Music Drives Out the Darkness

GMarks-PerformanceSF-01On a recent October school day, one of Performance Santa Fe’s 2017-18 scheduled artists, Julie Fowlis, renowned Scottish Gaelic singer and multi-instrumentalist, gave a large group of third and fourth grade public school students their own private concert. “We bussed them in,” says Cav Cavanaugh, PSF’s operations and education coordinator. “She’s singing to them in a strange language, telling them the fairy tales behind the songs and what they mean, with accompanying instruments; she performs the song she sang as Merida in Disney Pixar’s movie Brave—the kids lost their minds!”

That firsthand experience of music’s power to evoke passion is exactly what Cav and fellow collaborator Leanne DeVane, music education coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools, work very hard to ignite through an impressive collection of PSF education programs. The nonprofit’s motto, “Changing lives through the power of performing arts,” applies not only to Santa Fe’s adult population but also to over 2,800 students enrolled in elective music courses in 24 public schools. Having a partnership with PSF, says Leanne of the collaborative music programs, “brings the whole thing to life.”

Perhaps closest to PSF’s heart, Cav says, is the Bravo! Kids program, bringing opportunities to children grades one through 12 to interact with performers of Julie Fowlis’ caliber. Along with school performances, Bravo! Kids also provides master classes taught by various PSF visiting artists, whose level of expertise—and inspiration—is far beyond most kids’ experience and expectations. Cav describes one master class, taught by another of this season’s performers, musical pioneer and cellist Matt Haimovitz. “He sat down onstage with five chosen students, one on one, at the Scottish Rite Center, where, by the way, the acoustics are amazing,” she says. “They each perform something for him, which is so nerve-racking—it feels like they’ll never get to his level—and he was showing one of them, Lila, a bowing technique. Then, using it, they played a version of a note together for the first time and, as it kind of hung in the air, they both registered it at the same time and, looking up above their heads, they said, ‘Did you hear that?!’”

PSF’s Sostenuto Program brings weekly artist-teacher instruction to work alongside school music directors to provide chorus, band, guitar and orchestra students additional evaluation and technical expertise. It’s very difficult, Cav says, for one person to teach a whole band’s worth of instruments, for example. “Artist teacher support keeps students motivated and helps support them so they don’t get left behind,” she says. Laura Eberhardt, Aspen Community Magnet School’s band director, is extremely grateful for the Sostenuto mentors who work with her students. They take various individuals and small groups out of the room, she says, “and those students become the leaders in my band.”

Dream Big, another program, brings private lessons at a reduced rate to those students who couldn’t otherwise afford them. Just four years ago, Leanne says, this program only had four participants. The next year, it had 12, the following year it jumped to 30, “and this year, it’s more than doubled in size, to 70 or 80,” she says. “That’s 70 or 80 students who were not getting private lessons four years ago! We want it to grow even more next year.”

Share The Joy is a program giving sponsors the opportunity to make blocks of tickets available for PSF main stage productions to students who otherwise couldn’t attend; the Instrument Repair Fund makes it possible for SFPS to maintain and repair instruments for its band and orchestra students. And SFPS On Stage is the big opportunity at the end of each school year for selected middle and senior high school students to perform in a collaborative concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center and receive an acknowledgment dinner. This year’s event is a variety show that features kindergarten through 12th grade music students performing dance, songs, band, orchestra, choir, piano and guitar ensembles, and ties together the visual arts, as well. The Lensic is teaming up with PSF and SFPS to support and produce this show—“[SFPS] could never do this on our own,” Leanne says, and for all this assistance in making such a spectacular year’s-end musical collaboration possible, she’s grateful. Cav encourages everyone community wide to attend this spring’s show. “Kids feel special when it’s a full house,” she says. “Santa Fe can fill those seats!”  

Leanne, who took piano and organ lessons, and played oboe in school, says, “Music filled a hunger in me. I came up in public schools. Society and the world were confusing to me as a girl growing up in the Deep South. I needed connection. Music gave me that, along with solace.” Creative outlets were also crucial to Cav, growing up in Texas; she started playing the clarinet in her middle school band. “It’s good to have a reason to go to school, aside from academics—which are important, obviously,” she hastens to add. “But I know arts kept me in school, really trying.” Around the time of middle school, she goes on, “kids can tend to lose interest and start getting into trouble. Their parents are working and there’s a gap in their support. Who knows what kids go home to? It’s really important to keep them engaged, and challenged. Music really helps to teach those skills and discipline. We’d like to see graduation rates in Santa Fe go up. And music’s a safe place to learn about yourself. When you practice, you’re guaranteed to improve. You get to see what your commitment does. You make mistakes; you dust yourself off and keep trying. One-on-one attention from a mentor—that can really make you glow when you get that!”

Performance Santa Fe - Daniel Ulbricht - Master Class at NDI

Performance Santa Fe – Daniel Ulbricht – Master Class at NDI

Leanne agrees. “Music helps you with math, it helps with language, with literacy, it helps kids stay in school,” she says. “All of those are good reasons to support music in schools. And! Music stands on its own, as a subject, as an endeavor. It’s worthy simply on its own merits. Without excellence, there’s nothing for children to grasp. It comes through tuneful singing, tuneful playing, following a beat.” Leanne pauses, remembering a story about a child in South America. “He had a cello that he kept by his bed. It was like a stuffed animal to him, providing that level of comfort, a real trust and support, a deep heart-to-heart connection. Music connects us to our own heart; it connects us to the heart of the universe.”

Addressing the need for community support, Performance Santa Fe Executive Director Jonathan Winkle says, “What kind of society do we want? We can’t affect the entire country, but we can affect Santa Fe, and so look what happens by supporting our programs—that’s a tangible, concrete way that our donors can affect change and create incredible opportunities for these kids.” Noting that PSF is a nonprofit organization, Cav says, “Our ticket sales make up, I want to say, a third of our income. We have our primary goal of presenting world-class music, but we also want to support the Santa Fe community, and we want to create a culture in Santa Fe where everyone gets to see this kind of performance.”

You don’t have to be uber-wealthy to make a donation. “Twenty dollars gives a student a 30-minute music lesson,” Cav says. “A hundred dollars pays for three hours of in-school mentored support. Twenty-five hundred dollars brings a famous artist to a school to do a master class.” Vail, Colo., has a program similar to Bravo! Kids, she adds, “but no place in this country has public school music programs at this level. We can only do so much, but we try to do what we do best. Everyone in the community of Santa Fe has a part to play.”

Acknowledging music’s potent force, Leanne says, “It has the power to heal. It reaches beyond societal norms and politics, into the purer realm of the good of humanity. It has a way of uniting people around a common purpose.” Shared experiences of music, whether playing in a group or sitting together in the audience, “is communal,” Cav says. “We get to share our version of that incredible experience, which is so inherently human—and I think we need more of that.” Providing equal access to these programs collaboratively offered by SFPS and PSF ensures, Leanne says, not only that the programs exist “but that they are engaging, artistically meaningful and rigorous.” Looking ahead, she says, “A generation or two of individuals coming out of Santa Fe Public Schools who value music will infiltrate our community with a love of the arts and a desire to perpetuate art’s continued existence here.” In words from a poem by a child, Blessing Ekpe, that Leanne sends to all her SFPS staff, “Music is the light that drives out the darkness. Music is life after death.”

To learn more about Performance Santa Fe and their educational outreach go to

Story by Gail Snyder, Photos by Gabriella Marks


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