Tuning up on the west side

| 29 Mar 2017 | 12:50

“As you walk up the stairs, at every level, there's a different instrument playing or a different person singing,” said Erika Floreska when she was asked to describe the atmosphere of the Bloomingdale School of Music, where she serves as executive director. “Sometimes you hear beginners like kids just starting out, and sometimes you have some really highly advanced students going nuts on the piano. Music is all around you.”

Floreska, who started at Bloomingdale in the summer of 2014, said there is no typical day for her as she builds enrollment and profile for the school, which was founded in 1964 in the basement of the West End Presbyterian Church. Lessons at the time cost 50 cents and a dollar. In 1972, the school moved to accommodate its staggering growth to a landmarked brownstone on 108th Street, where it welcomes 650 students for lessons and classes.

Floreska always dreamed of settling in New York City “because if you're in music or arts, that's where you want to be.” Her first position here was at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where she worked for 14 years, eventually earning the rank of director of education.

You were involved in community music school growing up in Minnesota. Did you always know you wanted to work in music?No, I was kind of funny because I went to college at a liberal arts school that had a good music program because I didn't want to major in music, but I wanted to keep playing because I loved playing. But while I was there, I decided I did want to pursue music, at least more seriously. And I actually got a master's degree in flute at the University of Michigan. I guess I ended up saying, “What is it I want to spend a lot of time on?” And it was music, because music had always been there. I moved a lot when I was growing up and was always able to find friends and a connection and a community through music each time I moved. None of my friends were surprised when I became a music major, it just took me realizing that. But I did my graduate degree in performance and made a really conscious decision that, while I loved to perform, I'm not that committed performer-freelance musician that it takes to be successful. And that's when I learned about the whole field of arts administration and realized, “Oh, there are people behind the scenes who work around music and music education and that I would love.” So as a grad student, I knew I wanted to be in arts administration, so that's always been the focus of my career.

What are some initiatives you worked on at Jazz at Lincoln Center that you're most proud of?There's a middle school jazz academy that we created once the building was built to provide under resourced middle school students access to a great jazz education. We had up to 20 New York City kids who came every Saturday to have an intensive jazz experience. I did the research for that program, designed, launched and led it for the first five years and it just had its 10-year anniversary recently. “Essentially Ellington,” which is a high school national jazz band festival, is my heart. I met my husband through that. I was called “Essentially Erika” when I was there. When I first started running it, it was just 26 states east of the Mississippi that were eligible. And I took it from there to go to all 50 states, to Canada. We did an exchange in Australia, London. It distributed Duke Ellington's music to bands all over the country.

How did your job at BSM come about?When I left Jazz at Lincoln Center, I went and ran a theater company. I had been interested in being an executive director and getting into the leadership and fundraising component after doing all that education programming. And the theater was fascinating and I learned so much from my time there. But I also found I really missed music and music education, so I had started to think about how I could get back into that part of the field. And Bloomingdale had lost their executive director. My predecessor died suddenly. He was sick for two weeks and then passed away. It was really tragic. He had been there for 22 years. So the board started a search, and the chair of that search committee talked to some of the faculty and one of our faculty members, a guitar player named Matt Butterman, was my intern at Lincoln Center. I hired him and he is still on the staff at Jazz at Lincoln Center. He said, “Erika is great. I don't know if she would want to leave her theater company.” I also heard it about it two other ways. So I looked into it and immediately it was like homecoming because when I first moved to New York, I lived at 105th and Columbus, that's one block from where the school was founded.

Tell us about the school's history. I just did a speech on the history of the school that was really well received. In the '60s, it was a time where people wanted to make their community great and took it into their own hands. So, the organist at the church, West End Presbyterian, saw kids in the streets hanging out, and said, “I'm going to teach them music.” Our opening poster that we found a copy of in our archives, is translated into Spanish because the community was Spanish at the time. And it was based on this real philosophy that music is for everybody and music brings us together. It's a very inclusive spirit that anybody should be able to study who wants to. If you can't afford it, we'll help you pay for it. And that access to music can help individuals with their study and can help improve communities by bringing people together. David Greer was our founder. And it was like this engine that could. There was 75 kids the first year, and within two years, there was over 200 kids going to the church on Saturday mornings to study music. The school had a 35-year history of partnerships with the New York City public schools. We were the first community music school to partner with the schools in the '70s, after all the music teachers were fired. And at one point, there were 1,000 kids a week coming to the school to take music classes from their public school and then going back to school. This went on for 30 years.

How can you describe its atmosphere and student demographic?It's very warm, welcoming and supportive. It's a very diverse community, pretty much representing the Upper West Side and up the 1 [train] line into the Bronx. I would say half our students are students of color. And people comment on that; that it's very mixed racially, ethnically and socioeconomically. And they love that about it. And it's also fairly informal, from an institutional standpoint. Ten percent of students are early childhood so that's zero to five and their parents. And 10 percent are adults, so we have a pretty strong community with adults, some of whom are coming back to an instrument after having studied when they were a kid. But we also have introductory classes in guitar and piano for adults. There's no audition barrier. We really believe music is for everyone and are committed to teaching to each individual student's interest.

Floreska will share photos, videos and stories in a talk, “From House to School: the History of BSM,” at 7 p.m. on April 21 at the school, 323 West 108th St.