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Jesse Ogle, right, co-music director of the Stillwater Foundation, plays guitar with the rest of the band during a Monday night practice. The Durango nonprofit’s music and sports programs have doubled in the past year and a half./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Steel drums to ski jumps

Stillwater Foundation growing by leaps and bounds
by Jen Reeder

The Stillwater Foundation has a lot of reasons to celebrate. The Durango nonprofit’s music and sports programs have doubled in the last year and a half. There are so many students playing in Stillwater bands that this year’s holiday concert will feature 11 performance groups with musicians aged 8 to 65. And in early 2012, the Stillwater Foundation plans to open a 10,000-square foot indoor facility in Bodo Park.
“We have big hopes and dreams for that facility,” said Anne Beach, executive director of the Stillwater Foundation. “We’re really excited for the new year.”

Beach said the new space (the third sports facility since Stillwater began offering a sports division in 2006) will offer year-round indoor training for athletes since Durango weather can be “challenging.” It will have artificial turf, batting cages, mats and trampolines for snowboard and ski jump practice, and offer training time for area teams (including soccer, lacrosse and baseball). Future expansion plans include adult volleyball leagues, girls’ softball programs and even agility courses for dogs. The indoor area could also potentially be the site for concerts by the music side of the foundation.
“The sky’s the limit,” she said.

By relocating closer to town, Stillwater Foundation students will be able to ride the trolley to the new location. The foundation hopes to partner with Durango Parks and Recreation to add as many new programs as possible.

In the meantime, the Stillwater Foundation, which offers educational opportunities to children and adults in sports and music, will celebrate the close of the year with a holiday concert by its “Winter Wonder Bands” on Sun., Dec. 11, in the Henry Strater Theatre starting at 2 p.m., with the last band taking the stage at 7 p.m.

“It’s featuring all of our performance groups at Stillwater Foundation,” said Jesse Ogle, co-Music Director. “We have about 11 performance groups ranging from rock to Latin to funk to jazz and bluegrass, so there’s almost every genre covered.”

Children and adults can take private or group music lessons with the Stillwater Foundation, and recently Stillwater teachers have started reaching out to area schools, teaching in the classrooms themselves. Co-Music Director Steve Dejka said 4 Stillwater is filling a niche as arts programs are reduced or cut due to budget shortfalls
“Colorado is bankrupt and what’s the first thing to get cut?” he asked. “Music.”

Dejka said he and the other teachers and volunteer “mentors” – there are currently two full-time teachers, two part-time instructors and six mentors – are passionate musicians who enjoy sharing their professional experiences with the students. “I think the fact that we’re a contemporary program and have real-world musicians teaching is what makes us different,” Dejka said. “We doubled our program in a year and a half – we must be doing something right.”

The Stillwater Foundation currently has about 120 music students and more than 100 athletes, although the figure fluctuates with sports seasons. Funding comes from music class tuition, team memberships, donations and fund-raisers like the Winter Wonder Bands concert.

Alicia Whiteman, 17, who has played tenor sax with the Stillwater Foundation since she was in seventh grade, agreed that having professional musicians as teachers makes the experience special. “For me, they are some of the most inspiring people I’ve met, just really talented musicians,” she said.
Maddie Brockway plays during band practice at the Stillwater Foundation on Monday. The foundation currently has about 120 music students and more than 100 athletes./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Whiteman, who started playing with the beginning jazz band and moved on to blues, Latin and a wedding band at Stillwater, will play in the Winter Wonder Bands concert with the jazz combo “Grand Central.” She said the opportunity to perform in public with the Stillwater Foundation – including at the Telluride Jazz and Reno Jazz festivals – is an honor. She said the foundation is her passion.

“What you can get out of the Stillwater Foundation doesn’t just stop at the classes. They have a recording studio they’ve been working on, and private lessons, and you can ask for advice on a song you’re writing,” Whiteman said. “It’s a really cool, close-knit kind of thing.”
Tony Williams, a 15-year-old who plays piano, trumpet and sings with Stillwater, will perform in two bands during the Winter Wonder Bands concert. The aspiring professional musician said he recommends playing with Stillwater to other potential students.

“It’s a very different experience from playing alone. When you’re with a band, it gives you more freedom to play what you want,” Williams said. “The mentors really know how to bring a band together and make it sound good, even when the players don’t have that much musical experience.”

Ten-year-old Emma Jaber started playing music with the Stillwater Foundation in June and will play in the advanced steel drum band at the Dec. 11 show.  She also sings, and plays the piano and “a little marimba.” She says the best part of Stillwater is that it’s fun.

“I like that you can play music with the other kids and just have fun and be yourself,” she said. “And it’s not just for kids, it’s for anybody who wants to have fun and play music.”

Beach said community members who attend the Winter Wonder Bands concert “won’t believe their ears.”
“I really think our kids perform at a level beyond their years,” Beach said.

She said the nonprofit always welcomes donations and would like to expand its scholarship program from need-based to merit-based.
The Daniel Finn Scholarship Fund is named for a former student who collapsed and died while playing his drums in March of 2011.
“We would love to be able to offer more scholarships,” Beach said.

Dejka, an original teacher with the Stillwater Foundation when it started in December 2005 with just 14 music students, said it has been a rewarding experience.

“It’s a lot of work, but the gift is when we see the lightbulb go off in a kid,” Dejka said. “It’s nice to be in a job where I have magical moments.”

Terri Gasaway, who co-founded the Stillwater Foundation with her husband Tony, said they started the foundation because they saw a need based on the experiences of their children, Frankie and Zac. Since then, she’s seen students grow over the years and has even seen the program change lives.

“It’s such a great community to teach music in because there are so many arts-minded people in the community, and we’ve had such great support,” Gasaway said. “They blossom into these amazing musicians. It’s more than gratifying – it’s heartwarming and encouraging to see happen.”