Updated: Apr 10
Photography: Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal
Launched in 2016 by Julliard-trained classical pianist Jee-Hoon Krska, Keys 2 Success is a program making musical education accessible to the children of Newark. The not-for-profit organisation seeks to improve the lives of disadvantaged children in Newark through music education, aiming to foster their intellectual development and social skills. In conversation with TNE, Jee-Hoon discussed her childhood journey with music, decade-long involvement at the Pennington Court Public housing community in Newark, New Jersey, and her drive to provide children with the opportunities she has gained through music.
On the background of Keys 2 Success:
JH: Keys 2 Success was born out of my childhood journey and my decade-long involvement at the Pennington Court public housing community in Newark, New Jersey. Our goal is to provide these children the same musical, cultural, social, and educational opportunities afforded to me and now to my children.
Growing up in a small town in Malaysia, my twin sister and I started playing the piano in the first grade, and my mom decided that we were going to be the best. My mom was not a concert pianist, but she knew how to help us practice. She taught me the piano for the first three years. She sat with us every day to help us practice. Within a couple of years, we were quickly known as the “piano twins” and invited to perform in front of dignitaries.
When we came to America in 1979 (I was 11), my mom found work as a clerk in a warehouse, making minimum wage. My dad was mostly unemployed because he was already near retirement age. Yet my mom dared to call up Juilliard - because she had heard that it is the best music school in America - to try to register us. Through the process, we were introduced to the director of the pre-college program, Olegna Fuschi.
Ms. Fuschi saw that we were not ready to pass the Juilliard audition, but she saw our potential and invested in us by giving us private lessons - reworking our technique and building up our repertoire. When we auditioned a year and a half later, we were both accepted! Ms. Fuschi opened doors for us. She was more than a piano teacher; she taught us how to dress, carry ourselves in formal situations, put us in competitions well-prepared to win, and introduced us to conductors who invited us to perform with their orchestras. She even created a music festival to bring her students to various parts of the world to work with world-class musicians.
Five years after arriving in America, I lost my mother to cancer; Ms. Fuschi stepped up her role as mentor, champion, and mother figure. One thing that is noteworthy about my musical journey is that I was a full scholarship student in Juilliard pre-college and later at MIT. My parents could not have afforded those music lessons if not for the generosity of strangers.
Looking back now, I am so thankful for music. Moving to a new country was disorienting, but playing the piano brought comfort. The piano was familiar, and I could excel in it. It gave me the confidence to know that I could compete with the best in a foreign land, and it opened up doors for me to experience and learn to feel comfortable navigating new and privileged environments.
On Keys 2 Success’ Mission:
JH: Keys 2 Success aims to revolutionise music education by giving daily tuition-free piano lessons to the most marginalised students in a safe and familiar learning environment. We catalyse social, emotional, and intellectual development and connecting our students into diversified social networks necessary to manoeuvre life successfully.
Take the case of Maya*, our student who lives at Pennington Court housing and who joined us at our inception in 2016. Maya was then a second-grader who was easily demoralized and prone to tears. One of the volunteers discovered that her teary bouts resulted from a lack of self-confidence, which in turn resulted from lagging behind her peers academically, especially in reading. Maya’s reading skills and self-confidence improved through reading weekly with the volunteers; additionally, persisting through the struggle to learn to read music helped Maya persevere in her English reading – Maya was awakened to the effects of encouragement and perseverance. She practiced to master her pieces and started to mentor the younger kids. In the subsequent semesters, Maya consistently made the Principal’s list and continues to thrive in the music program.
Photo: William Krska
On the role of music in tackling generational poverty:
JH: For countless children, the effects of poverty are not confined to material want. They lack access to a robust social network and the broader cultural inheritance enjoyed by children in more privileged communities. Musical training improves focus, social skills, and executive functioning. It also builds social networks required to thrive in the wider professional world.
Keys 2 Success seeks to provide some of Newark’s most underserved youth with the same kind of musical training that is typically available only to more affluent families. We accomplish this by:
Maintaining a high percentage of enrollment of children from public housing. We prioritize their achievements by employing staff skilled at bringing out the best in these children who are often overlooked. We also choose to teach in learning environments most familiar and convenient for students.
Providing each student “daily lessons” replacing the need for parents to have both free-time and musical knowledge (or to hire tutors or nannies) to supervise the daily practice sessions on their own.
100% tuition-free for all students diminishes the artificial segmentation of students based on economic status.
Creating opportunities for our students to participate in mainstream classical music events through partnerships and leveraging faculty and volunteers’ networks. These events give our students a growing familiarity with mainstream cultural institutions and a sense of belonging to the larger world.
On the values the programme instils in its pupils:
JH: Safety, Love, Passion, Concern, Empathy, Respect, and Hard Work are what we instil and the building blocks needed for students to flourish throughout their lives.
Jaliyah* was the first student from Pennington Court to sign up for online classes. Her parents initially did not fully appreciate piano lessons’ value because they were overwhelmed with helping her just get through her second-grade school work. However, after several weeks of my offering to look over her homework, Jaliyah’s mom called me one day and asked me to help her with English. For the next few weeks, we would meet virtually to go over her homework and then have a short piano lesson. Since then, her mom would always make sure that Jaliyah came to ZOOM piano class - sometimes even pulling her away from her friends who were all playing outside in the sprinkler.
On the values everyone can benefit from through music education:
JH: Learning how to play the piano is more than about music. It is about learning to navigate challenges and to expect success in life. I grew to love the discipline of hard work and the feelings of accomplishment. Performing taught me how to calm my nerves in high stakes situations. Memorizing music taught me how to make sense of complex compositions. Piano competitions taught me how to prepare systematically over several months—losing taught me how to recover from devastating disappointments. My piano teacher was my inspiration. She became my guide after my mother died and mentored me through the last years of high school. I learned to see myself as someone special and capable of achieving anything I put my mind to.
Photo: William Krska
On the growth of Keys 2 Success:
JH: Launched in the fall of 2016 with 12 students, our program has grown steadily by adding a new cohort of students each year. In the Spring of 2020, we had grown to serve over 100 students at one public school and one public housing community. When the pandemic forced all of the lessons online in March (most New Jersey students are still online at the time of this writing), our reach dropped overnight to 30 students due to a lack of instruments, space, and sufficient internet connectivity at home. Through generous donations and by diligently working with the community, 70 students are now registered in our online programs and are continuing to add new students each week. An unexpected outgrowth of lessons going virtual was a unique ability to reconnect with students who had previously moved away to other schools and even out to other states in the country. As a result, our program is now serving students in 9 different schools in multiple states. Therefore, we intend to continue teaching online as a secondary path for reaching students, even as we fully expect to resume in-person instruction later next year.
On the future of Keys 2 Success:
JH: Our program’s power lies with diverse communities committed to work together and the “tuition-free for all” model. Our ability to stay engaged with the students, particularly through the pandemic, testifies to this model’s unique strength. The core values and infrastructure required for this model are not unique to Newark or even to the United States. As more people witness our students’ unprecedented achievements, we hope to inspire them to start similar programs, reconnect historically segregated communities, break generational barriers, and contribute to human flourishing.
During this pandemic, our staff and board adopted an “essential worker” mindset. Masking up and staying outdoors, we visited Pennington Court weekly to check on the students, sign them up for classes, drop off keyboards, hand out masks, participate in book fairs sponsored by the city, pick up kids for outdoor practices, etc. One of our Board members, upon learning of our students playing in the isolation of their homes, decided to offer up her daughter’s backyard in Newark and even to personally pick up the children for weekly ensemble outdoor practice sessions.
On the most rewarding moment so far:
JH: One of the most rewarding moments was when George Marriner Maull came to our class as a visiting artist. As he was leaving, one of the young students piped up, “Mr. George, can I play for you?” This simple question showed not only that they are developing a love for music, but that they also know that they matter so much that they can command attention, even from strangers.
A message for the supporters of Keys 2 Success:
JH: Music has given our children a new story to tell. They are realizing their unique capabilities and accomplishing great things. As I pass forward the gifts poured into my childhood, the children of Keys 2 Success will one day grow up and pass on these gifts you are pouring into their lives.
* the children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy
To keep up to date with Keys 2 Success and support their mission, check out their website: https://www.keysnewark.com
Photo: Ameerah Shabazz-Bilal