For Alexander Tentser, music was as much a right of passage as his Bar Mitzvah.
His father was a klezmer musician and entertainer with a conservatory education in Kiev, Ukraine, and since Tentser had been playing piano since the age of four, it was only natural that he began accompanying his father at professional gigs as soon as he turned 13. Tentser met his wife, violinist Anna Gendler, when they were both students at the Gnessin Music College in Moscow, and they later shared their passion with their son, Misha, the day he turned 5 by giving him his first violin. It’s no wonder that Misha Tentser says that music is basically the “life-blood” of his family.
“Music is our lives,” says family patriarch Alex Tenster, “from morning to the evening, that’s what we do.” Each of the family members has a regular cadre of students cycling through their home from day to day, and when they are not teaching little ones “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the sweet sounds and sometimes awkward plinks and plunks of practice still fill the air of their Tucson domicile. Misha can’t even remember a life without music as its cornerstone, and each of them has found tremendous joy in sharing their expertise with beginning students. Thus, when Gendler, also a faculty member of Pima Community College’s music department, discovered the nonprofit Symphony Women’s Association several years ago, the entire family quickly jumped on board.
Once associated with the city’s symphony orchestra, TSWA has always been an independent organization that relies solely on private donations to support its mission. The bulk of its work centers around education; providing instruction, musical instruments, and materials like strings and sheet music to local youth. The students practice in groups, perform at recitals and competitions, and those who show the most talent and dedication are given the opportunity to take private lessons from their many qualified instructors, like Alex, Anna, and Misha. And they do all of this without asking for a dime from their more than 200 students or their families.
Every one of TSWAs students is considered “at risk” due to their socio-economic status, and as such, their lessons at the facility in Downtown Tucson are provided on a scholarship that includes everything from a loaner instrument to replacement strings and reeds.
The lessons students receive from TSWA instructors don’t only help them develop the ability to play an instrument, says Gendler. They also help students learn the importance of practice, cooperation, and patience.
Music lessons at TSWA “help kids from this lower socioeconomic background to be exposed to something beautiful, and they recognize it and understand it … they are very sensitive, and the more they are exposed to (music), the more they grow to appreciate it,” says Gendler. She points out that many of her students come from “really tough home situations,” and their time spent at the TWSA facility is often a welcome escape from their day-to-day realities. “They come here and it’s a safe and nurturing program for them — it’s just a chance for them to have something human, and kind, and positive. So it doesn’t even matter to what extent or at what pace they progress. It’s just bringing some quality (to their lives).”
Though the instructors take severely discounted fees for working at the facility versus what they make giving private lessons, Misha says that the fact that he is working with at-risk kids is forgotten during instruction and, at least for the half hour they are there, all of his students are “just kids.”
“I thrive on the joy that the students put out,” he says. “It’s satisfying to be in a room with students that are so happy to be there.”
TSWA education director Pilar Fabula says it costs about $400 to support a single student in the program for a year, and though that might not sound like much, with a roster of 200-plus, the cost of keeping the program going hovers near the $100,000 per year mark. And despite the fact that their efforts are entirely selfless, this does not make the nonprofit immune to hardship. Fabula says their facility was broken into early last month, resulting in the theft of about $2,000 of equipment, including a large computer monitor and as many as 13 violins — a setback they are hoping to make up for at their 25th anniversary scholarship luncheon at the Tucson Country Club next month.
Though at least three of TSWA’s primary instructors and many of their supporters come from Tucson’s Jewish community, Gendler says that about 90 percent of the students there are Hispanic and thus speak primarily Spanish. But this hasn’t stopped her from making a connection. “Music is an international language,” she says, “so it bypasses that.”
More information on TSWA programs and the upcoming scholarship luncheon fundraiser is available at www.TSWATucson.org.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.