Steamboat Springs Students watched intensely Monday as Shields-Collins "Buddy" Bray's fingers danced across the piano at Steamboat Springs High School.
Bray, the principal pianist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and a representative of the Fort Worth-based Van Cliburn Foundation, walked through the auditorium gathering crowd participation from the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
He played a piece and asked the students to think about what kind of animal the tune reminded them of. He asked students to tell him whom their heroes are. Then he shared with them his own heroes, including Cliburn.
"I had a lot in common with him and he played piano," Bray said of Cliburn. "And that's what I wanted to do my whole life."
Bray peppered the students from Steamboat Springs and South Routt with questions. Then he provided them with answers and a brief history of Cliburn. He played some of his favorite piano pieces, including the closing piece Cliburn plays at each of his concerts.
Bray performed at the school for the inaugural "Musical Awakenings," a program designed to introduce third-through fifth-graders to the piano and piano music. The program is a partnership between Strings in the Mountains and the Van Cliburn Foundation. Today, Bray will perform at Moffat County High School for third through fifth-graders in Craig and Hayden.
"I liked it because there was so much nice music," Strawberry Park Elementary third-grader Skyler Dietrich said of Monday's performance.
Friend Shealynne Wheeler, also a third-grader, said she enjoyed the music and would like to learn the piano.
Strings in the Mountains Executive Director Kay Clagett said "Musical Awakenings" is another way for the organization to reach out to youths and introduce them to different types of music.
Strings also has a touring children's program in Northwest Colorado and typically hosts a children's concert in the spring.
"One of the primary focuses (of Strings) is to bring cultural, educational groups to the (Yampa) Valley," Clagett said. "Our youth program is something we're most proud of."
During the Strings season last summer, Cafiva and more than 50 individuals donated money to bring Bray for the youth concert. Clagett said she thinks it's important for Strings and the school districts to work together in bringing guest artists to the schools. More than 1,200 students will be reached through this two-day event.
"I think it's very important (to provide music for students)," said Strawberry Park third-grade teacher Kristi Williams. "I think this would be great at any age but these kids enjoy it and they're great at absorbing everything."
Bray said he thinks the Van Cliburn Foundation specifically targets third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students because of their eagerness to learn.
"From my own experience, they're the easiest listeners they're very candid," Bray said. "An 8-year-old will tell you exactly what he thinks."
Children received video and reading materials to look over before the concert began. Bray ended the concert by thanking the students and telling them to write their comments to the foundation.
Bray, 38, began playing the piano when he was about the same age as many of the students who attended Monday's concert and lecture. He grew up on the Mississippi Delta, and playing the piano was not popular among his other male friends.
"There's only a couple things I've ever dug into and this is one," he said. "It kind of chose me."
Bray has been performing for the Van Cliburn Foundation for the past two years.
He said the foundation chooses schools with low budgets and those with high budgets for educational performances. Schools in Texas receive three visits from finalists, semi-finalists or former pianists of the Van Cliburn competition every four years.
"(The foundation) wants to give (students) a deeper experience than just doing a concert," Bray said. "We're trying to avoid drive-by art."