by: Katelyn Becker
Ty Russell, director of student affairs and outreach at Sitar Arts Center, spoke about how work at the art center is enriching their student artists and their community.
WASHINGTON- Sitar Arts Center is tucked away on a quiet street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C. But when you step inside, the facilities bustle with children talking, laughing and making music.
Sitar Arts Center is a non-profit art center with a multitude of classes ranging from music education and lessons, to performing and visual arts. They cater to every age from early childhood classes to adult classes. Ty Russell teaches private music classes, recording engineering classes, DJ studio class and more. He is also a liaison between children and their parents and said he makes a lot of phone calls to parents during the day about attendance, behavior issues and anything that comes up.
Russell has worked with music in some capacity for his whole life. His mother was a guitar player and middle school math teacher, and he grew up with his mom playing to all of the neighborhood kids. “She had sort of a captive audience and she would sing her folk songs to us which was awesome,” he said. When Russell began high school and joined bands, his mom would let the groups rehearse at his house and store their instruments in their basement. The instruments in his basement were too temping and Russell said “of course if instruments are there I’m going to play them.” Before he knew it, he was teaching neighborhood kids how to play.
Russell then attended technical school to learn the art of recording and UDC to study music. From then on he became a professional musician and music teacher.
Russell grew up in the suburb of Columbia, Maryland. He said that he grew up in a place where most people in the neighborhood knew each other and were friends. “We had our little neighborhood and cul-de-sac where we all knew each other, we all worked together and it was fun,” he said. “I’ve always maintained this community model.” So, when his friend working at Sitar was leaving, he recommended Russell for his current job. Russell said he really identified with the spirit of the place. “It’s a place where community happens,” he said.
Russell also said that Sitar works mainly with low-income families. “80% of our student body falls below 50% of the median income” he said.
“People assume because we’re in Adams Morgan which is becoming an increasingly expensive neighborhood to live in,” Russell said, “it’s an easy assumption to make that we’re not an affordable place to take arts classes but it’s exactly the opposite.” He said that rates are affordable and they work with people from any income level. “No one is turned away for financial reasons,” he said.
Since Sitar works with people that are struggling financially, it allows for diversity among students. Russell said, “It’s one of the beautiful things about Sitar that it’s diverse not just in terms of race, ethnicity and background, but also in terms of income level and class.”
Russell said most of the teachers are volunteers that are professionals working in music and arts who donate their time to work with students. “That brings with it a certain spirit of wanting to contribute and wanting to give back so to speak to the community,” Russell said.
Sitar Arts Center is also focused on teaching life skills alongside honing a student’s craft. “Even more than we try to teach the particular art forms, we want to impart what we call 21st century life skills,” Russell said. He said that teaching the arts can also teach a student skills like problem solving, planning, completion and follow through. They also learn to apply creativity to any situation.
“I see the benefits of arts education on a daily basis,” Russell said. One example he used was a student he was working with who had problems with impulse control and at school she was being disruptive in class. She also had difficulty focusing. But, she came to Sitar and found that she loved collaging and art. She got so involved in her collage project that it is helping improve her focus issues.
The benefits of this type of education can be quite personal. Russell said, “Self expression involves being in touch with yourself and investigating, delving into what makes you tick, and as you learn to express yourself through whatever art form it is you’re working in, you discover things about yourself.” Russell said that he sees that the addition of arts education gives people a vehicle to communicate who they are.
Another benefit is that the arts allows for feedback from others. Russell said this enables students to take pride in their ability to express themselves especially in a way that they never thought they could before trying an instrument or learning a new art form.
Russell said Sitar is all about building relationships. Community minded artists volunteer to be teachers and often mentors to help young people who are disengaged and not fitting in. By introducing music and art and helping them find a way to express themselves, Sitar also helps them connect to themselves, their families and their community.