Neighborhood Music School’s origins date to 1911 on Wooster Street in New Haven. Established in association with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as "Neighborhood Settlement," the School was part of the settlement house movement, dedicated to serving the local immigrant population. In the words of musicologist Dr. Leon B. Plantinga, Neighborhood Music School was "born of an interest in serving a community, a neighborhood."
From the beginning, Neighborhood Settlement offered music lessons. In 1915, as demand for music instruction grew, Neighborhood Settlement appointed its first Director of Music: Ms. Susan Hart Dyer, a composition student at the Yale School of Music. Ms. Dyer was succeeded in 1919 by Ms. Jessie Clark Beecher, a teacher of piano, who served as Director of Music for the next 28 years.
The start of the 1920s was a time of rapid growth. The School became independent of St. Paul's, incorporating as "Neighborhood House." It continued to offer lessons out of two houses on Wooster Street, drawing its teachers primarily from students, graduates, and faculty of the Yale School of Music. An orchestra was formed. By 1929, the Neighborhood House Music School averaged fifty pupils per year.
Even through the Great Depression, the school flourished. The orchestra grew from 16 members in 1928 to 54 members in 1931. In 1932, facing space constraints, the School moved around the block to rented space in a beautiful house at 612 Chapel Street. Ms. Beecher, Director of Music, was so devoted to the School that she lived on an upper floor of the home until she retired in 1947.
The arrival of World War II greatly impacted the School, as many teachers and students were involved in the war effort. As recounted by Dr. Plantinga: "During these years the School regularly sent out a newsletter called the 'Home Front Digest' to its erstwhile students in uniform, many of whom now performed in military musical ensembles." In 1945, the School was officially established as "Neighborhood Music School"—or "NMS," as it is affectionately known today. In 1947, NMS purchased its home at 612 Chapel Street and named its third director, Ms. Emily Alder, upon the retirement of Ms. Beecher. NMS takes great pride in the fact that its first three directors were women.
The era of national growth following the end of World War II also positively impacted NMS. From 1950 to 1964, the School grew from 200 students to 800. NMS focused more and more on ensembles as it grew, forming a Youth Symphony and Youth Chorus, along with many chamber ensembles.
As both the student body and the curriculum expanded, NMS outgrew its space yet again. In 1964, NMS embarked on a building fund campaign. It was announced in 1968 that a new Neighborhood Music School building would be constructed at 100 Audubon Street—the School's home still today. NMS's facility was the first building to anchor the newly designated Audubon Arts district in downtown New Haven.
The expansive new building brought new activities to NMS. The Recital Hall allowed for a large number of public performances by students and faculty. Summer programming was greatly expanded. Jazz and rock ensembles were added. The Suzuki method was offered for the first time. What is now the Dance & Wellness Department was launched. The Preschool opened. Satellite locations were established in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven and in the town of Guilford.
NMS continued to grow its classes for adults throughout the decade, adding everything from dance to music theory. The Dance Department experienced a sustained period of growth, with classes introduced in a variety of genres for all ages. Audubon Arts, a summer program popular to this day, was launched.
A period of significant enrollment growth began in the 1990s: enrollment tripled from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s, peaking at around 3,000 students. The greatest areas of growth were in music ensembles and dance classes. All activities at NMS saw an increased number of adult students and early childhood students.
Space once again became a concern. NMS renovated its building in two phases, yielding five new music studios, a new Preschool classroom, a redesigned first floor, and an expansion of the Recital Hall. Drama classes were first offered, leading to what is now the Drama & Film Department. NMS entered into partnerships with a number of local community organizations and schools, extending its reach far beyond its walls.
NMS’s Centennial year began in July 2011. Special events, performances, and celebrations took place during the year, including "High C," a grand celebration at Woolsey Hall at Yale University on June 10, 2012. The celebration featured premieres of two works commissioned by NMS: Ingram Marshall’s Eventide and Thomas C. Duffy’s Century Shouts. The decade ended with the launch of ATLAS, an independent middle school at NMS.
NMS is an anchor of the New Haven arts community and one of the ten largest community arts organizations in the country. Its integrative teaching philosophy allows for rich interactions among students of all ages, from toddlers to seniors nearing age 100. The diverse community thrives on informal jam sessions, multi-genre play-ins, dance concerts, workshops of all kinds, studio and schoolwide recitals, theatrical productions, and treasured "hallway conversations" between students, family members, faculty, and staff. At well over 100 years old, NMS continues to operate out of "an interest in serving a community, a neighborhood."