The Central District neighborhood seems forever in transition, chronically beset. That's why Meter Music School seems like a harbinger of better days to come.
SOMEBODY OUGHT to write a theme song celebrating 23rd and Union.
There’s already more than enough grief and regret banging around this neighborhood in Seattle’s Central District, in all of the failed urban-revival plans drawn up for it, to fuel a New Orleans jazz funeral march or fill a bittersweet hymn for an Irish wake.
You could make a soul-dredging dirge out of the senseless emptiness of the vacant lot where the beloved Ms. Helen’s Soul Food restaurant once stood, before the Nisqually Quake had its way with the old brick building that housed it.
Two different owners of the restaurant space catty corner to the vacant lot have been gunned down in the past decade.
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Last year came the depressing announcement that even the U.S. Postal Service, long an anchor for the shopping center across East Union Street from the restaurant, is closing for good this spring.
It’s easy to get down about the 23rd and Union neighborhood, which seems forever in transition, chronically beset.
That’s why Meter Music School seems like a harbinger of better days to come, even though it’s only been open for a year and a half.
The school, hidden in what looks like a single-family home just west of the intersection, is the brainchild of Southern California transplant Brendan Bosworth. With the help of some architecture and design friends, he’s transformed the little white bungalow into seven homey classrooms where about 150 adults and kids as young as toddlers have professional musicians teach them everything from piano to drums to saxophone.
One night a happy-looking girl plays “Eleanor Rigby” on acoustic guitar in the downstairs practice space, which Bosworth has tricked out like a family room with lamps, a bookcase and futons that parents can sit on with their laptops while their kids work with instructors.
Just upstairs, in what might have been a child’s bedroom, a kid wearing oversize protective headphones wildly bangs out Tom Cochrane’s rock classic “Life is a Highway” on a drum kit, a star in the making.
Most weeknights, the classrooms buzz with tentative rock and pop music — maybe a confident Bach chorale on violin if you’re lucky — all happening simultaneously in private lessons and small-group classes. That tiny drum room, behind a sliding door in back by the kitchen, virtually throbs as students try out rhythms that are plenty loud and just familiar enough to recognize.
Some students are playing for the first time. Others have come to refresh skills they learned years ago but neglected.
At the center of it all is Bosworth, a 35-year-old with the long, curly hair of a rocker and the cheery disposition of the Pied Piper.
A professional guitarist, Bosworth taught private music, mainly on the Eastside, for years. But he wanted to create an urban space where instructors and students could interact under one roof. Many private music schools take up residence outside the city, for good reason. Amateurs on drums, strings and horns can make for noisy neighbors, as any landlord knows all too well.
Securing a suitable location was only part of the challenge.
Bosworth needed teachers. He found them by placing ads in newspapers and on Craigslist, and scouring Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Washington School of Music.
“We were looking for great instructors who wanted to take a chance on a place that wasn’t very busy,” he says with a smile.
To learn or work at Meter requires embracing the idea that music is both a private and a shared experience.
Bosworth didn’t open his school here with the aim of building community. He set up shop here because it was close to his home, centrally located and the landlord was OK with turning a single-family house into a very loud school. But around 23rd and Union, the reality is that community tends to happen piecemeal.
It happens at places like the music school. And in this case it comes with a killer soundtrack.
IT’S TUESDAY night at Bosworth’s youth beginners guitar class, and the music on tap is a time machine of recent pop culture, each song chosen by the students. It’s a democratic touch that allows students to feel more invested in the curriculum.
A student named Grace kicks things off by playing and singing part of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”
“I’m gonna be really pitchy,” she warns. She soldiers through the song before the group launches into Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” with Bosworth supporting on vocals.
A couple of students keep up and play boldly, but most play more quietly, still unsure of their skills.
“So,” Bosworth says, “how many times do you feel you have to play a song like that before you’re ready to perform it?”
“I think we’ve played this together like 10 times.”
Bosworth asks for another song.
Grace picks “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, a song she tells the group she’s “walking down the aisle to” whenever she gets married.
She already plays clarinet and saxophone at Washington Middle School, about a mile away. Her goal is to compete — “and win” — at the Essentially Ellington Jazz Band Competition at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Mraz conquered, the group decides to pass on Gotye’s vocally challenging “Somebody That I Used to Know” because Grace, apparently the go-to singer in the class, is so pitchy. A year ago, she was too shy to even sing in front of her mom at home.
“Wanna do Taylor Swift?” a classmate asks her.
“Are you kidding me?” she shrieks with fake indignation. Also hard on the vocal chords.
Bosworth suggests they play an oldie, maybe Weezer’s “Island in the Sun.” When you’re talking to kids who are in middle school, a 10-year-old hit qualifies as an oldie.
A loud, “Nooo!” from one of the students kills that idea.
As the kids haggle over songs to play, upstairs in a private room Varsha Srivastava methodically strums her guitar as instructor Colin Field looks on encouragingly.
“Now see if you can speed it up and increase the tempo,” Field tells her. “This is something you’ll have to get used to.”
Srivastava says she’s been taking classes at Meter for a year and still considers herself a beginner. But Field says this sort of picking is hard to do. Every nuance counts. Each physical maneuver must be memorized and practiced ad nauseum until it comes with ease.
She winces at every flub.
The 32-year-old has owned this guitar since she was 18 but its intricacies are still a mystery to her.
Field nods rhythmically to cheer her on.
As she slowly gets the hang of it, the tune she’s playing finally comes into aural view — it’s The Beatles’ “In My Life.”
Srivastava works through the key changes like a trooper, and soon she’s giggling whenever she mangles a note.
Field is pleased, though, and gives her a verbal pat on the back.
GENTRIFICATION AROUND 23rd and Union gained pace years ago, but the neighborhood still seems to be in the incubation stage, not quite living up to its potential.
The two neighborhood long-timers I recently overheard at a nearby Walgreens lamenting what they perceive as a surge in gun violence in the Central District, compared to when they lived here in the 1970s, reflect the grief of a population that just can’t get a break.
An even bigger tide is rolling over the district, which for decades has been the home of Seattle’s African-American community.
The 23rd Avenue corridor between Union and Jackson streets grew by 18 percent overall between 2000 and 2010, according to figures compiled by the city of Seattle. But that dramatic growth number hides a stark racial changeover. While the white population in the district grew by a whopping 92 percent, nearly doubling in the space of a decade, the historically larger African-American population shrank by 20 percent. Today, the heart of black Seattle is a majority white neighborhood.
With so much flux and wariness about the direction of the area, it’s no wonder some parts of the CD have yet to find a core identity, the same distinct vibe that lets you know you’re in the Pike/Pine Corridor or Old Ballard or Columbia City from the moment you walk those streets.
Meter might seem out of place to a passer-by, but it helps provide the people who live in the area with a much-needed sense of place.
Like Bosworth, many of the students live close to the school. Bosworth offers a free handpicked ensemble, which attracts aspiring musicians who also live nearby. They perform at community events to get practice, and also to build bridges with the neighborhood. Bosworth plans to offer scholarships to young musicians from the area next year.
Can the presence of a new music school remake a neighborhood? Maybe not all by itself. But the giddy self-improvement taking place under its roof is fascinating to watch nonetheless, and it points to what 23rd and Union can become if the school and nearby small businesses are successful.
Bosworth and the students listen as one of their classmates tackles another Beatles classic:
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
The boy’s tiny hands sweep nervously across the strings.
When he finishes the song, he can’t suppress a relieved grin.
One more song he can add to his personal playbook.
IN INSTRUCTOR Tim Ashe’s group strings class, honest assessment and lots of encouragement rule.
Joe Valvo sits by the wall with his cello propped between his knees. He jokingly refers to himself as “Joe-Joe Ma.”
In fact, Valvo, a microbiologist, had never picked up an instrument in his life before starting to learn cello less than a year ago.
“I’m a work in progress,” he says.
“I grew up thinking you needed to be musical to play an instrument.” But his partner told him anyone can play. “I’m definitely not going to be Yo-Yo Ma, but I can play.”
“I wish I would have done it as a child,” he says. “It changes aspects of your life that you don’t anticipate,” like building the confidence to perform in front of an audience.
As the strings warm up downstairs, you can hear someone through the old boards in the ceiling, working with instructor John Coons on the piano and singing his heart out.
It was Bach, incidentally, who once said there’s nothing remarkable about playing piano: “All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”
If only playing an instrument — any instrument — were that easy.
Back downstairs, Ashe wants his strings students to think about how much pressure they’re applying to the bow when playing. Imagine you’re holding a butterfly, he says.
They pick Melchior Teschner’s “Chorale No. 13″ from the book. Ashe warns the students not to hold back or play timidly but to be graceful. If they screw up, think of it as a learning experience: “This is the place to do it,” he says.
Classmate Steve Sands of Lake City started taking individual classes at Meter about a year ago. Back then, it was just him and Ashe, the instructor, who trained Sands on blues and classical music.
It was Sands’ idea to start a group session for strings at the school.
Even before starting classes at Meter, he practiced violin on his own at home. His wife was learning classical guitar at the time.
“Every night, she’d go in her room and play, and I’d go in my room and play,” Sands says. “It was great, but … “
Sands had prior experience playing in a group setting and wanted to try that again. When he signed up at Meter, Bosworth told him that type of class didn’t exist. But in the typically organic way classes get added to the roster at Meter, Bosworth said he’d be happy to start a group strings class if others were interested.
“You can practice by yourself behind closed doors all day, but it’s not the same,” Sands says. “I had a ball tonight. I could play all night.”
This is not to say the class always goes smoothly. You’re constantly catching yourself making little mistakes that throw off a song. It’s easy to get flustered and doubt yourself.
“It really takes a lot of time and patience,” Ashe says. “Some people do get frustrated and realize it’s not for them.”
Teachers drive home musical concepts any way that works.
Drum instructor Jason Kenyon uses a copycat method to teach children basic rhythms. He plays something on his drum kit and the student follows. He also uses animal names: Ti-ger Ti-ger Ti-ger … Boom! Ca-ter-pil-lar Ca-ter-pil-lar, Ca-ter-pil-lar … Boom!
“There’s a perception that there’s a difference between talented people and untalented people,” instructor Kate Olson says. “I don’t think that’s true … There are things that are less familiar and more familiar.”
Olson, who plays saxophone, clarinet, flute and ukulele, keeps lessons simple in the beginning. For flute, she asks students to pretend they’re blowing into a bottle.
You build skills from there, one small success at a time.
“Another thing I tell adult students is don’t apologize if you mess up,” she says. People walk into her classes with all sorts of insecurities — fear of failure or incompetence chief among them.
She’s a staunch believer in the benefit of learning an instrument for anyone, even those who never go on to perform for people. It teaches tenacity, creative thinking and math skills, she says, tools you can use in many aspects of life.
“We’re not here necessarily to turn people into first-chair violin in a symphony, but we want them to take this and use it for the rest of their lives,” she says. “It’s an end unto itself.”
You can see students’ eyes light up as they slowly master notes to songs diagrammed on pieces of sheet music that up until recently had only played in their heads like some beguiling but impenetrable foreign language. A storm lights up the corners of the mind and something that seems so abstract starts to become second-nature.
“The most important time you spend with an instrument is before you can even make noise, or even make a sound,” Olson says she tells her adult beginners.
“You get to know your instrument — and you’ll get to know yourself, too.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.