OK, let's open with a huge question: Could you live without music?
While you're pondering that, it's time you were introduced, if you haven't been already, to the Stillwater Foundation.
The 8-year-old nonprofit has taught hundreds of Durango-area kids not only the fundamentals of music, but how to coexist in a group. Its success shows that it is filling a niche.
Music and arts programs have been taking a hit in public schools for a couple of decades now, leaving plenty of room for something like the Stillwater Foundation to thrive.
“We just knew there was a need,” says Terri Gasaway, who founded Stillwater with her husband, Tony. “Durango is an artsy community, so we were hopeful.”
The foundation keeps a low profile, but word of mouth has kept it strong. If you've heard a steel drum band around town, it was probably one of Stillwater's. The foundation's bands are ubiquitous at local fundraisers and festivals.
The working philosophy is to do more than just teach a child to play an instrument. Sure, that's part of it, but there's something more.
“Our model is different,” says Jeroen van Tyn, Stillwater's program director. “The instructors are all working, professional performers. We bring our model from 'been there, done that.'
“Every class is a performing ensemble. We really believe sharing music with people is what music is for.”
H H H
For the second verse, let's switch to one of Stillwater's four band rooms at its current site off 32nd Street, just west of Main Avenue. It's a Tuesday after school, and nine kids are standing in front of steel drums, a drum set, xylophones, vibraphones and keyboards. Some are holding mallets and sticks. As their instructor speaks, some are fighting the urge to swing those mallets and hit something. Some are not succeeding.
The instructor is Steve Dejka, Stillwater's music director. Today, he's laying down the law. We're here, he tells the youths, to learn songs, to take direction and, he gives them a sports analogy, to play as a team.
“Do we want to go out and win games or do we want to go out and lose games?” he asks. One boy pipes up: “Win!”
“Our performances,” Dejka says, “are our games.”
Now, rewind the tape. It's 2006, and Excel Charter School is dissolving its charter and converting to something called a magnet school run by Durango School District 9-R.
For five years, Dejka had been teaching music at Excel, running a steel drum program that he had began. He had gotten many kids enthused about music, including Frankie Gasaway, Tony and Terri's daughter. The Gasaways, who had moved to Durango from St. Louis, were sad to see Excel changing.
“One thing we were really going to miss was music with Steve,” Terri Gasaway says.
Dejka resigned from Excel in 2006, but the Gasaways knew he didn't want to stop teaching. With a little money, a lot of “sweat equity” and a busload of faith, they opened up an after-school music program on Camino del Rio, next to Animas City Rock. Dejka's enthusiasm and knowledge as a gigging musician started paying dividends.
“I can honestly say the program would have never come to fruition without him,” Terri Gasaway says. “His ability to teach music amazes me to this day. ... He's so patient and has a way of getting through to kids. It's a gift.”
Back to the band room.
Dejka tells the melody players to be patient as he starts the rhythm players into “Caravan.” It's not a simple rhythm – with chords and eighth notes – but the 7- to 9-year-olds are up to the challenge.
Once the rhythm is set, Dejka counts in the melody players. (One, two, three, four ...) Suddenly, the magic of music appears. This group of easily distracted elementary school kids is playing a richly textured song that would slack the jaw of many a parent.
Part of Stillwater's key to success, says van Tyn, who left a more lucrative position in information technology to join the foundation full-time a year ago, is to focus on music the kids like. The “kids” range from 6 to 85, but the bulk are school-aged.
“We teach what's on your iPod, which is a lot,” van Tyn says. It could be anything from Santana to Imagine Dragons. “(The Stillwater model) is tremendously successful in getting kids involved right away.”
H H H
Although Stillwater started with music, it ventured into the sports realm in 2008 to fill another niche. When there's snow on the ground, where do baseball, soccer and lacrosse teams practice? Athletes and coaches feel that to compete on a state or national level, it's vital to practice year-round.
So the foundation opened an indoor facility where local teams can rent space. It's now in Bodo Industrial Park, and often hosts high school and Fort Lewis College teams.
Music and sports are plenty for the foundation to focus on. Behind the scenes, fundraising is always a large topic. Terri Gasaway says that Stillwater is intent on upping the pay of its five instructors – Dejka, Jared Wright, Ryan McCurry and Evan Suiter are all FLC music program graduates, incidentally – and eventually owning its own building.
But the focus will always remain on filling a community need, and on the music. And that brings us back to the big question. The answer? Maybe you could live without music, but to most of us, a life without art and creativity is a lonely, soulless one indeed.
“We're constantly surrounded by music.” van Tyn says. “Music has a universal place in human life,”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.