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Socializing Sound 

Cascade School of Music spreads strong musical roots

It's buzzing inside the Cascade School of Music building on Monday afternoon.

The pitter-patter of feet up and down the narrow hallways, the din of a dozen practice rooms, some with one-on-one lessons, some with groups of three to six students hammering away on keyboards, bowing violins or crashing sticks on symbols. When I sit in Executive Director Dillon Schneider's office, I can hear scales being plucked off in a room to our right and familiar notes of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" coming from the keyboards in the practice space behind his desk. When I leave the building, there's even a toddler with his head out the sunroof of his parents' car singing a familiar tune in a shouty falsetto.

This is what Schneider had in mind when he imagined the Cascade School of Music in 2002. A place where kids and adults could go to learn, and interact with music and each other.

"I don't want music to be isolating. The classic model is that you go to a mean-old piano teacher's house once a week and you go in and do your thing and that's it. Maybe you pass another kid on the way in, but there are no peer relationships being developed," says Schneider, who sports a salt and pepper moustache and explains that he discovered his love for the social aspects of music during his jazz training in college where he and a group of other musicians would stay in the performing arts building until the janitors would kick them out. "I think music works a lot better when you have your peers involved. When you develop a social network around making music."

The school began with about 50 students, growing to 200 before its risky move from a "windowless box" as Schneider describes it on Studio Road, into a beautiful riverfront location off of Portland Avenue near downtown in 2010. The growth of the school has only continued and the nonprofit that offers music lessons across the board (piano, guitar, violin, viola, cello, bass, saxophone, clarinet, flute, voice, drums, harp, trombone, tuba, euphonium, and trumpet) now serves more than 500 students a week, says Schneider, offering not only individual and group lessons, but also off-site programs including an orchestra program at Bear Creek and Elk Meadow Elementary, and a band program at Miller Elementary.

"The elementary schools have a general music teacher, but when I was in elementary school there was an orchestra, and starting to learn an instrument in third grade was standard. Those programs are really important because if kids don't have a ride after school they couldn't get over here even if they wanted to, so if we take programs to elementary schools in different part so of town we have really good participation," explains Schneider. "Bear Creek and Elk Meadow are both Title One schools which means they have a high proportion of students who are using free or reduced lunch. It's a much different income demographic than the tuition-based kids."

Offering students of all income levels access to quality music instruction is the ultimate goal, says Schneider, who also proudly adds that they have never turned a student away from the program. Aaron Pugh, who teaches private guitar lessons and the School of Rock Class (yes, he says it is like the Jack Black movie) says that the school helped him establish himself as a guitar teacher in town when he moved here just over a year ago.

"Raising kids that are musical and creative is important. Having that next generation of creative, smart kids with strong culture," says Pugh. "Folk music wouldn't be around if there weren't kids learning to play guitar from their granddads."

Schneider also identifies with the sense of inherited musical teachings.

"My grandparents were music educators and ran a music store in Rapid City, S.D. My father remembers on Sunday, people would come over and play Mozart string quartets. What an amazing thing to be able to do with your friends," says Schnider. "That's the kind of community that we want to build. The more this school can engender that kind of social music-making, the better off the community ends up being."

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