What better time and place to learn to play a musical instrument than while socially distancing during a pandemic, on an island, in the winter?
Vashonites of all ages have the opportunity to do just that, thanks to a free musical instrument borrowing library, run by the local nonprofit organization, Vashon Events.
The library, which was launched in 2015 but has never been more popular than now, provides free access to more than 70 musical instruments, amplifiers, and microphones. There are flutes, guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, trombones, full-size drum kits, violins and more. Young children may be interested in borrowing one of a few boxes of percussion instruments.
The typical borrowing time is three months.
To participate, all islanders have to do is visit the Vashon Events’ website and browse available instruments online. Borrowers then complete an electronic form that includes designating what day they would like to pick up the instrument. The carefully sanitized instrument is then set out on a table for a no-contact exchange. A music teacher directory is also available on the website, just in case anyone wants to take it a step further.
Vashon Events’ instrument library has an obvious benefit: Music instruments are costly, and families may hesitate to purchase an instrument for their child before knowing if the instrument is a good fit.
And, according to Allison Shirk, co-director of Vashon Events, playing an instrument has been proven to have health benefits.
“There have been numerous research studies which show that the brain benefits from the enhanced processing of sound,” Shirk said. “Those benefits extend to higher-order cognitive functions such as attention span and linguistic skills.
The library and music teacher directory eliminates the need for local parents to worry about purchasing an instrument — just borrow one first. No deposit is required.
“It’s a feel-good program based on trust,” Shirk said.
According to Shirk and Vashon Events’ other co-director, users of the library have increased dramatically during COVID-19.
Pete Welch, the other co-director of Vashon Events, said that users of the library have doubled in the past year, with more than 200 requests for instruments during 2020. Part of that, he said, has been due to outreach to low-income and non-white community members.
Vashon Events recently received a grant from King County that allowed the organization to translate outreach materials into Spanish, and Shirk and Welch have also worked closely this year with other nonprofits that serve Spanish-speaking populations to get the word out.
Of their borrowers, 42 percent identify as low-income and 22 percent identify as non-white, Shirk said. And while the library is open to islanders of all ages, 84 percent of the users are younger than 25.
The only limitation, for borrowers is that they must be Vashon residents, and may not take the instrument off the island. That’s only appropriate, though, because most of the instruments were donated by islanders. Only one instrument purchased especially for the library — a left-handed guitar.
“There was a teen-aged girl who borrowed a right-handed guitar and was struggling with it. Her mom reached out for advice and so we asked the musicians on the island what they suggested through our Facebook group. What resulted is that Lindsay Dakota, owner of Naked Sports, saw the post and purchased a new left-handed guitar for the library. The girl was thrilled, and it worked. She had a much easier time playing a left-handed guitar than trying to play a right-handed one,” Welch said.
According to Welch and Shirk, the story of the left-handed guitar players is one of a hundred that have resulted from the library.
“One family who contacted us had a kid in the school band,” Shirk said. “They were renting an instrument from some off-island company and it was a financial burden. She returned the rented instrument and borrowed one from the library instead. We are happy to let students borrow instruments for the whole school year when needed.”
A favorite reoccurring moment for Shirk and Welch, they said, is when families arrive to pick up their borrowed instruments.
“We like to peek out the window when the instruments are being picked up,” Welch said. “It’s a blast to see the smiles on people’s faces when they see the instrument and take it home. One boy borrowed an electric guitar and shouted, ‘it’s so heavy!’ when he picked it up. We just love that.”
Vashon Events is a 501c3 nonprofit organization on Vashon Island, Washington started in 2013. Their mission is to create, provide, and expand positive life experiences through music and art for all. The organization, through its website, also provides a community hub for information and programming to support local musicians, artists, and youth.
For more information, visit vashonevents.org/musicinstrumentlibrary.