MSM History

Meet Our Founder

Created with Sketch.

Janet Daniels Schenck was a born leader whose vision and determination would create one of the world’s great conservatories.

PREMIERE VIDEO: To celebrate a new tradition at MSM — "Founder's Day" each November 22 — this new 13-minute video chronicles Dr. Schenck's the journey and the growth of her beloved School.

Janet Daniels Schenck was an accomplished pianist who had studied in Europe, attended Columbia University, and held a graduate degree from the New York School of Social Work. She was deeply interested in New York’s immigrant groups, in particular the Polish, Italian, and Russian newcomers who were joining the established Irish and German communities on the upper east side of Manhattan. She felt strongly that she could best serve those communities by teaching what was most important to her: music. She persuaded the Union Settlement on East 104th Street to donate space so that she might teach lessons to the young people of the neighborhood. By 1918, Mrs. Schenck had organized a Board, teachers, and donors to form an independent music school with some 100 students. This humble endeavor was to eventually become Manhattan School of Music. Mrs. Schenck was head of the School until her retirement in 1956, when she was named Director Emeritus.

painting of woman on sofa in front of piano

Janet D. Schenck was immortalized by American realist painter John Koch in a painting (pictured here) that hangs today in the School’s Rahm Hall.

The School’s Founding

Janet Daniels Schenck had been teaching piano lessons at the Union Settlement on East 104th Street since 1913. When the U.S. entered WWI in the fall of 1917 and Settlement Houses were required to focus on the war effort, she faced the dilemma of having the Union Settlement Music School shut down. It was vital to Mrs. Schenck that the children of the neighborhood’s immigrant population continue to have life-enriching lessons and that the devoted teachers continue to have a place to instruct. She went to work organizing a Board of Directors and securing funds from a handful of donors. Within months, she had created her own independent school and she was the Director. The Board approved a budget for 1918–19 of $3,000.

Although the School initially served a small section of Manhattan, the international musical community was involved from the beginning. In early 1918, Mrs. Schenck’s piano teacher and mentor Harold Bauer and the renowned cellist and humanitarian Pablo Casals agreed to become founding members of the Artist Auxiliary Board, a nucleus of artists who through the years offered artistic and professional assistance to the School. Other early members of the Board included pianist Ernest Schelling and violinist Fritz Kreisler.

The School’s first Charter was issued in 1920, being incorporated in that year as the Neighborhood Music School. Two years later, the School purchased its first real home, a “rather old building” at 238 East 105th Street, to house an ever-growing number of students.

Mrs. Schenck wrote: “It was in a bad state of repair. The students, however, were delighted with their new home and proud when they had raised $250 to help decorate the rooms. Trustees, students, and staff painted chairs and hung curtains….”

Sketch of the School’s first home on East 105th Street.

The curriculum of the School expanded to include not only the instrument lesson, but also music history; “rhythmic dancing”; experiments in the first approach to music for the child; special classes for adults; orchestras; ensembles; and choruses. The classes in music theory and composition, sight-singing, ear-training, and keyboard harmony were developed with an extensive correlation between these subjects and the private lesson.

An early class on “Rhythms.”

Eventually, the “rather old building” also became inadequate and was razed in 1928 to make way for a new building on the same site. The five-story building was, according to Mrs. Schenck, “completely equipped with new pianos and furnishings, a cafeteria, and a small recital hall…. Nearly 400 students were enrolled, and the faculty reached approximately 50 members…. There could be no turning back. Our School of Music was here to stay!”

In 1938, the name of the School was changed to Manhattan School of Music, in part to reflect the growing national and international character of the student body. Also that year, the School added its first hall for symphonic concerts, Hubbard Auditorium.

Mrs. Schenck’s philosophy of music education hinged on the advancement of the complete person. She wrote the following impassioned plea in a 1940 issue of The Quarterly:

“Is not the very key to our whole work the conviction that everything one does in life contributes to the completion of one’s personality, and that only by thinking clearly and definitely, and performing with the utmost precision and devotion, can our use of music fulfill its potential influence in the shaping of our lives? Unless we are willing to shout from the housetops our belief in standards, we are giving the lie to the whole renaissance in music education, in the shaping of which I firmly believe we have played a conspicuous part.”

Mrs. Schenck would soon find that “it was becoming increasingly apparent that young people, taking up the composition or performance or teaching of music as a profession would, in the future, be required to earn a college degree as a badge of accomplishment and achievement in their art.”

Two of the School’s first graduates, including pianist Dora Zaslavsky, who would later join the faculty.

Then, a few years later, an effort to turn the School into a college of music — under the guidance of Mrs. Schenck and through the persistence of Dean of Students Josephine Whitford — changed the School forever. Mrs. Schenck wrote: “In December, 1943, our Charter was amended authorizing the Bachelor of Music degree…We had become a college.”

This excerpt is a brief early history of Manhattan School of Music is from Adventure in Music: A Reminiscence by Janet D. Schenck.


By Janet Daniels Schenck

A small girl moved slowly around her play-room in a suburb of Chicago. A canary flew in and out of the open cage door. In a semi-circle stood eight, small empty chairs. The little girl took her stand by the other piece of furniture — a blackboard — and turned to open the discussion with her class. This picture remains in my mind as one of the clearest recollections of a lively and happy childhood. For of course I was that child.

As I grew older and went through public schools, boarding schools and college courses, I continued to regard with the utmost interest the person who faced the class as I had faced my imaginary pupils. Was he as excited as I had been? Was he wondering if those chairs, now occupied, held students sure to “make their way” and accomplish their desires? Or were there some chairs holding restless, uncooperative young people waiting to appraise him? And if the latter, how then could he reach those students, how establish a basis for discussion? This was, to me, a matter of the utmost importance.

My family on my mother’s side had included lawyers and college professors of some distinction. When quite young I had my first Latin lessons perched on the arm of my uncle’s chair — he was professor of Latin at Hamilton College. I promptly forgot my Latin but never the charm of the instruction. In my father’s family there were doctors, medical missionaries, bankers, business men, and even a distinguished scientist. But there were no musicians.

When I was twelve years old, my family decided that it would be worth the expense to see if the constant keyboard activity in which I was indulging could by any chance be improved. Lessons began, and, happily, it became evident that at least this much of a result could be attained.

In boarding school in New York, I was thrown for the first time with other music students, and suddenly I became aware of a contagion in art. We played for each other; we discussed what we liked to call the relation of art to life. My mind was made up. My principal basis of communication with my fellow creatures would be the most beautiful, the most flexible, the most embracing of the arts — I would be a musician.

Now this decision was not so easy to carry out as might at first have been imagined. For, as my aunt said, “You know you are the only girl in our entire family who has not gone to Bryn Mawr.” This deplorable situation my many relatives for some time continued to stress, hoping to remedy this defect.

After boarding school, I entered one of the best of the New York music schools and took additional courses at Columbia University. All these details are of no importance except for one incident. The head of the music school at which I had studied was an amazing spiritual and musical personality. She was Miss Kate Chittenden of the American Institute of Applied Music. She had a profound influence on my thinking and the following episode made her association with my life of peculiar importance.

Shortly after graduating, I went abroad for the summer with my sister and cousin. On arrival in Paris we rang the bell at an address we had found in our Baedeker and where we hoped to secure rooms. At that same moment the door opened and, out of all the population of Paris, there stood this remarkable woman, who was on her own tour of Europe. With her help it was finally arranged that we should stay at the pension. That night at dinner she tossed a card over to me, and to my astonished eyes it read, “To Harold Bauer, introducing my young friend, Janet Daniels.” And this indomitable woman added, “I want you to stay and study piano with him if he will accept you, and I am writing to your father to ask if you can do so.”

And so started my friendship with that great artist, Harold Bauer, (for I was accepted as his pupil) which was to have such an important bearing not only on my own life but on the development of Manhattan School of Music.

I was left alone in Paris and it was arranged that I should live with friends of Mr. Bauer’s. The three Chaigneau sisters were a well-known concert trio and three or four young American musicians were staying with them in the attractive little house set in a garden which you entered from the Avenue Victor Hugo. Among them was Wynne Pyle, the beautiful and gifted young American concert pianist who was later to become Mrs. Harold Bauer. After her return to New York she took a continuing interest in our School, often coaching some of the gifted students, as well as sending other pupils to Mr. Bauer’s Master Classes held at the School.

When Mr. Bauer was away on tour I would study piano and ensemble with the Chaigneaus — how well I remember the terrifying experience of those first ensemble classes when, often as not, one of their artist friends would drop in to hear us play. But the important point for me was the impression made by coming in personal touch with so many of the great artists and other distinguished men and women who came to the Chaigneau home. The music I heard there became the motivating experience of my life. I shall never forget the evenings when the incomparable artistry of Pablo Casals in that intimate setting brought to me an assurance of things hoped for, which I had only dimly envisioned. And then there was General Piquart — his magnificent championship of Dreyfus in one of the most famous of French trials had made him a hero in my eyes. The scrapbooks my older cousin had compiled on the subject when she had been studying previously at the Sorbonne, still remained fresh in my mind. I further remember an episode most embarrassing, I felt, for a young American girl. Knowing my admiration for the General, I was laughingly admonished by the Chaigneaus not to flirt with him when he came to dinner, to which I tartly replied, “Of course not — I’d as soon think of flirting with the Archangel Gabriel!” And so it came about that for many years on the wall of my Manhattan School office hung the picture of a strikingly attractive man signed “Gabriel” — to the mystification of all who saw. For of course my youthful remark had been at once passed on to the person most concerned.

But among all the musicians, writers and artists who held our admiration, there was Harold Bauer, who in addition to his music, had a conversational gift, a wit, and a contagious intellectual curiosity I have never seen equaled.

Framed photo of Harold Bauer, inscribed to Mrs. Schenck “from her old friend,” New York, 1927.

Many years later he told me that after my last Paris lesson with him when I was preparing to return to New York, he asked me what I wanted to do, and I replied that I wanted to start a school — I do not remember this, but he said it was so.

And in the fall of 1917, the dream was coming true. I had returned to New York, and I had acquired a certain number of students from wealthy families so that my stay in the city seemed assured. But also I had developed an enormous interest in communities, the lives they encompassed, in different racial groups, their problems and their adjustments to our country.

Because of this interest I had taken time to graduate from the New York School of Social Work (now a graduate department of Columbia University) and so had widened my knowledge along many lines. Was better housing the answer? Were more playgrounds the solution? Was woman suffrage the important point? I certainly tired myself out marching in the parades. Surely the difficulties with which my inner spirit was concerned faced both rich and poor alike. Instinctively I knew that one could serve only through a medium vital to one’s self, and for me that medium was music. One point was very clear to me. I would not insist on any one expression in this field of music; I would work when and where and in what way opportunity came to me. I determined to investigate. Why should children of means have music and not all young people? I knew of no place where one could find in those days a mixed racial community with musical heritage except at a social settlement, so I went to Union Settlement on East 104th Street. I took my meals at the Settlement, but I lived with a friend in one of the old brownstone houses on East 105th Street.


“Why should children of means have music and not all young people?”

There I found that at the last census there were 222,899 people living in that small district between 96th Street and 116th Street, and from Fifth Avenue to the East River. More than half of this number were foreign born, and 94.1 percent were of foreign origin. Italians, Poles and Russians were taking the place of Irish and Germans in that dramatic and kaleidoscopic shifting of national groups which has always made the East Side of New York so colorful and interesting.

But in all that district there was no place where a musically gifted child, off-spring of those foreign races so deeply imbued with music, was able to secure really good instruction and, through music, realize a more complete development. There were no radios in those days and no concerts to which they could gain admission.

I asked those in charge at Union Settlement if I might be allowed to give some music lessons. I persuaded some of the Junior League girls who were on the Auxiliary Board of the Settlement to help. The lessons started at ten cents each, and it was a milestone when the price rose to a quarter. Each week I met with the delightful and gifted young “faculty” so that its members might keep at least one lesson ahead of the pupils.

But the war had come and was absorbing the nation. The families of our students were profoundly concerned with the fate of their relatives in the Old World and were touching in their appreciation of the strength and comfort received from their renewed contact with the music which we offered them, and which in their own countries had formerly been such a part of their lives. Of course, music still flourished for those who could afford to pay to hear it. The Philharmonic, the Opera, the great solo recitals in Carnegie Hall — but on East 104th Street it was the ten cent lesson to which the families seemed to cling, and the Community Sings, sometimes of a thousand people, on the streets in the evening. And behind all this, as the hard times increased, the long line of three or four hundred applicants waiting for distribution of sacks of coal at the Settlement.

Gradually my helpers on the junior Auxiliary were drawn into war work. They presented me with one hundred dollars and exhorted me not to let the School die.

I found myself with over one hundred eager waiting students, a small and devoted group of teachers who needed work – and no funds. And then came the decision on the part of the Settlement that it could no longer give me free rooms for the lessons. It seemed as if this were destined to be the end, but in later years when almost insurmountable difficulties confronted us, my memory went back to these early years, and I realized that each situation can be met effectively only on its own ground. For just because of all the difficulties with which we were faced, the unifying and enriching effects of the music seemed increasingly apparent. And as the devotion of the parents and students grew, I became ever more convinced that there must be in the cities of modern America, schools of music for students of all financial backgrounds, where people of all ages could come together with their burdens and desires, and gain, through their contact with music, a reappraisal of values in living.

It was a large order, but friends became interested — and it was at this moment that the future Manhattan School of Music was born…

[Adventure in Music is a memoir written by Janet D. Schenck and published by Manhattan School of Music in 1961. It chronicles the development and growth of the School from its beginnings through 1960. Read a complete version of Dr. Schenck’s Adventure in Music.]

    Email This Page

    Email Message

    Page Reference
    (will be sent in email)