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Building a Musical Lending Library

Erik Holmgren, Program Manager

Johnson String Project Ensures High-Quality Instruments for Young Musicians

photo of person doing touch up painting on a stringed instrument. Photo: Cydney Scott Photography.
Person repairing a stringed instrument. Photo: Cydney Scott Photography.

The public-private partnership between the Johnson String Project and Mass Cultural Council is currently in its 8th year and continues to remove the barrier and the burden for children to have a high-quality instrument in Massachusetts. To date more than 1,500 instruments have been provided to young people throughout the Commonwealth.

One of the biggest challenges for youth music programs across Massachusetts is securing high-quality instruments for students to use. The problem is compounded by the necessity to maintain and repair these instruments along with the need to constantly shift available instruments to fit the physical size and ability of different young musicians. It’s a problem that takes up an enormous amount of staff time and requires a significant amount of funds to be raised every year for each of their programs.

In 2015 Mass Cultural Council began its partnership with the Johnson String Project, a nonprofit arm of Johnson String Instruments based in Newton, MA, to begin to solve this problem for young string players throughout Massachusetts.

The founder of the Johnson String Project, Carol Johnson, understood the need as well as anyone. Not only did she want all young musicians in Massachusetts to have an instrument, she wanted to ensure that every young musician had a high-quality instrument that would not interfere with their artistic growth. Further, she recognized the financial barriers to acquiring an instrument and the challenges that families may have in maintaining the instruments, traveling to a string shop, and feeling comfortable navigating those spaces.

In 2016 the String Project launched with a comprehensive program to support all string instrument programs in Massachusetts that were supported by Mass Cultural Council’s SerHacer and YouthReach funding. The program included a 30% discount on all instrument rentals, maintenance and insurance for each instrument, and an ability for music programs to exchange instruments as their needs changed and their students grew. Now, each year, supported programs work directly with the Johnson String Project to have instruments delivered, serviced, and repaired.

photo of a Johnson String Project employee packing a van with musical instruments for delivery. Photo: Cydney Scott Photography.
Johnson String Project employee packs a van with musical instruments for delivery. Photo: Cydney Scott Photography.

The program has a remarkable impact on teaching staff’s ability to focus on instruction and making music, rather than on fundraising and repairing instruments.

In 2017 the internationally-recognized conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, announced a $10,000 donation to the program to continue to support its growth and implementation.

The String Project continued to grow with the SerHacer cohort throughout 2018 and 2019 with the model and support of programs evolving to become more sophisticated, efficient, and impactful as each partnership between individual music programs and Johnson String Project grew. This growth, as with many things, came to a halt in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Johnson String Project along with every youth music program supported through SerHacer.

Building on the strength of the existing partnerships, the Johnson String Project continued to provide quality string rentals to all of the SerHacer grant recipients throughout the pandemic. There were many challenges – instruments needed to be sanitized in UVC light boxes, inventory of instruments needed to be quarantined for days, and contactless delivery to music programs and directly to young people had to be arranged.

The staff at Johnson String Project recognized and understood the extreme challenges that string educators were facing with remote teaching and were able to provide videos to help with everything from string changing, basic maintenance, and the recruiting of new students.

Despite all of the challenges brought by the pandemic, the Johnson String Project saw only a very small drop in the overall number of instrument deliveries to music programs and young people. Today, they are seeing enrollment grow in all Mass Cultural Council-supported SerHacer programs.

Listen to our conversation with Carol Johnson, Johnson String Project Founder

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