For Peggy Senter, founding the Concord Music School was the ‘honor of my life’

  • Peggy Senter leads a Music and Movement class in 1984. Binney Wells / Concord Community Music School

  • Peggy Senter, founder of the Concord Community Music School, is retiring after running it for decades. GEOFF FORESTERphotos / Monitor staff

  • Holly Claffy, 2, at the Concord Music School Music and Movement class that Peggy Senter started decades ago. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Peggy Senter of the Concord Music School that she has been running for decades. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Brandi Reed with her three boys, Noah (left), Finn, 2, and Alexander, 3, at the Music and Movement class at the Concord Music School that has been taught for decades and started with Peggy Senter. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Holly Claffy, 2, at the Concord Music School Music and Movement class that Peggy Senter started decades ago. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Holly Claffy, 2, at the Concord Music School Music and Movement class that Peggy Senter started decades ago.

  • Alexander Reed, 3, plays with a scarf in the Music and Movement class at the Concord Music School. Peggy Senter started the class decades ago and has seen many children go on to musical careers after starting at the school. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/22/2021 4:57:35 PM

In the early 1980s, Peggy Senter conducted a feasibility study for a class project at Radcliffe College, to see if a community music school could be successful in little Concord, New Hampshire. 

A busy Boston musician at the time, Senter’s working hours were divided between freelance piano gigs and teaching at city community music schools, and her social hours were consumed by a group of New Hampshire friends, humorously dubbed the “Dunbarton Gourmet Society” because of their monthly dinner parties. Senter, who preferred small-town living, found herself wanting to move to the Granite State, but none of the musicians she knew had established a successful music career there.

“These people were all passionate about it, but they were all doctors and teachers and bankers. There was just no way to make a living as a musician,” Senter said. “I saw my friends at about that age, giving up their musical life to become a computer programmer or whatever, for a day job. I just kept saying, ‘I’m not ready to not be a musician anymore.’”

Her friends encouraged her to finish the feasibility report, which was only half-jokingly titled, “What if I Had a Music School and Nobody Came?”

“Everybody kept saying, ‘you could start a school, like the one you teach in,’” Senter recalled. “And I said, ‘oh, that sounds like a lot of trouble.’ ”

But what she found in her study was eye-opening. The demand for high-quality music education existed in 1980’s New Hampshire, and it wasn’t being met.

“People, if they wanted their child to have oboe lessons, it just wasn’t available in the whole state, so they were driving to Boston,” Senter said. “Doctors were so passionate about their piano lessons they were driving to Longy in Harvard Square. There was a lot of interest because there just had not been that kind of institution with a paid faculty before.”

Senter went on to establish the Concord Community Music School, which has grown to serve 1,500 weekly students from ages 6 months to 90 years. Senter is retiring on July 15, after 37 years as director.

“It has been the honor of my life to work with incredible faculty and staff members, trustees, supporters, and colleagues since 1984 to build this far-reaching musical family,” Senter wrote in her letter to the Music School’s Board of Trustees. “I have learned so much, and been influenced personally, musically, and professionally in ways I never could have imagined.”

Laying the groundwork

The roots of community music schools are connected to the Settlement House Movement, as efforts to bring quality music education to low-income, urban immigrant populations. Although they were popular in major cities at the time, Senter said there was no precedent for a philanthropy-funded music organization in New Hampshire, and she didn’t know if it would catch on.

The Concord Community Music School’s first location was the second floor of the Kimball-Jenkins Mansion on N. State Street, uninhabited at the time except for pigeons, who were known to fly in the wide arching windows and leave droppings on the piano. Senter, the only teacher, offered piano lessons, music theory and early-childhood music classes.

“What I loved about her piano playing was how expressive she was,” said Peggo Horstmann Hodes, voice teacher and one of Senter’s original piano students. “It wasn’t just about following the notes and dynamic markings, it was really a piece of her heart that went through her playing. That was why I wanted to take lessons with her.”

It wasn’t long before Senter’s studio was full. She began to grow the operation, with 10 music teachers coming on to teach piano, guitar, voice, violin, clarinet and flute. Some of her adult piano students – mainly doctors – became her first board of directors, and in the summer of 1984, the Concord Community Music School was officially incorporated.

The school grew quickly, increasing by about 100 students a year. In an effort to find more space, the organization moved to the Kimball Jenkins estate’s Yellow House, then to a building behind the Gas Lighter Restaurant on North Main Street. They purchased the current location on Wall Street in 1987.

“She’s what I call an alpha entrepreneur, because she started with a clean sheet of paper,” said John Blackford, a retired management consultant who has been both a board member and guitar student at the school. “It wasn’t like she got a franchise from some place, she had an idea and started it straight from scratch, which is a really wonderful thing.”

‘Everyone is a musician’

Over the next two decades under Senter’s leadership, the school continued to grow, expanding to include jazz, folk and South Asian traditional music. Being a piano teacher has always remained paramount to Senter’s identity and she continued to teach at the school, shepherding piano students from childhood through to high school.

“I feel like teaching beginners is the most challenging thing you can do, if you do it right,” Senter said. “Because you’re setting them up for the rest of their life.”

Senter wanted the school to be “barrier-free” as much as possible, which they’ve worked toward by making the building physically accessible and dedicating $200,000 a year in free and reduced cost instruction. Offerings like the Sunflower Singers chorus for adults with developmental disabilities and music lessons for New American children at the Manchester Housing Authority are all part of Senter’s longtime goal to make music more inclusive.

“We try to eliminate the barrier that people think only other people can make music,” Senter said. “We think everyone is a musician.”

The school, which runs on 50% tuition revenue and 50% philanthropy, has had its share of challenges. The Great Recession hit hard, and in 2017 a water pipe burst, causing flood damage that was difficult to recover from, financially. The school made some significant administrative staffing cuts. Senter took over as chief financial advisor, without any prior experience, until they were able to hire a real one.

“Peggy understands the details, she delves into what she doesn’t know and finds out about it,” Horstmann Hodes said “It has kept the music school going in challenging times.”

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the music school shut down for a week, then reopened remotely. Teachers conducted private lessons via live video. Recitals were prerecorded videos, streamed on YouTube. Members of the The Northern Lights women’s vocal ensemble used FM transmitting headphones to have distanced rehearsals in the driveway. Private lesson enrollment dropped by 18%, but surprisingly the school got the highest summer enrollment it’s ever had in 2020.

“To watch everything be so well-handled was very satisfying,” Senter said. “We didn’t ever stop doing what we did.”

Looking to the future

The Concord Community Music School’s board will select a one-year interim director by the end of June, after which the board will do a nationwide search for a permanent director. For nonprofits, transition of original leadership can be a delicate time, but Horstmann Hodes says she feels Senter has created a strong staff that will be able to keep things running after she is gone.

“Peggy has set the conditions that allow us to move on and continue to grow and continue the dream we started,” said Horstmann Hodes. “We will miss her, and also the flip side is the excitement of there will be someone new, someone with new style and that will be growth-producing as well.”

In retirement, Senter plans to take a long vacation, reconnect with pre-pandemic friends and get back into a more consistent piano prac tice routine, which she said she hasn’t been able to dedicate enough time to, due to work.

“There’s such a deep well of experience here that it fe els like, ‘sure,’” Senter said. “It’s in good shape in terms of people, and we are a people organization. If your people are good, you’re in good shape.”

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