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Like other nonprofits, Longy should serve its community

Since 1920, the Longy School of Music in Cambridge has been open to the local community through its music classes, private lessons, and ensemble work. Caught in a campus space crunch, the conservatory decided to phase out this programming, which currently serves about 700 children and 200 adults. It may serve the narrowest interests of the school, but feels short-sighted nonetheless.

Participants and alumni of the music preparatory classes, as they’re known, have been vocal about what a loss doing away with the part-time program will be for the Cambridge-area community. Parents and teachers have picketed the campus, the Cambridge City Council has debated the matter, and a petition calling for Longy to change its mind and reinstate the courses has garnered more than 1,500 signatures.

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Longy officials have responded that their priority must first be to its conservatory students, who have been forced to fight for practice space, even being relegated to hallways and bathrooms on occasion. President Karen Zorn has stressed that the move puts the school’s focus more squarely on Longy’s mission today: to train young musicians as future teachers, particularly to go into low-income neighborhoods that desperately need more music education.

It’s an admirable goal — but Zorn has failed to convincingly explain why the much-loved amateur lessons must be sacrificed to achieve it. She insists that Cambridge’s high real estate costs make finding space to accommodate such classes economically unfeasible. But did Longy’s board consider raising tuition for part-time students first? Or scaling back the number of participants to free up space? Could the program have been spun off into a separate entity? Longy has not publicly explained whether these paths were pursued and why they wouldn’t work.

Boston has many high-quality music schools, and Longy’s former students and teachers will likely find new homes. But if the community benefits from the conservatory, the opposite can surely be argued as well. As a nonprofit institution, the school doesn’t pay taxes, but it depends on Cambridge’s fire, police, and public works departments. Talented local musicians round out Longy ensembles, and neighbors provide an audience for its student performances.

Longy may regret severing ties to its neighbors should it seek approval to expand its Cambridge footprint in the future. Love and mastery of music start at a young age, and by eliminating the children’s division, Longy risks turning away young musicians who, as adults, may help support it. So, while the full-time students deserve adequate practice space, finding some harmony on the part-time program may be an equally useful endeavor.

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