When he started offering violin lessons to young men in the West End, Keith Cook worried that he wouldn’t find students interested in the violin, or music in general. But then something interesting happened: his first students not only learned to play, they also stopped getting into trouble at school.
“I had no idea what I was thinking starting a violin school in the West End,” says Cook, wearing a violin-patterned tie recently at The Blue House, where he teaches individual lessons. “I thought I was daft. But I had a hunch that maybe some kids would respond.”
Cook, who played first chair violin in the Louisville Orchestra from 1980 to 2011, says he has always been interested in the connection between music and education. In fact, he earned a Master’s degree from the University of Louisville in 1998, with the goal of becoming a social studies teacher.
He developed ideas for teaching history that connected world events to historic events in music. However, he said his experience as a public school teacher lasted a grand total of one semester.
“I learned that public school is not the place to be creative,” he says.
So Cook focused instead on the violin school. He had bought a house on 28th Street, near Dumesnil, in 1997, and started tutoring young men who had experienced problems at school.
“When they started playing violin, their other troubles ended, so I thought I might be on to something,” he says.
In 1999, he formed a nonprofit called the West Louisville Suzuki Talent Education Center, now known as WESTEC. He provides violin lessons for about 40 students, a majority of whom are boys. The house is now known as The Blue House, and is a gathering spot where kids take music lessons and do homework.
A few of Cook’s first students are now seniors in college and are interested in careers in music themselves. Many of them have even returned to The Blue House to help tutor other students.
“I’d always been interested in the link between music and education, and decided it was something to explore,” says Cook. “I do this because I love it when a kid gets it, or develops an interest in something I told them about.”
In the last year, The Blue House has gotten a makeover, with a new roof, flooring, walls, and kitchen cabinets, thanks to some generous support from contractors and a fundraising campaign organized on social media by a former student. Cook says the campaign brought in about 200 new donors, helped in part by a series of stories that aired on WHAS-TV.
Cook says most students pay about a quarter of what the lessons would cost elsewhere, noting that some don’t pay at all and are sponsored by individual donors. He said the non-profit group is supported by those donors, and WESTEC has not yet received any corporate support. WESTEC is also part of the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ ArtsReach program.