The Bahama Village Music Program started 20 years ago in a storage room beside the stage in the Frederick Douglass Gym. 

“We had three pianos and three teachers to give free music lessons to local kids,” said Katchen Duncan, who has been both music teacher and executive director for the past 15 years.

They’ve clearly done something right. 

The program has now provided 20,000 free music lessons to 2,000 Key West kids, and continues to help local kids make “joyful noise” after school and throughout the summer. The program, which doesn’t cost the students a dime, offers piano, guitar, violin, voice, ukulele and drum lessons. It also features several choirs, a rock band, a jazz ensemble, a steel pan band and strings group.

“We don’t ask for any income information; it’s all 100% free,” Duncan said. “Some of our kids get off the bus and are there all afternoon three days a week.”

Katchen Duncan, left, jams with Bahama Village Music Program students at Sugarloaf Lodge. RALPH DE PALMA/Contributed

Most kids start with traditional piano or violin lessons at age 6 or older, progress throughout the program, choose their favorite instruments, and often become student teachers who earn $15 an hour teaching younger students.

“We have the cutest little quarter-sized violins for the little ones,” Duncan said. “And our student teachers are so dedicated. It’s a perfect little mentor program because they remember what it was like to be new at an instrument and how frustrating it can be. But they also know how great the rewards are when you push through and succeed.

“Although most kids want to start with guitar, they don’t realize the time — and pain — it takes to build up calluses on their little hands, so we start them on piano,” Duncan told the Keys Weekly on Oct. 12 while beginning to sort through resumes to help the program find a replacement executive director. 

BVMP student and alum Akila Winters joins musician Coffee Butler on stage. RALPH DE PALMA/Contributed

“I’m not leaving; I’ll still come back and teach. I’m  just stepping away from the administrative director role,” said Duncan, who will welcome her first child in December. 

They always come back

But she sounds as if she has hundreds of little ones, and in a way, they’re all hers. She knows their family stories, their struggles and most of all, their triumphs.

She keeps in touch with hundreds, if not thousands, of BVMP alumni, many of whom have continued in the music industry in some form.

“Rusty Koenig started teaching music lessons with us when he was 15 and is now a high school band director in Michigan,” Duncan said. “And Akila Winters is at Florida A & M University on a scholarship. There are so many success stories from this program and I love them all.”

Key West music photographer Ralph De Palma is the board president of BVMP and gushes as much as Duncan about the impacts the program has had on more than 2,000 Key West kids, many of whom would never have had the means for private music lessons.

“Akila Winters was raised by a single mother, who is partially disabled,” de Palma said. “She graduated from Key West High with a 4.1 GPA. I didn’t even know that was possible. She started with us with piano, moved to drums, learned violin, was part of our Jazz Ensemble, our School of Rock, and our Suzuki Strings — and in her spare time while teaching in our summer program she taught herself bass guitar. Then she got a full scholarship to Florida A&M. I was happy to write a glowing recommendation for her scholarship. She came to our last BVMP Christmas recital and brought tears to my eyes.”

Sammy Fuller, another star student, has returned to teach the summer program several times and developed most of BVMP’s online learning curriculum, De Palma said. “He is a gifted musician and technologist who has become a great video editor,” De Palma said.

“You can see how musician Larry Baeder easily hooked me into this gig,” De Palma added, laughing and crediting Baeder and other local musicians such as horn player Ken Fradley and singers Howard Livingston and Terry Cassidy for donating their time, money and talents.

Big shoes to fill

Student Ashli Mingo and teacher Angela Reyes work together.

Duncan will be a tough act to follow, but a search is underway for the new executive director. “The job responsibilities and activities are broad and considerable, and affect both the long-term and daily program activities. The viability of the program relies on the participation and interaction of the executive director with student teachers, professional instructors, the board of directors, and the community that the program serves,” states a press release. 

“The position requires a forward-thinker ready to step into all that entails running a non-profit organization and embracing their role as ambassador of our organization,” Duncan said. “It’s because of our relationships with this amazing community and our supporters that we have been able to do what we do, year after year, while giving more children the gift of free music education.” 

Interested applicants should email a resume to [email protected].

Join Our Blast – Keys News Right to Your INBOX