Music and the arts are disappearing from area schools. John Gerdy and his nonprofit, Music For Everyone, are on a mission to change that, one note at a time.
It’s a Friday night in April upstairs at Jethro’s Restaurant & Bar, and The Willie Marble Xperience is melting the paint off the walls. The small second-floor room is lit by the low glow of a tangled string of Christmas lights as Willie and his band fill the cramped space with a steady stream of swampy blues stomps. The woman next to me smiles and hands me a canvas bag full of maracas that’s being passed around the room for people to play along. At this show, everybody’s in the band.
Under a long-brimmed hat and shades, Willie moans into his mic. Those familiar with the singer, however, may not have expected upstairs at Jethro’s as his career destination – especially not 30 years ago, when his name was John Gerdy, and the New Jersey Nets selected him in the third round of the NBA Draft. Technically, Willie’s name still is John Gerdy, but only when he takes off the hat.
Willie Marble is Gerdy’s Blues Brothers-esque performing alter ego. Some people might say a man with two names has something to hide. But in Gerdy’s world, the last thing he wants to be is a secret.
As the band tantalizes the wine-sipping socialites, free copies of The Willie Marble Xperience album, All the Marbles, are distributed to anyone who wants one – and they go fast. However, the album’s back cover suggests Gerdy’s larger agenda: “All proceeds from the sale of this CD go to Music for Everyone.”
The words appear below a picture of Gerdy as Willie, solemnly clutching his guitar like a friend dying in the rain. But Music For Everyone is much less of a brooding, heartbroken cause than the image conveys. MFE is a local nonprofit organization – founded and headed by Gerdy – that provides money and resources to music programs in schools and community groups throughout Lancaster County. And its support is becoming ever more crucial to local curriculums, from which music and the arts are disappearing because of dwindling funds.
For Gerdy, the positive affects of music stretch far beyond the swaying crowd upstairs at Jethro’s. “The most effective weapon in our educational arsenal to teach thinking out of the box is music and the arts,” Gerdy says. “Every single issue that we face – healthcare, the environment, geopolitical relationships – is becoming increasingly complex. And in order to successfully address them, we have to develop a corresponding increase in creativity.”
Gerdy’s illustrious, multi-paged resume indicates that “increasing creativity” is exactly what he was built for, although his impact didn’t always come from a stage. During his college years, it came on the basketball court.
In fact, Gerdy’s hoop skills got him offers from universities with top-notch athletic programs like Duke and Villanova. Instead, he was drawn to the academics-first mentality of Davidson College, a liberal arts college located just outside Charlotte, NC.
Until Stephen Curry – a current starting guard for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors – came to Davidson years later, Gerdy was the school’s all-time leading scorer. In 1994, Gerdy’s jersey number was retired, and he was inducted into Davidson’s Athletic Hall of Fame. “When a school retires, your jersey, it’s about more than athletic prowess,” he says. “It’s an indication that you changed things.”
When his name was called in the 1979 NBA Draft, changes seemed to continue. But following a severe ankle injury, the Nets released Gerdy, leaving him to reconsider his future. As it turns out, he was ready to walk away from playing the game with no regrets.
At least 22 Lancaster County schools are grateful for Gerdy’s career change. In 2010, Music For Everyone donated $51,000 in grant money to area music programs. Add that with the money raised since MFE’s inception in 2006, and the organization has gathered a running total of more than $200,000 to keep local music alive.
“What has made us so successful is that we’re truly grassroots,” Gerdy says. “We’re a place that if people have ideas, dreams, or things they want to do through music, we’ll help them. Lancaster’s been a perfect place to do that because of the heavy focus on the arts.”
MFE has quickly embedded itself in the Lancaster community, garnering public attention with several fundraising projects. For the past four years, the group has produced a CD compilation album featuring local bands and musicians; the fourth installment is set for release on June 17 at the Music Friday concert in Lancaster Square. The Music Friday concert series debuted last summer, and returns this year every third Friday from May to September.
One of the most iconic MFE ventures is its Keys for the City initiative, an effort that entreated local businesses to sponsor and decorate a functioning piano to be placed around town. In all, 20 pianos surfaced around downtown Lancaster, offering a musical outlet to any passerby. The initial 20 were taken indoors for the winter and replaced with 10 new pianos for this year’s initiative.
But nowhere are MFE’s fundraising efforts embodied better than down a colorful hallway with the careful crescendo of strings.
Heather Fellenser is a music teacher at Washington Elementary, one of the many schools benefiting from an MFE grant. Wading through a sea of school children escaping at the end of the day, I poked my head in a classroom and asked the resident teacher for directions.
“Oh, Heather doesn’t have a classroom so much as a cart, so she’s a bit harder to locate,” the teacher informed me. “If all else fails, just go where the music’s playing.”
I eventually track Fellenser down in the school auditorium, a violin cocked between her neck and shoulder as a group of 12 students follow suit. The students’ concentration is obvious, even amidst the shrill noise of their classmates outside. At 3:45 p.m. on a Friday; the last place you’d expect to find students is in a school. Yet here they are, plucking out an admirable rendition of “Celtic Dance.”
Up and down the auditorium rows are miniature instrument cases, from second grade violins to bulkier fourth grade saxophones. Last year, there was a chance that most of these instruments wouldn’t be in the hands of the young musicians. In fact, the music program itself was in danger of being cut altogether by budget slashes.
However, Fellenser was able to use grants from Music For Everyone to repair and buy new instruments and strengthen programs. “Our school budget could afford some minor repairs, but there was no way we could afford to keep up the music program,” she explains. “This year, we reached 150 students in the string program, with 80 of those in fourth and fifth grade orchestra.” That’s an increase of more than 50 orchestra students since 2006, according to Fellenser.
Seventy-six percent of the student population at Washington Elementary comes from low-income families, so not many would have been able to afford a viola or a trumpet without borrowing one from the school. But the resources permitted by MFE’s grant have ballooned the level of interest and participation in music at the school, and the talent came right along with it.
“That boy in the white shirt is better than I am,” Fellenser admits, gesturing toward the group. “Some of these kids were on the phone with their parents, begging to let them stay after school. My third grade violin students even want to come and practice during their recess time. I made a rule that they had to go outside on sunny days.”
With an arsenal of fresh instruments and musical interest, no one can blame the students for wanting to trade a gorgeous spring afternoon for a few extra measures of music. In fact, it’s exactly this sort of passion MFE is trying to unearth. After all, these kids got here the same way I did – they just followed the music.
“For me, there’s nothing more powerful than music when bringing people together,” Gerdy says.
Back at Jethro’s Restaurant, the Willie Marble Xperience wraps up its rendition of “Way Down in the Hole.” A small crowd of people who seem to have just come from a board meeting arrives. Their first-class attire clashes willfully with the more casually dressed audience members wearing colorful scarves and torn jeans. This is supposed to be music for everyone, and it seems like everybody’s here.
As Willie cradles his guitar for one last song, he dips into the mic. “We want you to leave here tonight with something you can use,” he says. The band fires up a song and the crowd fills the room with shaking maracas.
It’s the experience in this very room that Gerdy – along with his band and the many Music For Everyone volunteers – is working to spread across schools and programs in Lancaster County. From barroom to classroom, whether Willie or Gerdy, the man is relentless in his quest to spread the music, to nurture a spark of creativity that will help the generations of tomorrow change the problems of today. After all, music isn’t just for a select few. It’s for everyone.