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How an East St. Louis resident and Art Educator of the Year empowers young musicians

Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill and Williams Austin during a music lesson.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill and Williams Austin during a music lesson.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

On a humid Tuesday afternoon in June, Rosalind-Denise Rogers is wrapping up a class at a local church. It was the first day of the summer session for The Inner Ear Youth Orchestra, which Rogers founded.

Rogers teaches the remaining two students, one on the cello and the other on the double bass. Her instructions are calm and clear. Rogers’ soothing voice doesn’t waver when the students make a mistake on a note. Instead, her instructions become even calmer and clearer. She uses hand gestures and voice intonations that mimic the notes she wants to hear.

Rogers wants them to feel the music, not simply play it. After a couple of tries, both students hit the right note.

This session takes place at Shining Light Missionary Baptist Church on Colas Avenue where Rogers’ uncle is the pastor. It’s the practice location du jour, as The Inner Ear doesn’t have an official home for rehearsals. The two students rode with her to attend the session, so Rogers has to drop them off at home.

Finding a place to practice while providing transportation to students in need is a common exercise for Rogers since starting the orchestra. But those are tasks that need to happen to fulfill her desire of making the arts accessible for children in East St. Louis.

Rogers, a music teacher at Lincoln Middle School, remembers a tear-jerking moment when one of her students dressed like a professional violinist for career day.

“Now, here we are having students ask those questions, ‘Can you make money in music?,’” Rogers, 30, said. “Is that a real job? Being able to show them firsthand, yes this is my career. Yes, this is my business. I know that a lot of students are given hope by that. That’s how I know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Officially established in the city in 2019, the nonprofit creates a community where East St. Louis children, ages 3-17, have access to quality music education and perform in quarterly recitals. Students in the program receive instruction on playing the violin, cello, viola and double bass.

Cost of classes run from $225-$350 depending on the quarter, but Rogers, through community grants, assures that most of her students are able to get scholarships to participate in the program. That dedication is likely why the Arts and Education Councilof St. Louis recently named her this year’s Arts Educator of the Year.

Rogers returned to East St. Louis in 2017 after taking the music teaching position at Lincoln. She was born and raised in the city, but her family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, when she was younger.

The self-taught violinist attended school at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, where she studied music education with a concentration in violin. But being a Black girl who wanted to professionally play the violin wasn’t easy for Rogers. Her experiences inspired her to start The Inner Ear and an orchestra at Lincoln Middle School.

She’s a firm believer in “we can’t really say we’re lovers of the arts unless we’re making it accessible.”

Rogers talked to The Belleville News-Democrat about her passion for classical music and giving children in East St. Louis the opportunity to discover their own.

Why did you want to start these orchestral programs in East St. Louis?

When I told a colleague that I was going to East St. Louis, I was told to go somewhere where the resources wouldn’t be as strained. I wouldn’t have to beg and ask for things, and stuff like that. While that was clearly something other districts had over this one, if every teacher decided to go to a place like that— affluent, resourceful, wonderful environment—if every teacher chooses that, where does that leave these babies who never chose to be where they are? That’s the mindblowing part for me.

What were you doing before you moved?

In 2017, I was done with school. I was a program director of the (local) Boys & Girls Club, and the principal of Lincoln called me and said that my application came across her desk. I think it was maybe a year after I sent it. I drove up there the first week, met the principal and interviewed. Drove up the next week, took the tests in enrollment and stuff. I left my daughter in Kansas for two weeks and prepared a place for her here with schools and stuff, and then we moved here.

I was in love from that moment on. My first day at Lincoln, a student had came up to me and was like ‘Ms. Rogers, I opened up the piano for you.’ He had scissors and screws in his hand. They had nailed the piano shut. There was a sub in there and they had a computer desk. It was just not a music room, but when they knew it was a music teacher coming, they were ready to show that that’s what they were there for. At that moment, I felt like that’s what that young man and those kids were saying. We made music with the piano that day. What I’ve learned through these years is that they really want to be able to depend on something and someone. They’re so used to things not going and not happening that they’ve been told to do that when it does, they’re in total disbelief.

Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill and William Austin during a music lesson.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill and William Austin during a music lesson.

How long have you been playing the violin? How did you get introduced to it?

It was while we were still living here in Rush City (in East St. Louis) at age 5 or 4 going into 5. I remember when TV used to go off and there was nothing else to watch but the infomercial and commercials and stuff. One day I stayed up late, and called myself trying to watch TV, and I was watching PBS. It wasn’t Arthur or anything. It was an orchestra playing. I remember looking at these people in the chairs, and it was huge. There were a lot of men and a lot of women, but there were no Black people. It was white and Asian at this time. Culturally, people think that the violin and cello are girly instruments. They attach it to the feminine side when, for a long time, the only people who could play the violin were not just men, but white men.

I looked at the screen and said I’m going to be the only Black person playing the violin. The more I played the violin and the better I got, the more rooms I stepped in, and it became painfully clear that I had chosen something that people thought I didn’t deserve. Here I am at 16, the first time I’m feeling that and understand that historically, no one expected this young Black girl to get this and then be good at it and then make a career out of that.

My desire to be the only one changed to I want to teach. I want to let other Black girls know.

Can you give me an example of a time when you didn’t feel like you belonged?

About 15 or 16 years old, when I was in the ninth grade, that’s about the age for contests where you would go to another school for the weekend and play your songs there and get graded. One Saturday, I went. There just happened to be one other Black girl there. They asked if we were sisters, and I had to go home and ask my mom and talk about that. To put us together just like that because we’re both in a room that we clearly don’t belong to so we must be related, is what it felt like.

Once some of the kids realized that Rosalind was serious about what she was doing, that’s when the pranks and water in the chair and the unintentional hits and the things that really show you the other side (happened).

Is that what made you want to transition from performing to teaching?

I was a performer first. The teaching part came when there was a little girl across the street. She saw me playing. I was maybe six or seven years older than her. She came across the street and wanted me to teach her. At this time I’d been playing for eight or nine years, so I thought I knew what there was to know and could do that.

We sat up in the yard. We had music stands and a violin. I got ready to teach her, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was at that moment that I acknowledged that I really didn’t know what I was doing. That set the quest on (going to) school.

That quest led to you start an orchestra at Lincoln Middle School—the only one in the district– and The Inner Ear Youth Orchestra. What do you want to offer your students?

You don’t know what we do when we’re actually playing the music, and I think that speaks for the power of music. When all of my kids play together, you wouldn’t know that three of them’s mom is a doctor and the other one maybe she doesn’t have a job. None of that matters when they start playing. To give them that opportunity to where they can find a place in this world where they belong and where their background does not matter—that’s what I believe that I give. That’s what my desire is to give to them.

I know what it’s like to be the only one, the only Black person choosing what you chose, the only Black person doing what you’re doing, feeling like there’s no one else like this, (so) why am I trying this until you see someone who looks like you.

Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill during a music lesson.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Rosalind Denise Rogers works with Carl Hill during a music lesson.

Having both exposure and access to the arts is important.

Let’s be forreal. We’re in East St. Louis. If a parent has to choose between feeding their kid and introducing a new skill or a new talent or a new hobby, we already know what’s going to happen. As a mom, I understand, so my desire is to show them and provide resources. Just because you’re a mom and work all day doesn’t mean you don’t want your kid to experience something like this. Just because you’re a single father doesn’t mean you don’t care what your kid does. You do. When you’re in a program where a kid needs too much of the parent, most of the time, the kid has to miss out .

Did you face similar challenges growing up?

My mom was a teacher. My dad was a bus driver, so they’re working, taking care of other people’s kids and stuff like that. Because classical music wasn’t a well-known thing in Black families, so when you have this kid that does it, what I notice in Black homes, when we’re good at something, our parents literally throw us out in front of everybody. It’s like yea, she can sing. Go sing for your grandma or she’s going to sing at church because this is what she does and there’s never really a formal training process. There’s no desire to make sure that they have a teacher so that they’re doing it right. It sounds good already to them.

I think that’s the situation I was in. My mom and dad—they supported me, but it wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I tried to get my own teacher and just have my parents pay for it. I knew I needed more help. I knew what kind. They didn’t really know or understand or even value it. I don’t fault them for it because I know if we did this again, they would do it differently.

We were poor. They took care of us. They did their best, and how I honor it is filling in the gaps that (for) even the best parents, they cannot fill. They can’t go to work all day and take them to practice.

How have those challenges manifested themselves in your program?

One of them is a residency or a location for our organization. We depend heavily on community organizations allowing us to use their space. The second thing is transportation. A lot of the students want to do this. A lot of parents want their kids to be a part of something like this. Even now, it’s 10-3, most parents are at work. Most parents cannot get their kids here. Honestly, I can’t do it any earlier either. Transportation would change dramatically the reach that the Inner Ear has. That, along with funding, of course. Most of the kids get a scholarship. The program costs $225, and most of the students are here on a full ride, and the ones that don’t, they generally get a scholarship. Nobody goes unhelped in this situation.

Those things don’t discourage me really, but it just makes me realize that heart is not enough. My desire to do this is not enough. The community helping, it means a lot.

TheArts and Education Councilrewarded your dedication to your students when they named you Art Educator of the Year. How did that feel?

It was a very exciting time. Winning the art educator award really encouraged me because, again, you are reminded in certain situations that those feelings of being alone, but when we talk about the art education council and what they do and all these individuals who are working together to raise money and bring awareness to things that are happening in the music classroom, it’s very encouraging.

I found out this year that I am not alone. There are people that support me. There are people who see what I’m doing and value it. Seeing is not enough. Valuing it and understanding what’s going on is the other part.

The next summer session for The Inner Ear Youth Orchestra runs from July 25-Aug 5. For more information on how to get involved or donating to the orchestra, click here.

DeAsia Page covers East St. Louis and its surrounding areas for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.