Culture in the Vail Valley

Larger than Life Entertainment

Vail’s performing arts organizations
play a leading role in the Valley’s schools.

At a time when budgets are constrained at every level of government, and schools are making painful choices as they cut programs, the same concern can be heard in communities across the country, “What’s happening to the arts?” In that respect, the Vail Valley can call on some exceptional resources stemming from its rich cultural life. Count the summer festivals:  Bravo! Vail, the Vail International Dance Festival and the Vail Jazz Festival. And throughout the year, the Vilar Performing Arts Center presents leading artists and top productions from around the world. These organizations delight visitors and locals alike with their brilliant performances. But they do much more. In addition to providing the public with great entertainment and intellectual stimulation, they are important community institutions, committed to enriching arts education in the Valley’s schools.

Howard Stone is the founder and guiding light of the Vail Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 19th year this past summer. “When I was a child,” he says, “jazz was the popular music of the day, but today it is not in the mainstream, so schoolchildren probably never hear it. I want to make young people aware of this great music which America has given to the world.”  That is what he is doing through the Vail Jazz Foundation, which he also heads. “There are very few communities that have the depth of jazz education that we have here,” he adds.

The Foundation’s mission, “Perpetuating jazz with a focus on young musicians and young audiences,” says it all. In its Jazz Goes to School program, jazz musicians, who are also educators, bring their instruments into every fourth and fifth grade classroom in Eagle County, reaching over 1100 students annually, and more than 15,000 since the program’s inception. Their interactive sessions combine musical performances with discussions of the origins and history of jazz. The program supplies classroom teachers with lesson plans, which they can use to show how the development of jazz is intertwined with America’s history and geography. It culminates in a professional jazz concert at the Vilar Center. “For many of the children,” says Stone, “this is their first opportunity to be in a real theater.”  Currently, the Foundation is expanding its drop-in summer program, Jammin’ Jazz Kids, hands-on jazz lessons at the Vail Farmers’ Market where kids play a variety of percussion instruments—maracas, bongos, congas, tambourines and Orff instruments, culminating in a jam session. Finally, it sponsors a highly competitive summer workshop that draws twelve young jazz musicians of exceptional talent to the Vail Valley each year.

Since 2007, when Damian Woetzel became director of the Vail International Dance Festival, he and his wife Heather Watts, both New York City Ballet greats, have been deeply engaged in the Vail Valley. As he set about revamping the festival, Woetzel saw that it lacked an educational component, and he enlisted Watts to bring dance to the Valley’s children. She found the perfect vehicle. It is Celebrate the Beat, a Colorado non-profit associated with the National Dance Institute, which ballet legend Jacques d’Amboise created in his belief that the arts have a unique power to engage children and motivate them toward excellence.

Watts, who chairs the Celebrate the Beat board, has worked closely with its artistic director, Tracy Strauss, to build a program in the Valley’s schools. It now reaches 350 elementary and middle school children each year. And it is a transformative experience. To see Strauss in action is to understand why. She can silence a gym full of excited children with a motion of her hand, and she engages them in the tough but rewarding work of artistic creativity through a combination of no-nonsense instruction, warm humor and individual support and guidance. The classes, which she describes as a “joyfully rigorous experience,” are all accompanied by live music. They are conducted during the school day, to place them on an equal footing with the rest of the curriculum, and culminate in a school-wide performance.

“We use dance as the medium to teach children a valuable life lesson: that energy, discipline, hard work, commitment and joyful concentration can lead to success,” she says. And classroom teachers agree. They find that children are better learners on the days when they have been to Celebrate the Beat. During the summer, Strauss conducts a one-week workshop, which, amazingly, takes a large group of youngsters who have never danced together and molds them into an ensemble which can share the Vail International Dance Festival stage with artists of the stature of dancer Lil Buck and the cellist YoYo Ma.

Woetzel, who is passionate about bringing access to the arts to the nation’s underserved children, collaborates with Ma on a host of educational programs through Ma’s Silk Road Project, and the two serve on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “Adaptive, creative thinking is more important today than it ever was,” says Woetzel. That is what he, Watts and Strauss are developing in the Valley’s children through the joy and hard work of Celebrate the Beat.

Each summer, Bravo! Vail fills the Vail Valley with some of the world’s most beautiful music, performed by three internationally renowned orchestras and countless distinguished soloists. Over the years, the festival has also developed programs that enrich the Valley’s children. In the summer, Little Listeners @ the Library brings renowned musicians to local libraries for informative programs which are both food for the brain and a joy for the ear, and its Instrument Petting Zoo travels the length and breadth of the Valley, giving youngsters the opportunity to handle and play a wide range of orchestral instruments. These programs have reached thousands of children. During the school year, Bravo provides after-school piano lessons to over 180 school children, and its Instrument Bank furnishes Eagle and Lake County schools with instruments and supplies to enhance their music programs.

“Part of our mission is to bring classical music to the Valley’s children, and we are very invested in the high standards of our programs,” says Bravo! Vail’s executive director, Jim Palermo. “Beyond that, we want to collaborate with other organizations in the Valley to ensure that arts education flourishes. Where it does, children do better in reading and math because the study of music develops discipline. We are as interested in playing our part in the development of well-rounded people and good citizens as we are in ensuring our audiences for the future.”

There is one organization which underpins the cultural life of the Valley and supports every phase of the performing arts. It is the Vail Valley Foundation. In addition to providing generous funding to the festivals themselves, it is a crucial participant in the Valley’s arts education. “Our mission encompasses the arts, athletics and education,” says the Foundation’s executive director, Ceil Folz. “The more schools have to watch their money, often leading to cuts in the arts, the more we feel responsible for supporting this key part of education, both during and after the school day. We bring the world’s best performing artists to Vail. We want our children to see them and to understand and appreciate how they got where they are. This is an important experience for all youngsters. For some it becomes an inspiration.”

According to Heather Watts, the Foundation has been essential to Celebrate the Beat’s success. “We could not have done it without them,” she says. “They have been with us every inch of the way.”  There are two other programs under the Foundation’s umbrella which have a huge impact on the artistic life of the Valley’s children.

First Notes is a youth orchestra program inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, that country’s national music education program, of which Los Angeles Symphony music director Gustavo Dudamel is the most famous alumnus. Already operating in two elementary schools, and poised to make the leap into middle school, First Notes provides after school orchestral music instruction to third, fourth and fifth-graders, who participate on a voluntary basis. Its coordinator, Scott Loss, describes it as “the synchronization of opportunity and community.”  He explains that “involvement in the youth orchestra opens a world of possibilities and makes kids feel that they are part of a larger whole. There are responsibilities and expectations, but opportunities abound.”  Children are given instruments, supplied by the Foundation, which they keep for the year, making it possible to practice at home. Loss is working on instituting weekend and summer sessions to keep the momentum going. In the meantime, he is thrilled to report that when students buy into First Notes, their academic performance soars.

In addition to benefiting from all this instruction, it is important for children to experience the thrill of being part of the audience at live performances targeted to their age group. To make this happen, the Vail Valley Foundation partners with the Vilar Center in STARS (Support the Arts Reaching Students), a program of in-school workshops and daytime shows at the theatre. Each year, it provides free transportation and tickets to more than 6,000 Eagle County students.

So, the next time that you are enjoying the vibrancy of a jazz performance at Vail Square or sitting in the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater spellbound by a symphony or a ballet, remember that the organizations which bring you this pleasure are not just working their magic for Vail’s audiences. They are also committed to the future of its children, and they make the Valley a better place.