David Billingsley developed his passion for music at a young age. He can remember being that little boy playing a tambourine at church and being fascinated by instruments and specifically gospel music. He knew from the start that it was a calling.
But, a lot would happen between those early days as a young church tambourinist and now, where Billingsley, age 32, is a professional, touring musician with a school in his name.
Born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, something else shaped him: the inequity of his city. Racine has been named one of the worst cities in America for Black folks, and he remembers seeing it first hand.
As a kid, he was the only one around him with access to the arts. His dad paid for piano lessons, realizing how much music affected him after a teacher sent a note home that he was already gravitating toward the field.
Billingsley started making the trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota around 2004, coming on the weekends in search of a more diverse crowd and musical scene. He felt like he had to come to the Twin Cities to get the gospel music he was yearning for. Eventually, after driving up nearly every week, he wound up moving to Minneapolis with a friend.
At age 18, Billingsley founded BSOMA (The Billingsley School of Music and Arts) as a way to provide arts access to those who couldn’t afford it. He remembered the devastation of his community, and how his access to piano lessons, church music and the ability to pursue that interest helped him escape what statistics said he would be.
Research has shown that access to arts programs in school has positive effects on cognitive, behavioral, and social outcomes of adolescents. But, throughout the country affordable arts opportunities are rare. Entire band and orchestra programs are being shut down constantly. School districts, especially in under-served communities continue to reduce arts instructional time.
In an effort to give back, the early days of Billingsley’s school consisted of him offering private, “pay what you can” lessons in a 1 on 1 setting to friends and community members.
“The goal is to change lives through quality, relevant, arts access for under-served populations.”
As he was mastering his musical craft, the school continued to grow, and through performing, he was meeting new artists to bring into the fold of teaching new students.
Two years ago, BSOMA got its first space and in that first year, the school would serve around 75 kids, in 6 week sessions, with eight artists teaching students.
This past summer, the school had over 100 students after moving to an even larger space. BSOMA offered lessons in everything from piano, singing and acting to modern dance and pre-k music, which the school lovingly refers to as “baby music”. Still following a pay-what-you-can model, BSOMA is continually adding new classes, while bringing in professional performers and high quality artists to serve marginalized communities in the Twin Cities.
“In the communities we serve, a child’s life is at risk everyday. A student’s request for lessons are often ignored. Parents can’t afford the monthly costs. Most schools don’t provide all four arts disciplines.”
There are big plans in place for BSOMA and Billingsley hopes to “expand to everywhere that’s struggling.” Arts deserts around the country could use more schools like BSOMA.
For more information on BSOMA visit www.bsoma.org