Twenty years of music education at Forest Park

On June 1, the Gasse School of Music in Forest Park celebrated its 20th anniversary. The school, named after founders Daniel and Sarah Gasse, has stayed short of the same location on Polk Street the whole time and has learned to adapt over the years, adapting to changes in the economy and the pandemic. But one thing has remained the same: Daniel and Sarah’s belief in the importance of music, not only for the music itself, but also for its impact on the quality of life of the people who play and perform.

“When you start learning music quite young, it creates a whole other world,” said Daniel Gasse. “It brings skills, yes, but also leadership and stage presence, teamwork and confidence.” The brain work required to read the music while transmitting signals to the body to play the notes is greater than what it takes to simply read a book, Gasse said. He referenced studies that show that children who play a musical instrument tend to do better in school and even in sports.

“Music should be mandatory, like math or language,” Gasse said.

When the school opened in 2001, Daniel and Sarah lived in an apartment in downtown Forest Park and they started looking for houses. They found their current home, even though at the time there was no floor, and the basement, which now houses the classrooms and practice rooms, was just a concrete floor and two pillars.

Sarah and Daniel Gasse in 2011 | File photo

But Daniel immediately saw the potential. “This is our school,” he said. Six months later the school was built and Sarah and Daniel, who had both performed and taught at other institutions, began hiring students. First, they taught one day a week. Then they slowly added days. A year later they were at full capacity.

Now they have around 80 students, ranging in age from three to an 84-year-old cello student.

“I say we teach students from three to 93 years old,” joked Daniel. “If you’re 94, you’re out of luck.”

Daniel teaches cello and chamber music, and Sarah teaches violin and viola. Very early on, they hired piano and guitar teachers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Daniel Gasse taught outdoor music to his students. | File photo

But Sarah and Daniel’s love of music began long before the school opened. Daniel, originally from Argentina, graduated there in 1968 with a cello degree. The following year he began playing in the symphony orchestra, moving from last to first cello over the next 15 years. But he hit the ceiling there, he said. He wanted to know more.

During a summer camp in Brazil, he meets the head of the string department at Yale University, who takes Daniel under his wing. Yale was too expensive for Daniel to attend, but he obtained the names and references of other professors and programs in the United States, and he sent handwritten notes to each of them.

He received a full scholarship from the University of Illinois at Urbana.

He borrows money from his father for a plane ticket to the United States, and with $200 in his pocket, a suitcase and two cellos, he lands in Miami. He was supposed to board another plane to get to Urbana, but the airport wanted him to check his two cellos, one of which was in a soft case, and he knew it would break, so he took a Greyhound bus and traveled from Florida to the Midwest.

“I was the oldest student in my classes,” Gasse said. Two years later, he had completed his master’s degree. He was 33 years old.

Gasse moved to Chicago, where he acted, performed chamber music, and taught at various schools, before moving to Oak Park.

Daniel Gasse (left) leads and teaches students in 2014. | File photo

Daniel and Sarah’s two sons, who will be in junior and senior high school in the fall, grew up playing music, and Daniel reiterated the importance of music in the lives of children, including those who have learning disabilities.

“When we communicate with them and have high expectations of them, they feel respected. They can do it. It changes the tide,” Daniel said. He told a story of teaching at a Suzuki school years ago where there was a student who was disruptive. He broke things and didn’t listen to the teachers. Daniel said he understood how to communicate with this student at his level, and he let the student know that he believed in him. He set expectations. And after a while, one day, something changed.

“It clicked for him. And when he clicked cello, he clicked school too,” Daniel said. It was a time where goal setting, practice, and confidence all came together, not just when it comes to music, but when it comes to life as well.

At the next recital, the school principal sat behind Daniel in the audience while the boy performed. Stunned by the change, she whispered to a friend, “Nothing but a miracle.”

It was one of his proudest moments, Daniel said, and one of the things that drives him is helping students learn and grow.

Going forward, Daniel said he hopes to take time off to visit family in Argentina and England and can use technology learned during COVID-10 to achieve that goal. If distance learning has worked during a pandemic, it can also work at other times. Hiring more teachers is another thing he is considering. He also wants to continue collaborating with community groups. Recently, he, Sarah and their son Antonio played music outside at the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Forest Park Arts Alliance art walk.

Daniel Gasse (left) performs at a street festival with students in Forest Park in 2011. | File photo

Daniel is 70 years old and had hip replacement surgery five years ago and then again last year, which made it more physically difficult for him to play the cello for long periods of time. It also had an impact on the way he taught – less acting, more singing, he said.

He referred to Jacqueline Mary du Pré, considered by many to be one of the greatest cellists of all time. Born in 1945, she died in 1987 at the age of 42, suffering from multiple sclerosis which ended her performing career at the age of 28. But even after she couldn’t perform, she was in high demand as a teacher.

“I have to be like her,” Gasse said. “I will continue to play and teach until I die.”

After 20 years of teaching, Daniel and Sarah have second generation students, children whose parents took lessons with them. They have former students who have also become performers and music teachers. There are teachers who taught for the Gasse’s who now own their own schools.

“It’s a lot more of a legacy than just music,” Gasse said. “I’m sad they’re not with us, but I’m glad they’re successful and putting out music.”

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