Octave uses music to rebuild flood-torn neighborhood

Fat snowflakes fall on a Saturday morning in April at Taylor Elementary in Cedar Rapids, coating spring’s budding progress with a raw crust of slush. But inside, in a second floor classroom, a young boy named Jordan warms the air with a well-rehearsed piano tune.

Cornell College senior Ben Mosetick taps a pencil on his right knee, marking the beat. “Oh, that’s good. Your counting is very good,” says Mosetick when Jordan’s done.

From youth mentoring to eclectic performances, the members of Octave spread the joy of music on campus and beyond. 

They move to a duet, the tune, “It’s a Small World After All,” inadvertently capturing the bigger symbolic picture behind this half-hour lesson.

Three years ago this largely low-income inner-city school and its surrounding working-class neighborhoods were swallowed by a 500-year-flood. Everything—including the school’s instruments—was lost.

Today the school is rebuilt and the neighborhood slowly recovering, aided by the unfaltering dedication and creative ideas of two groups of Cornell students, one devoted to music, the other to art.

Music rebuilds a community

Mosetick is part of Octave, a Cornell Living and Learning Community founded in 2009. To form a Living and Learning Community, students with a common interest—like music—apply for a charter to live together in a college-owned residence hall, showing a specific plan for how their combined talents can be used to make a difference on campus, in the community, and beyond.

For Octave, tenants of one of New Hall’s suites, the mission is: to “help with music education … especially in cases where music programs have suffered due to the economy or natural disaster.”

Thus, each Saturday without fail, Octave’s eight musician roomies crawl out of bed and travel to Taylor Elementary to share their music lessons in piano, guitar, horns, and more. They are officially the “Music Mentoring” program for Matthew 25, a neighborhood group that has taken on the task of restoring the community surrounding Taylor.

“We’re giving them a one-on-one (music) perspective, at a more intimate level. It’s an opportunity that hadn’t been afforded them before. And it’s free,” said Octave member Andrew Tham.

Octave has also enlivened Groundswell, a new youth arts center in Cedar Rapids, with their wide-ranging musical talents. And they find many ways to engage and educate their fellow Cornell students with live performances and a regular slot on the campus radio station KRNL in which they cover musical genres from classical to Irish folk to alternative rock.

The Impressionists

Octave’s efforts also inspired another Living and Learning Community, the Impressionists, to combine their love of visual art with community service. The Impressionists, also working through Matthew 25, offered Taylor Elementary students art lessons and created a mural at Groundswell.

Kara Trebil, Cornell’s director of civic engagement, said the Cornell students reap many benefits while they are serving others that go beyond feeling good about helping others.

“They make career connections, and they learn a lot about themselves and get a better sense of how they fit into the broader community,” she said.

For Cornell students, Living and Learning Communities are a launch pad into a bigger world. For Taylor Elementary students, there is gratitude that they have landed in their small one.