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Inspiring Young Music Makers in Portland

Charles Lewis admits that pretty much everyone in his Master's program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government advised him not to start a...

Charles Lewis admits that pretty much everyone in his Master's program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government advised him not to start a non-profit on a credit card. But his passion for music education outweighed practical advice and today, 5,000 Portland, Oregon-area students are benefiting from his risk taking.Lewis founded Ethos Music Center in 1998 in response to widespread cuts in music education funding. National studies confirm that children with a music background score better on the SATs, have higher school attendance, fewer discipline problems, and improve in math. "Unfortunately," says Lewis, "It's common to encounter kids who've never held a musical instrument in their hands, particularly when they come from a low-income area."Ethos opened up in donated classroom space at Lewis's undergraduate alma mater, the University of Portland. In the first quarter, three volunteers taught 11 piano students. Word began to spread, and within months, Ethos was serving over 250 mini maestros.By 2000 the growing demand sent Lewis looking for a permanent home for Ethos, so he searched in the most underserved part of town. Like many Ethos students Lewis grew up in a low-income area in a family that received food stamps. "The difference is that when I was a kid, budget cuts hadn't yet affected music programs," he says. "Music gave me a lot of benefits that kids today are missing out on."
Charles with Portland Sign.12110
He found a boarded up space in a neighborhood infamous for drive-by shootings, and the landlord agreed to rent the place for cheap if Lewis would fix up the building. In the ten years since, Ethos has raised enough funds to buy and rehab every building on the block, making this stretch of North Killingsworth Street a self-contained music education campus.Ethos offers classes on a sliding scale, and along with teaching classical and jazz, the school taps into the popularity of contemporary music. Students enrolled in the Hip-Hop and Urban Music Project (THUMP) use computer programs to learn sampling, DJ'ing and beat making. "The kids who think they hate math don't know they're doing fractions with those beats," says Lewis.In addition to classes at the center, Ethos has started over 140 after-school programs in Portland and Southern Washington. Since 2002 Ethos has also expanded its reach into rural areas through its Music Across Oregon program. Lewis says rural parts of Oregon have been incredibly hard hit by the economy. "Some places are down to a four-day school week," he says, "The first things to get cut were athletics and music."Ethos bought a 1977 Bristol Double Decker bus and outfitted it as a mobile classroom which Ethos members and volunteer teachers drove all around the state for workshops and assemblies. Eight years after the bus rolled off for the first time, the program has four full-time AmeriCorps volunteers serving as Rural Music Facilitators teaching classes to entire communities.The credit card risk Lewis took a dozen years ago has paid off in the look of pride on students' faces. Lewis says the most rewarding part isn't the kid who has mastered an extremely difficult piece of music. "It's the kid who's never touched a piano before in their lives," he says. "And now they're playing 'Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star.'"This post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.

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