Peabody Prep celebrates 100 years of reaching out

April 10, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

It's scarcely a surprise that proceeds from the Peabody Conservatory of Music's preparatory division's gala celebration of its 100th anniversary will benefit the Prep's outreach program in Baltimore City schools. Perhaps the chief reason May Garrettson Evans founded the Peabody Prep in 1894 -- the first conservatory preparatory division in the country -- was to make classical music available to poor children (and to adults) who couldn't have afforded it otherwise.

"About 99 percent of what we try to do today comes from what Miss Evans' purpose was in creating the Prep," says Fran Zarubick, the preparatory division's current dean. "That [purpose] was to make music available to all people."

To call May Garrettson Evans a remarkable woman is a little like saying that Babe Ruth was a good long-ball hitter. In an age in which upper-middle-class women were not supposed to work, Evans, who was descended from one of the state's oldest families, became The Sun's first female reporter, at age 21.

Seven years later, an editor's note provoked a brainstorm.

One day in the spring of 1894, Evans arrived at her desk at The Sun to find a note that read: "Hustle for news." It was, Evans said years later, "the order that fills every real reporter with despair" because it means that "[you] have to make some news where none there was."

Evans had studied at Peabody as a violinist. She decided to try out an idea on the school's director and provost: create a preparatory division that would prepare students -- including students from black and impoverished immigrant neighborhoods -- for advanced work.

"They were quite enthusiastic on the subject," Evans said about the reaction. "And so I went back to the office with a big story, on which the editors put a display head and which seemed to be a 'beat' on the other papers, though really it was not."

The reason Evans didn't "really" have her scoop was that Peabody chickened out. A preparatory division attached to a conservatory was a revolutionary idea. Music education in the United States was founded on the European model of private lessons until a student reached college age.

That a conservatory should attend to the needs of younger students was strange enough; that it should be responsive to the poorer members of the community in which it resided was stranger still. Peabody's administrators and trustees simply had no idea how to create such a school and didn't have the courage to start.

"I made up my mind to start it [the preparatory division] as a private enterprise on my own," Evans said later. Courage was something she never lacked. As a newspaper reporter, she was reputed to carry a revolver. Actually, she didn't -- though she did carry a stiletto concealed in her left sleeve.

But Evans never had to use the stiletto; an icy stare usually sufficed to protect her. And she apparently caused more fear than she experienced herself. This was particularly true among the men in the newsroom. Once when walking into the newsroom she so startled an assistant city editor -- because he was only in his shirt sleeves with his suspenders showing -- that he hid under his desk.

Evans recalled this incident many years later -- noting with pleasure that less than 20 years after it happened, "Every newsroom was filled with women."

Becoming a pioneer was, therefore, something to which Evans was accustomed. Her school was born when she and her younger sister, Marion, also a Peabody graduate, bought a house around the corner from the conservatory, outfitted two of the rooms for teaching, enlisted several other graduates as instructors and advertised for students.

She expected 50 or so students, but when 300 enrolled after the school opened in October, she resigned her job at The Sun. The success of the school persuaded Peabody to incorporate it as the Peabody Preparatory Department. May Evans continued as superintendent at a salary of $800 a year.

From the beginning, Evans said later, she wanted to establish "a sort of people's music school," where everyone was welcome.

Citing the success of settlement schools for immigrants and their children in New York, she proposed establishing branch schools in East Baltimore and the southwestern parts of the city. Tuition was set at 25 cents a week. The branches, which were often set next to factory sites, were open at night so the children who worked at them (this was before child labor laws) could take lessons after work, without having to ride streetcars to and from class.

In the 35 years that she ran it, the Prep acquired a reputation not only for innovation -- Evans also introduced ground-breaking programs in dance and drama -- but also for excellence. It became the model for other community schools of education at other conservatories. By the time she announced her decision to retire in 1928, the Prep was -- in the words of Ernest Hutchinson, the president of the Juilliard School of Music in New York -- "the finest musical preparatory school in the world."

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