” she says.

Gala chair Sharon Seto, a longtime arts supporter, hadn’t heard of CMC before getting involved with the Centennial Gala at a friend’s urging. As she began to recruit a committee, everyone she spoke to, with the exception of one person whose children had attended CMC programs, needed to be educated on their city’s secret jewel.

“People who know me know that I am all about and strongly advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. The fact that CMC pioneered the first TIGQ Choir — singers who self-identify as transgender, intersex or gender queer — in the nation touches my heart,” shares Seto. “I am also supportive because CMC provides music education and experiences for all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and ages, no matter what. … Can you imagine the tremendous pleasure for me to advocate and talk about how great CMC is in San Francisco as a leader in the realm of art access and the difference its programs make as the largest tuition-assistance program of its kind in America?”

And advocate she did. Not only did the gala sell out, but its fund-a-need auction bids quadrupled in a matter of minutes. And some of the Bay Area’s most illustrious performers, including Frederica von Stade, Paula West and Jake Heggie, signed on to perform at the event. All of the performers, notes Steinberg, have a connection to CMC. Says von Stade: “I have been associated and lucky enough to perform for a couple of events for the Community Music Center and I love every experience. Just to walk in the building is a joy. It is a wonderful organization and creates a safe and happy experience to all the members of the community that it serves. … It is truly a community and that is the key word.”

One thing is certain: CMC has a great reputation — to those in the know. “It’s really part of the fabric of our city,” says Levin. “It should not be a secret.”

CMC Centennial Events

April 4–May 23
(Re)Imagine: 100 New Works from Cava Menzies and Community Music Center

Saturday, April 23, 1 p.m.
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival A Song of Triumph: The History of Black Music with Maestro Curtis and special guests | sfcmc.org

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