By Skye Wu
You’ve heard of rock stars and bands that got started in their childhood garages, but what do city kids do when they want to make music with their friends? The mother of one came up with an innovative alternative: a free, nonprofit program that hosts “guided jams” for aspiring musicians ages 11 to 22, in two actual performance venues, one on the Upper West Side.
Urban Garage was founded in 2016 by husband-and-wife musicians, Liz Queler and Seth Farber. Originally located at The West Side Lounge on 107th and West End Avenue, the program moved to The Bitter End in the Village and, during off-peak hours, to The Triad on West 72nd Street.
Liz and Seth’s son and his friends were looking for spaces in which they could express their passion for music. The audition-free and open-mic program inspires and challenges students to think about the significance of performing and how to attend to their instruments. Moreover, Urban Garage hopes to bring musicians together, school them in the art of performing, and emphasize the value of listening to each other.
During the second hour, charts are handed out, and Liz and Seth mix and match kids on various instruments and vocal parts, leading them through the experience of performing as a group.
“It’s like a master class taught in front of kids who get to hear and support each other,” Liz said in a phone interview. “They watch and listen to each other, and watch each other grow and develop. We have been nurturing this community for seven years now and the parents love it.” Students also interact on and off stage, exchanging numbers and bonding through this unique program.
Liz and Seth are both freelance musicians. Liz came from a musical background; her mother, Eve Queler, was a conductor, who, in 1968, started an orchestra because there were very few accessible platforms for women. Eve then founded the Opera Orchestra of New York and conducted concerts in Carnegie Hall for 50 years. Liz reminisced about her days in high school, coming home to a living room filled with musicians, from Renée Flemming to Plácido Domingo. At eight years old, Liz was sent to the Children’s Chorus at the City Opera where she performed for many years. Seth is a pianist and, most recently, the assistant conductor of the Temptations Broadway show, “Ain’t Too Proud.”
During Covid, Urban Garage kept their open mic sessions and invited students to prepare and perform songs over Zoom once a month, despite the community not being able to play music together. They hosted a gala that contained twenty-six music videos and premiered them live on YouTube.
The Urban Garage community performed at the Children’s Hospital of New York Columbia and Presbyterian, the Hope Lodge for people with cancer therapy, and sent duos and trios into senior homes for people who had dementia. This allowed musicians to learn how to curate their performances for different groups of people.
Liz and Seth are moved by their students’ music and want to instill in them that music is something that can carry someone through their life. It can connect and heal people and be a place to go when someone is enthralled or grieving. Music is a universal way to cross barriers and communicate with people. Urban Garage’s ultimate goal is for people to not only learn musical skills but also how to interact, listen, and learn from other people, as music is a conversation. They hope to create more short-term intensive clinics in New York City and encourage more people to join the community in the future.
To learn more about Urban Garage, including how to contact Liz, click here.