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Music Works Northwest Tunes a Brand New Beat

October 9, 2020 - by Brooke Wilson

Music Works Northwest Tunes a Brand New Beat

As a nonprofit organization with a dedicated mission, Music Works Northwest has been a staple of the Bellevue community for years - promoting an integrative environment for musical exploration and instruction. From expert lessons to getting kids exposed to music for the first time, the organization trains musicians while bringing live performances to Bellevue. You may have seen the organization's profile as part of our Bellevue Jazz & Blues Music Series, but there's a lot more to the story of their resilience. While the pandemic posed new challenges, the team at Music Works NW continue to provide a musical outlet for many folks across Bellevue, as safely as possible. 


For over 40 years, Bruce Staelens has dedicated his livelihood to the creation, edification and community of music. As the organization's New School of Jazz Program Manager, he helps teach new generations his craft. During the pandemic, Staelens and his team shifted almost everything they do to keep their community safe and the music still flowing. They teach about 250 kids per week and have almost 40 faculty members, offering a variety of learning opportunities. However, teaching and experiencing the tactile art of music is difficult within the frames of social distancing and remote learning.

“One thing we rely on here at Music Works is to be able to go out to the schools, and go out to the communities, and go out to retirement homes. And we haven't been able to do that in person, which has been quite challenging,” Staelens said.

Of course, nothing compares to the physical atmosphere of hearing an ensemble harmonize. But in the age of COVID-19, gathering in person simply isn’t a viable option. Instead, they transitioned to online instruction and created inventive methods to stay in touch and move forward together. It's been an important move for their students, Staelens said.

“A lot of these kids have really relied on continuing their music lessons during the pandemic, that it's given them something to look forward to one day a week,” Staelens said. “And it really gives the kids a chance to have some sort of interactive experience, even though it's online.”

With his sights aimed at bolstering online engagement, the organization has stepped up its presence across multiple social platforms in an effort to generate more publicity, including on Facebook, Instagram and its Youtube channel by posting performances and instructional videos from faculty. When Staelens teaches trumpet lessons remotely, for example, he facilitates his students in recording alternate parts of a duet that are digitally mixed and uploaded for classmates to follow along and accompany.

“Like some of the students have said, it's made us learn a lot more not just about teaching lessons, but how to present the lessons and how we try to get these kids together.”

Over the summer months, Staelens contacted a number of fellow band directors and orchestra conductors to pitch ideas and serve as a sounding board for one another in a dialogue about how educators can ramp up outreach services online, a conversation Staelens said boosted morale and further unified the music education community. Students of the organization have responded well to new virtual changes.

“I think the first part of playing music through this whole fiasco, the past six months, is that I really started to focus on my own individual playing efforts and talents,” Ethan, a double bass player and sophomore attending Newport High School in Bellevue, said. “I really dialed in and improved on certain aspects. And when everything returns back to normal, I can really come back stronger.”

Despite drastic changes with learning and rehearsing music in a remote setting, Ethan has been able to parse out the unexpected advantages of being immersed in solitary practice and devising new norms for interacting with other musicians in this transformative moment.

“I feel like I grew a sense of intimacy with all my bandmates and all the people at school, we really grew as a family and we all support each other and have each other's backs,” Ethan said. 

Throughout the pandemic, Walker, a percussionist and senior at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, said he believes most people have been caught up in what isn’t possible or practical anymore - like attending live concerts or crowding into a physical studio space with your bandmates for rehearsal. But rather than feel discouraged, Walker chooses to embrace the silver lining in a wide range of possibilities and perks that have emerged in this unconventional era.

“We have so many opportunities that we've never had before. If I want to sign up for a Zoom lesson with Jeff Hamilton in New York, I can just zoom into a session and play with one of the best drummers in the world. I could even watch a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” Walker said.

While budgets tighten and financial constraints increase, Staelens remains mindful that Music Works must elevate its mission statement by reaffirming its promise to advocate for equitable and affordable music education through tuition assistance and scholarships, which are funded by generous donations to the organization.  Application materials for tuition support are available online for private instruction (30 minute lessons), summer camps, group instruction and ensembles, and music therapy (clinical half hour).

“We’re here to enrich the entire community, no matter your background, or where you come from,” Staelens said.

Other initiatives to ensure academic inclusivity and accessibility are realized through their music therapy program, geared toward individuals with neurological or developmental differences, like Parkinson’s or Downs Syndrome, for example. Students who may benefit from the uniquely calibrated curriculum can participate in classes that emphasize improving fine motor function through playing piano, drumming and dancing, paired with honing expressive language in singing and vocal exercises.

“They actually go into songwriting so that they can concentrate on really focusing their energy on something super specific,” explained Staelens. “And they’ve done amazing in the virtual world, too.”

As the warmer months wind down and we enter a new season that beckons more opportunities to curl up on your couch, Staelens pitches some upcoming performances and other virtual entertainment to add to your schedule. Many of their programs are now available for the community to watch online, free of charge. Here are just a few:

  • Open Mic Night Series, hosted virtually on the first Wednesday of each month, beginning Oct. 7 from 7-8 p.m. open to the public to watch and participate! Sign up online here and mark your calendars for future dates!
  • Virtual Student Showcase featuring Music Works NW students on Sunday, Oct. 18 for anyone looking to scratch their recital itch!

Plus, don’t miss their latest deal:

  • Special Promotion: new students who sign up for three lessons will receive a fourth one at no extra cost!

Keeping students engaged virtually to hone their musical skills may have been a challenge, but the result has been surprisingly positive. Music Works Northwest continues to provide opportunities for all to learn music while creating a community too. Learn more about their organization on their website.

This blog is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.