Sustaining Community Through Music on the Upper West Side

Erika Floreska has been executive director of the Bloomingdale School of Music for the past two years. | JACKSON CHEN
Erika Floreska has been executive director of the Bloomingdale School of Music for the past two years. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | In a brownstone with a characteristically Upper West Side feel, the building’s interior charms — unspoiled fireplaces and sunlight pouring in — are overshadowed by the vibrant personalities of those who fill its five floors.

The 14 studios that make up the Bloomingdale School of Music at 323 West 108th Street serve as second homes for musicians of all ages and skills. Whether it’s a seasoned pianist deftly performing on the 97-year-old Steinway & Sons grand piano or a group of children creating light-hearted songs, the medley of instruments can often be heard coursing through the halls of the 1899 building.

And providing the heartbeat for it all is the executive director, Erika Floreska, 45, who is in her third year leading the community music school that has been at its West 108th location since 1972.

Growing up through high school enjoying the benefits of a community music school in Minnesota, Floreska, who plays the flute and sings in choirs, learned early on to appreciate the inherent value of music, the education required to engage in its performance, and the benefits it brings to a neighborhood.

“Part of what a community school can do is bring people together from different schools,” Floreska, now a resident of Long Island, said. “You really introduce people and find how music can be a common language across these differences.”

Having lived at West 105th Street and Columbus nearly two decades ago, the school’s executive director felt a homecoming of sorts in returning to the Upper West Side when she took over several years ago following the passing of Bloomingdale’s former leader of 25 years, Lawrence Davis. Prior to taking up her role at Bloomingdale, Floreska worked for 14 years as the director of education for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Carrying through with Bloomingdale’s original mission established when it was housed more informally at the West End Presbyterian Church on West 105th Street, Floreska said the school is committed to providing access to music education to anyone who is interested, “regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and even talent.”

“We really believe music is for everyone and you don’t have to have a special talent to do it,” Floreska said. “We’re really here to create a lifelong love of music that is part of your life forever, whether it becomes a career or avocation.”

And the school’s range of offerings spans from the adult who is trying to learn an instrument for the first time, to the younger kids who may be brought there — perhaps a bit unwillingly — by parents because of the brain development benefits music is believed to encourage.

According to Floreska, the science behind music education is only now starting to win widespread public acknowledgement, with a greater appreciation for the fact that gaining the skills to read music can boost a child’s language and learning capacity.

Floreska’s goal is to provide those benefits to the Upper West Side community. Bloomingdale currently serves 650 students, with age ranges from pre-adolescents to adults and skill ranges from first timers to those seeking a professional future in music. Sticking true to its original mission, the school doesn’t turn away low-income families, Floreska said, explaining that Bloomingdale offers roughly $150,000 a year in financial aid for nearly 100 students.

“We make a commitment to families and students,” she said. “If you’re interested in music, we want Bloomingdale to be your home for as long as we can.”

Her goal of increasing enrollment numbers involves stepped up outreach to the immediate surrounding neighborhood area, from around West 86th to 125th Streets, from Central Park West to Riverside Drive, as well as to portions of the Bronx accessible via the number 1 train.

Bloomingdale, according to Floreska, is a perfect fit with its Upper West Side neighbors, sharing a commitment to non-elitist diversity in its approach to music education.

“Bloomingdale is a lot of what keeps the community feeling in the Upper West Side,” Floreska said. “Families come to Bloomingdale because they want their kids to have a more diverse experience and be treated just like any normal kid.”

In the hopes of luring more potential students, the school is hosting an “instrument discovery” open house event on Sunday, September 11, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Floreska said the event would encourage children to walk throughout the school, experiment with the 14 different instruments on hand there, and interact with the faculty.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the original posting of this story incorrectly reported that the school provides $70,000 in financial aid per year. In fact, that amount is roughly $150,000.