Lessons for Life

Founder and CEO, Lessons for Life, Sonya Shadan
Founder and CEO, Lessons for Life, Sonya Shadan
Founder and CEO, Lessons for Life, Sonya Shadan

When Sonya Shadan observed that learning music was becoming a luxury for only those who could afford music lessons and the expensive instruments necessary, she was disappointed. In fact, she did not like it at all. And so, Shadan created Lessons for Life, a nonprofit organization and program dedicated to bringing music lessons and musical instruments to local students from low-income families. Shadan shares her insights, her unique model and strategy, what she has accomplished so far, and how you can help:


Unfortunately, the financial barrier of access to music lessons is very high. Even the most basic musical instrument can cost $100, and one-on-one music lessons typically cost dozens of dollars per lesson. Studying music also means keeping up with equipment and book costs. As a result, the financial burden associated with participating in music lessons is prohibitive for low-income families, and one-on-one music instruction becomes a luxury item.

While these students have severely limited access to private music instruction, they also tend to have inadequate access to music classes at school. A 2012 study by the U.S. Department Education found a direct relationship between how many low-income students a public school has and whether it offers music instruction: schools with more low-income students are less likely to offer music classes. Even when they do provide music classes, these classes are often run by teachers with little or no musical background in unwieldy group settings using inadequate equipment.

This trend is especially worrying because these students are the ones with the most to gain from music instruction. Importantly, music instruction has been shown to counter some of poverty’s detrimental effects on academic outcomes. For example, a longitudinal study published in 2014 by researchers from Northwestern University looked at the impact of offering music instruction to low-income Spanish-English bilingual students living in Los Angeles’ gang reduction zones. Students who received music instruction maintained age-appropriate reading skills, but the reading scores of students who did not receive music instruction fell further and further behind those of their peers’ over time, as is typical for low-income students.

Because music lessons have such a dramatic effect on academic outcomes, Lessons for Life believes music education is a right, not a privilege. We strive to even the playing field by giving low-income students a chance to learn and love music.


Learning music is integral to a child’s development. Lessons for Life matches underserved students, who otherwise would not have access to one-on-one music instruction, with volunteer tutors from high school and colleges. Other approaches to making music lessons more accessible to low-income students have come up short either by focusing on group lessons, which fail to offer low-income students the opportunities of one-on-one lessons that higher-income students have, or by lacking a strategy for scaling up access to one-on-one lessons in a way that makes a significant impact. Because Lessons for Life matches low-income students with musically experienced high-school students who are not professional music teachers but are eager to gain teaching experience and volunteer their knowledge, the approach is both focused on private lessons and highly scalable.

We work with three partner schools, serving KIPP Academy, De Marillac Academy and Everrett School. At our partner schools, we recruit promising low-income students for private, one to one, music lessons. We select highly skilled high school and college musicians from prominent Bay Area high schools, including School of the Arts, the San Francisco Conservatory and St. Ignatius High School, among many others. We train, educate, and empower our instructors to give back through our unique program. Being a tutor with Lessons for Life gives one the opportunity to develop valuable teaching and leadership skills while making an impact, right here in San Francisco.


Sonya Shadan, the founder and CEO of Lessons for Life, and an award winning social entrepreneur, grew up in the Bay Area. Lessons for Life started out as a community service project she developed in high school. She went on to receive her B.A. from Chapman University in Orange, California, which she in just three years. She majored in political science, minored in sociology, and returned to the Bay Area to pursue her dream of making music more accessible. Her vision is to provide 30 percent of all elementary, low-income schoolchildren in San Francisco with a dedicated music instructor. Visit Lessons for Life to make a donation, become a tutor, or to contact Sonya Shadan.