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Friday, September 24, 2021

UC Davis band director helps bring music to Esparato school

People of all ages have a passion. From academia to the arts, passion resonates among all people, especially at UC Davis. Concert Band Director Pete Nowlen has a passion for music and shares it with others through education.

Three years ago, Nowlen gathered a group of his colleagues for one purpose: to revive classical music in the Sacramento area through an organization called the Vocal and Instrumental Teaching Artists (VITA) Academy of Northern California.

“We all believe that classical music has profound power to transform people and communities,” said Nowlen, the artistic director of the Academy. “But it has to be relevant first, and it is becoming irrelevant. That is our biggest battle.”

This nonprofit program, made up of faculty and recent alumni at CSU Sacramento and the local musical community, has three main facets: the training of teaching artists, the implementation of music programs in schools and a professional orchestra that puts on shows to fund the Academy.

“We wanted to build a community to renew the validity and effect of classical music,” Nowlen said.

The VITA Academy is trying to accomplish this goal through music education for children, specifically in the Esparto K-8 School in the rural community of Esparto, Calif. Before the VITA Academy stepped in three years ago, the school had not had a music department or music teachers for 30 years.

“Kids that are from low-income families particularly often don’t get these kinds of experiences,” said Kari King, a third-grade teacher at the Esparto K-8 school. “Especially with public school funding, most schools aren’t able to offer a [music] program.”

Nowlen and his colleagues developed a seven-year plan for the implementation of music programs in Esparto and are currently starting their third year. The VITA Academy uses “Link Up,” a program courtesy of Carnegie Hall that trains nonprofit organizations on music curriculum for students.

“During a time in our economy when arts programs are shrinking, we are able to have a growing program,” King said.

The first step the VITA Academy took toward building stronger communities was the use of teaching artists from CSU Sacramento. These instructors teach children about music and are performers at the same time, allowing them to incorporate real-life experiences into lessons.

“Every year, every student in school has at least some general music instruction, and in some grades, they have an intensive music instruction,” Nowlen remarked. “Studying music creates cognitive abilities that actually test well and develops life skills that lead to success and student resiliency.”

Liz Barton, lead teaching artist and site director at Esparto K-8, completed her master’s degree under the guidance of Nowlen and currently teaches music to third- and fourth-grade classes every week and also runs an after-school choir.

“They are learning basic music skills. Basic rhythm, basic melody, and to read notation as well,” Barton said. “We try to be as fun as possible, as interactive and hands-on just to get the kids really fired up. But we believe in teaching life skills too, like learning the discipline it takes to learn music.”

Barton visits classrooms of all grade levels at least twice a year with a music activity that is either multicultural or integrated with the curricula.

“There, they are so hungry for this experience,” Barton said. “When you have those bright eyes and that engagement with kids, that is my favorite thing.”

At the end of the year, the VITA Academy professional orchestra and students from Esparto join to put on a concert for the community.

The Esparto K-8 school was of interest to the Academy mainly because of its location, but also because its students’ test scores were improving, making it easier and more possible for the program to work.

“We wanted to see what impact music and music teaching had in a rural community,” said Nowlen.

The link to Esparto was found by Nowlen through CSUS Educational Faculty and VITA Academy Education Committee Chair Crystal Olson and CSUS Professor Emeritus and VITA Academy Board President Deborah Pittman.

“What we are doing is really focused on community. Esparto is in Yolo County; it is part of this community,” Nowlen said. “Serving these kids is really important.”

In the future, the VITA Academy hopes to expand the instruments they offer to students. Nowlen and Pittman also plan to develop ensembles.

“My expectations are mostly for that community, our continued and growing role as a facilitator of arts experiences, and the development of a model for arts education in underserved communities,” Pittman said.

All those who put work into creating the VITA Academy programs at the Esparto K-8 school say they are happy with how the program turned out.

“I think so much of our curriculum is driven by state testing that this is one area they have that is driven by a creative force,” King said. “It’s something that’s personal they can have.”

Nowlen connects the VITA Academy’s work back to UC Davis students by proposing internships for students interested in music.

“[UC Davis] is a research institution, and this is really my research,” Nowlen said. “I use what I learn in VITA Academy work very profoundly in my work with the UC Davis Concert Band. Music has an amazing power to pull people together, and when you use that power to educate, that’s when music becomes relevant.”

RITIKA IYER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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