For many low-income families, private music lessons are something that usually cannot be afforded. But thanks to nonprofit Seattle Music Partners, hundreds of area kids have learned how to play an instrument for free.

Marnie O'Sullivan founded Seattle Music Partners in 2000, after realizing many students in the Central District did not have the opportunity to participate in their schools' music programs because they couldn't afford instruments or private lessons. SMP's program aims to bridge that gap by providing free instruments and lessons, giving more students the opportunity to participate in band and orchestra programs once they enter middle and high school.

Since it's inception, SMP has grown from it's original program, which was offered to only fourth and fifth graders. SMP now offers an expanded program called the Middle School Music Project. The program is open to students who have gone through the fourth and fifth grade After School Program.

"Our big goal is that the students can come back as ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th graders, and work with those same fourth and fifth graders that they once were," said Evan Farnsworth, SMP Community Outreach Director.

Participating middle-schoolers meet each Wednesday evening at the Garfield Community Center. Volunteer teachers are paired up with students for a half hour lesson. The students also spend time playing in a full ensemble led by a volunteer conductor.

Lucy Richardson, who has been taking clarinet lessons through SMP since she was in the fourth grade, is now participating in the Middle School Music Project.

"I liked the clarinet when they sampled it in the beginning when they were introducing themselves," said Richardson. "I like the sound of the notes. It's fun and it helps me learn more than just at school"

Her teacher for this year, James Kashima, is volunteering with SMP for the very first time. He first learned about the program when he was in school, and now that he's a college graduate, is excited to have the opportunity to participate.

"Music had such a great impact on my life that I want to be able to provide that for these students," said Kashima. "Even though there's some instruments missing and it's not a full orchestra, even just getting together with a group of people and playing really feels good."

In their first lesson together, Kashima said he was impressed with Richardson's talents. And even though their session started with a few squeaks, it ended with smiles.

"The reason why I'm doing this is to help students get better at music," said Kashima. "When I see that happening in the first day, in the first 20-30 minutes, it means a lot to me. It feels good to see she's having fun and that she's getting it and that I'm able to help her do that. I'm pretty excited. She's going to be great."

The program continues through the end of the school year, when students will perform a concert for family and friends.

SMP is a non-profit organization and runs solely on grants and donations. If you're interested in donating money, your time, or an instrument, click here.