After a decade of teaching music to kids, Katchen Duncan knows what comes first before choir practice.
"If you have candy in your mouth go ahead and finish it, but put the rest away for now," Duncan announced to 16 kids Tuesday afternoon, inside the Bahama Village Music Program headquarters at 727 Fort St. "You can't sing with candy in your mouths."
The mini Kit Kats and hodgepodge of Halloween-inspired sweets were soon upstaged by the music.
After a few warm-up scales, the choir launched into a rather soulful rendition of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," before belting out a version of the Lady Gaga "Bad Romance" parody song, "Lady Pasta," a celebration of pasta and sauce.
In its 12th year, the program offers free weekly after-school music lessons, including piano, drums, guitar and flute, to any kids between the ages of 6 and 16. Duncan has been on board the nonprofit since 2002 and has run it since 2004.
The city offers the space for a buck a year in rent and pays the utilities. But the nonprofit's budget, largely comprising payroll for the 12 part-time teachers and Duncan's salary, and money for supplies, always falls someplace between shoestring and busted.
"We have zero money," Duncan said, in between classes on Tuesday. "We've had to hold two fundraisers in the last month."
From 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday, the program will host its 3rd annual "Day Filled with Music," at the Oldest House, 322 Duval St. The kids will perform, along with local musicians, and a silent auction will be held.
Key West residents remain generous. The other day a man came in to donate a 65-year-old silver flute that had belonged to his partner, who had recently died.
On Tuesday, another man dropped off a keyboard, a need for kids learning the piano whose families don't have one at home.
Today, Duncan will once again dip into her own money to buy office paper. On Tuesday, she offhandedly makes sure a dry erase marker is safely tucked away to ensure a long life.
Before the kids trundled into the practice room, one teacher asks when the paychecks are coming. Duncan said she isn't sure.
This year the music program opened up late without the payroll money.
Duncan held a Sept. 14 meeting for her staff, and everyone agreed to work for free so the kids could start lessons.
The program serves more than 150 students, who take about 200 lessons a week.
"Music education in schools is disappearing at a rapid rate," said Duncan, 29, a graduate of Key West High School who chose teaching music after a year of hotel and restaurant management courses at the University of Denver.
Back in the Keys and in front of a kid at a piano, Duncan said she found her calling.
"I realized I was good at it, explaining and teaching," she said.
"We are considered 'non essential,'" said Duncan, who in May went before the county's Human Services Advisory Board in hopes of landing some grant money. The funds, however, are reserved for the likes of health care for the Florida Keys' poor.
"Music is essential," she said, recalling how learning the piano at age 8 and growing up in Sugarloaf surrounded by music was life changing. "Without art and music, we would all be..."
"Robots," suggested Olivia Mealor, 18, a Key West High School student who teaches at the Bahama Village Music Program, where she started learning piano at age 7.
"My mom forced me and I hated it the first year," Mealor said. "Later I loved it."
A few girls milled about before choir practice. Darnisha Dor, 9, got in some extra piano practice, on a sleek black baby grand.
Dor, a Glynn Archer student, nodded intently when asked if she likes the piano. She appeared confident behind the piano. When asked how long she's been playing, she doesn't hesitate. "Two months," she said, before joining her singing partners.
Tanicha Brutus, 6, took her first piano lesson on Monday and returned the next day for choir practice after leaving Poinciana Elementary.
"I'm going to do music," Brutus said, resting on her mother's lap outside the choir room. "I'm going to be studying music when I'm 18."
For more information on the music program, call 305-292-9628, or email Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org.