URBANA — For Robert Lewis, it’s a point of pride that rates haven’t been raised since the former Urbana alderman and some friends started the Banks Bridgewater and Lewis Fine Arts Academy.
The school’s goal remains the same as when it opened in 2004: to provide high-quality private lessons and guidance to young musicians, especially those from the city’s north side.
Lewis, Nathaniel Banks and Ron Bridgewater have expanded what started as a volunteer-based program out of Salem Baptist Church into an Urbana fixture that provides opportunities for young musicians with few resources. A decade-plus into it, Lewis said, that’s still the driving force for teaching kids the blues, jazz, gospel and soul.
“Back then, we thought: Why don’t we get together with the kids, get a band going and see what happens?” Lewis said in his home studio, surrounded by musical instruments. “We stepped out on faith and said we could provide for those students that didn’t get the opportunity to participate in their school programs.
“We knew they were competing with students who had private lessons, so we had our own option.”
Nominated by former Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister Nameka Bates for one of the Winding Ivy Awards that the local chapter will present today, the BBL Fine Arts Academy has been instrumental in providing music education to underrepresented communities, she wrote.
Through weekly lessons, several community performances a year and the annual weeklong summer camp that culminates in an instrument scholarship benefit concert, Bates said it’s clear that “the value of BBL has been realized in the community.”
Lewis likes to measure value by the success former students have enjoyed after attending BBL. They all start with the same set of lofty expectations.
“When they come to us, I tell them that ‘if you’re going to be a drummer, then you’re going to be first chair,’” Lewis said. “'And if you’re going to be in the drum line, well, then you’re going to lead it.'”
Lewis said the academy’s strategy is to help students with the music curriculum at school, “then kick them up a notch” and get them started on jazz standards and music theory principles.
From fifth grade to college, Lewis said BBL will accept anyone with any instrument, as long as they’re willing to work and get better.
“We developed an interesting model,” Lewis said. “We apply for grants and get donations, but we really try to keep the parents involved as well. We keep the price as low as we possibly can just to keep the lights on.”
It’s a delicate model, Lewis added, but the students who participate do fundraising performances throughout the year to bring costs down.
“That’s their contribution — to bring another student in,” Lewis said.