Music

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At 25, ZUMIX takes a hands-on approach to musical creativity

Youth from ZUMIX participating in the Walk for Music fund-raiser.

Michael S Cohen

Youth from ZUMIX participating in the Walk for Music fund-raiser.

It’s a rainy afternoon in East Boston, but inside the former firehouse that houses the nonprofit ZUMIX, the mood is bright. Students bustle between classes; a state-of-the-art recording studio sits idle, with instruments scattered around should the mood to make music strike.

ZUMIX the space, and ZUMIX the nonprofit, are designed to indulge the music-making impulse. The organization was founded 25 years ago on the principle that strapping on an instrument — or plugging into an amp, or singing into a microphone — can be life-altering.

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“I’m a lifelong lover of music,” says executive director Madeleine Steczynski, perched on a chair in the studio. “At a young age, I happened to be involved in a music scene in Boston that was extremely vibrant and new and exciting and young. My love of it was both musical and sociological . . . [and] the energy was coming from people who were under 18.

“I learned a lot from that: Don’t ever underestimate a young person,” she continues. “Young people have nothing but potential, and our society has an obligation to try and create the preconditions for young people to thrive.”

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Steczynski and Bob Grove founded ZUMIX in 1991 as a way to help young people in their community thrive through making music. It started as a summer songwriting program for 24 students, operating out of Steczynski’s East Boston kitchen. In 2010 it moved around the corner to an old firehouse that’s been renovated to house a performance space, a radio station, a recording studio, and room for kids — 500 of them, with more on a waiting list — to give music their all.

“I’ve created this multifaceted puzzle that needs a lot of solving, and a lot of people to think about how to take advantage of means and resources,” says Steczynski. “What comes out of that is original music, original art, and performance. But the most magical piece to me is that we’ve created a community of people where, no matter what program you focus on, you are learning a skill set that is valued within that community, and you are plugged in to a community where that skill set can be purposeful.”

ZUMIX programs enable students to dip into numerous endeavors. Performance programs allow youth to try their hand at instruments ranging from their own voices to the drums. Writing classes — including a songwriting course called “The Write Rhythm,” which uses Instagram photos as prompts — help young people develop their voices. ZUMIX Radio, which later this year will launch a low-power FM analogue to its online signal, has provided students an opportunity to give radio a try for a decade now. And music-technology programs offer training in the nuts and bolts of engineering and production, even giving participants chances to work at events around the city.

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The organization is constantly raising money to fund these ambitious programs, and next month will participate in Walk for Music, a stroll around the Back Bay Fens designed to raise money for more than 100 music organizations. ZUMIX’s goal is $40,000, and it hopes to have 250 people participate on its behalf.

“The event is very joyful and spirited; it feels true to who we are in our culture and our community,” says Steczynski. “But it also has a methodology about allowing everyone to plug in and help out.”

That ideology has been crucial to ZUMIX’s evolution over the past 25 years. Corey Depina, a ZUMIX teacher as well as its youth development and performance manager, initially got involved during his early adolescence. “I kind of fell in love with this nonprofit place that had instruments and music technology, and these two people [Steczynski and Grove] who were opening their homes to kids so we could learn and feel supported,” recalls Depina, who grew up in Roxbury.

“It saved my life,” he says. “Even though our programs are rooted in music, it’s really about empowerment through music. Not everybody who comes into our space is going to be a musician or an audio engineer, but everyone has a voice and an opinion, and everyone needs love. That’s what they get here; they feel like they have access to opportunities and people who care about them.”

Talking to current students — whose interests range from post-hardcore to hip-hop, and from producing to performing — shows how that ethos continues to reverberate.

“Even if you’ve been here for a year, it [can feel] like you’ve been here for your whole life,” says 15-year-old Angelina Botticelli, who’s about to celebrate her nine-year anniversary of attending ZUMIX’s programs. “It becomes kind of a routine thing. . .”

“. . . like a second home,” interjects Mario Jarjour, 16, a three-year ZUMIX veteran.

Walk for Music ‘is very joyful and spirited; it feels true to who we are in our culture and our community.’

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“ZUMIX is my family,” Botticelli asserts. “I’ve learned so much about myself.”

ZUMIX Spring Program Graduation

At ZUMIX Firehouse, 260 Sumner St., East Boston, May 18, 19 at 6 p.m. Free admission. 617-568-9777, www.zumix.org

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.
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