Valley students learn to play with Aspen Music Fest (video and slideshow) |

Valley students learn to play with Aspen Music Fest (video and slideshow)

If You Go …

What: Maroon Bel Canto Children’s Chorus, presented by Aspen Music Festival and School

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Monday, April 20, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info:


What: Lead Guitar Showcase, presented by Aspen Music Festival and School

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Wednesday, April 29, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info:


What: Beginning Strings Showcase, presented by Aspen Music Festival and School

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Friday, May 9, 6:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

More info:

Between snack time and some goofing off time on a recent afternoon at the Aspen Community School, a small group of second, third and fourth graders raised their bows and began playing “French Folk Song” on cellos, violins and violas.

The young musicians, preparing for their big end-of-the-school year performance at Harris Concert Hall, are among a growing contingent of kids valleywide who are learning to perform under the tutelage of the Aspen Music Festival and School.

The vaunted music institution, for eight weeks during the summer, will host hundreds of the world’s best and brightest young performers, as it has since 1949. But, in recent years, the nonprofit has begun investing in local youngsters, too, with three after-school programs offering sustained music education in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We thought, as an educational organization in the world of music, that we had a local responsibility as well as a global responsibility,” Music Festival president and CEO Alan Fletcher explained.

The Music Festival’s Beginning Strings program — the one that included the youngsters practicing “Lightly Row” at the Community School — is in its second year and includes 96 performers in six schools. The Maroon Bel Canto Children’s chorus and the Lead Guitar programs have each been running for six or so years, but have expanded widely in the past two years. The guitar classes, for instance, began with a few students in Carbondale and this year included 60 students in seven valley schools, while Bel Canto numbers 95 young vocalists in grades four to eight from Glenwood to Aspen.

In March, the Music Festival adopted a new long-range plan to guide the nonprofit, its board and staff’s decision-making for the foreseeable future. Among its priorities, for the first time, is community engagement.

“I’ve been involved with elite musical organizations all my life,” Fletcher said. “Increasingly, those organizations are saying, ‘Who is taking care of the next generation? … Who is making sure that music is a choice given to all people?’ I don’t think we’re alone in saying, ‘It’s our responsibility.’”

The Music Festival has signed up 21 musicians and music teachers to work with kids up and down the valley once a week. In August, the Music Festival also added a full-time staffer to oversee the local education efforts, plucking standout band teacher Katie Hone Wiltgen from the

Basalt school district and making her the nonprofit’s inaugural director of education and community programming.

The Festival contracted with a strings shop that sizes kids and provides instruments to rent or buy at a discount, and it offers need-based scholarships so the Festival doesn’t have to turn way interested youngsters whose families can’t afford the $150 to $200 tuition. For the guitar program, the festival bought a cache of guitars itself for students. A priority of the program — dubbed Afterworks — is to be open to everyone.

“The goal is to get these kids to discover music through the inherent joy of creating music,” Wiltgen said. “So the goal is to create lifelong music lovers.”

Wiltgen said that in recent years, as many local school music programs have scaled back, teachers and parents looked to the Music Festival, asking why they weren’t interacting more. Music Festival officials looked inward, asked the same questions and decided to grow the nonprofit’s local offerings. It has long held enrichment programs in schools, in the music appreciation tradition, but the investment in instruction is new.

With an annual budget of about $150,000 Afterworks was set in motion by a lead gift from Music Festival board member Caryn Scheidt, and later by John Siebold ­ both of whom have children in local public schools.

“The idea is presenting the students with a fantastic educational experience, as much as it’s about serving the community and helping with after-school day care for a really inexpensive price,” Wiltgen said.

Most Beginning Strings students have never held an instrument before beginning their weekly group lessons (they also take six private lessons as part of the program). In her Community School class, instructor Karla Dietmeyer has her students learn to read music within their first year, but also teaches them to learn by ear and to perform cohesively with a group. Fletcher noted that learning to perform with an ensemble is one of the few activities that teaches people to listen, to be aware of their surroundings — a skill that translates into any number of other fields as students move into adulthood.

“Years later, that sticks with you in the sense that you know who you are and where you are,” he said.

The Music Festival hosts three year-end performances at Harris Concert Hall, with receptions for youngsters and their families. Taking the Harris Hall stage, where the best musicians in the world will play this summer, can have a profound effect on young people.

“You can see the change in the students,” Wiltgen said. “It’s like their entire character rises when they walk into the hall. They stand up a little straighter, their chins raise a little higher, they can tell we honor them by putting them on that stage.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User