Steamboat Springs Students’ feet tapped in unison across the band room of Steamboat Springs Middle School, not in counting down the seconds until the lunch bell but in counting the beat to the jazz/funk song being bopped around by Soul Message Band, sitting live, front and center of the space.
Soul Message Band is this school year’s first mentor group in the Mozart Masters program. Pittsburgh-based, self-described future-brass-thunder-funk group Beauty Slap will meet its mentees later this month.
“This program is less about getting (the students’) playing level up and more about keeping them exciting about their instruments,” said Strings Music Festival director of artistic administration and education Katie Carroll. “It’s more opportunities for students to connect with professional musicians; all these bands are on Spotify or SoundCloud.”
The program is orchestrated by Strings, which partners with the mentor bands, Steamboat Springs School District and Moffat County School District music departments.
This month, the mentor groups attend an in-school class with their mentee bands and orchestras. The mentors introduce themselves to the students by playing music, start a dialogue about music and instruments and help the students learn to play new material, which selected by the mentor group to fit the level of the mentees.
Throughout the school year, the groups stay in touch by trading videos of the students’ playing these songs, and mentors’ offering encouragement and advice — plus interesting, related news, “Like, ‘Hey look, guys, we’re playing in Germany!’” Carroll added.
In the spring, the mentor bands return to Steamboat Springs for mentors and mentees to perform a concert at Strings together.
“I want the students to think, ‘This could be a future for me, even if it’s just as a funk-concert goer,” Carroll said.
“I really like this format,” said Greg Ward, alto saxophonist of Soul Message Band. “This is different than the traditional clinic or workshop. It’s an exchange of information and, maybe, inspires kids to explore music.”
Schools participating in the Mozart Masters program this year include Steamboat Springs High School, Steamboat Springs Middle School, Emerald Mountain School and Moffat County High School.
The mentorship program is celebrating its first decade this year. Carroll aims to bring mentor bands into the program that have members with music education experience. Ward participated in Jazz Reach, a jazz education and performance nonprofit, and members of Beauty Slap have held college residencies.
“Last year, there were a lot of women in the program; this year, there’s a lot of ethnic diversity,” Carroll said. “I think it’s important for kids to see people who look like them.”
Last year, the program’s theme was bluegrass. Colorado-based bluegrass groups Trout Steak Revival and The Railsplitters were featured as mentor bands.
A highlight was when an upperclassman at MCHS wrote and arranged a song called “When I’m With You” and sent it to Trout Steak for review.
“We just said, ‘Holy cow!’” said Trout Steak bassist Casey Houlihan. “It was amazing. It was inspiring to all of us.”
Trout Steak made a few tweaks to the song and taught it to the MCHS group, and at the spring concert, the students and Trout Steak performed the song together, with the composer center stage.
“(Being a mentor band) was a really positive experience,” Houlihan said. “It reminded us a lot of ourselves when we were at that point — we didn’t know if music was going to play a role in our adult lives, and we didn’t know that we loved it yet.”