Lafayette’s Center for Musical Arts started with 13 students in 1996. Now, 25 years later, more than 500 students of all ages grace its halls in any given week. And that’s something worth celebrating.
Peggy Bruns and Kathy Kucsan founded the center in 1996, originally calling it the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts. In 2009, it merged with the Colorado Music Festival and took its current name, according to the center’s website. The building has also been improved over the years.
“They just really promoted the concept of access to music,” says executive director Liz McGuire. “That’s something we still feel is very much at the heart of the center, making sure everyone has access.”
The center estimates it’s had 17,000 students walk through its doors in the past 25 years. It offers year-round lessons, a summer music festival, group programs, musical theater, a Spanish-language choir, classes for young children, jazz ensembles and summer camps. The center even provides violin, flute and piano lessons to inmates at two Colorado correctional facilities.
The center has around 40 members of its staff, and every teacher tends to specialize in two instruments, so there is a wide gamut of educational opportunities.
“What’s really a joy about a community music school is we get to embrace being really eclectic,” she says. “All forms of music can learn and benefit from each other.”
Mike Mickley, 77, plays trombone and plays with a jazz combo and big band at the center. He started playing music as a young person but gave it up for many years. He’s happy to be back at it and likes the teachers, who he says give instruction at a high level. He adds that the groups he plays with have become almost like a family for him.
“I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to play,” Mickley says. “I used to play quite a bit in groups that I was in for more than 30 years. I pretty much stopped playing in the early 2000s. If you don’t have a place to play there isn’t much incentive, so I didn’t play much for 12 years.”
Mickley, who lives in Lafayette, says that his work in the chemical engineering field is very left-brained in nature, and life in general feels stressful because of things like climate change and politics. He finds that playing music helps with family issues, spiritual issues and nourishes the soul, especially in stressful times.
“It’s been a real challenge for me to balance the outer world with the inner world,” he says. “Playing music enriches my inner world. After not playing for 12 years, it’s such a pleasure to play again with good people. It’s such a great program.”
He adds that he enjoys the rehearsals, but says the end-of-term performances also bring him joy and provide a lot of incentive to practice.
About 30 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid to attend, and the center has a Heartstrings Program that helps pay tuition for students. The center also maintains an instrument bank so people can borrow a variety of instruments without cost being a deterrent.
“We usually ask people to pay, it can be as low as a few dollars a month, just so they have skin in the game,” she says. “An instrument can be $50 a month to rent, so we have hundreds of instruments and they’re used mostly by schoolchildren.”
She adds that the instrument bank has supported school music programs in seven or eight counties in Colorado. It’s a lot of work to maintain and track all those instruments, but worth it if a child who otherwise couldn’t play in the school band is afforded the opportunity.
McGuire says the center strives to provide music instruction that reflects the diversity of the students who attend, so they have gone to great lengths to provide an eclectic spate of classes and programs.
“We have a whole jazz program,” she says. “We have a musical theater program. We have hammer dulcimer … We have Native American flute. We have drumming and drum circles. We have musical therapy which is a big piece of the access puzzle.”
She adds that the center has offered programs for people with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease as well as programs for veterans. They are launching a mariachi music program in coordination with the nonprofit I Have a Dream Foundation of Boulder County.
“We want to make sure we are representing people’s cultures as well,” she says. “We want to instill a sense of pride in music and the cultural representation of it.”
The center offers a track for students who want to pursue music professionally, but is mostly focused on fostering a sense of community. The Spanish-language choir, Coro Santuario, for example, couldn’t meet to sing during the COVID pandemic, so they just met socially online.
“For the most part, it’s about community and giving people a sense of belonging,” she says. “Coro is a good example of that.”
Middle school student Henry Stalker, 13, plays the oboe and has been coming to the center since he was about five years old. He found out about the center while attending another Lafayette institution, the annual peach festival. He started off playing guitar but eventually switched to the oboe.
Stalker says he chose oboe because it’s challenging and sounds cool when it’s played correctly. And yes, there is such a thing as jazz oboe. He tried saxophone for a day, but quit when he found out that it would mess up his oboe playing. He’s pondering picking up the vibraphone so he can play it in the marching band, which doesn’t allow oboes.
The center also helped Stalker run down another rental oboe when his first one cracked and became unusable. It’s a tall order as oboes aren’t all that common.
“That’s just another example of how the school just helps people,” he says. “They support everyone in the music they do.”
Stalker, who lives in Louisville, appreciates the teachers, who are professional, gigging musicians. He will often go to their shows to get a feel about how to be a better musician.
“I like the teachers,” Stalker says. “They are professionals, and they really know what they are doing. Whenever they play the music for me, I really feel like I am learning something. It really helps me be confident when I play in the jazz band at school and in the (Greater Boulder Youth Symphony) orchestra.”
To mark the occasion of the center’s 25th anniversary, McGuire says the center launched a couple of initiatives this year, one of which was a mobile “tiny stage” to bring live music to locations that might otherwise be hard to reach. They’ve held one concert and plan to bring the stage to neighborhoods, retirement homes, schools and local businesses like bakeries and breweries. It’s one of only four in the entire country.
“Basically, it’s a tiny house that folds out into a stage,” McGuire says. “It’s kind of a COVID-era idea, so that people could still enjoy performances outside. We thought of it as a way to provide more access to everyone. What we see as a challenge to some people is they can’t get to where the live music is.”
McGuire says the tiny stage is part of an effort to make music a more integral part of people’s lives, which ties into the center’s organizational mission. She hates to use the word, but says the stage is really “cute” and it’s garnered a lot of enthusiasm so far.
The 25th anniversary has given folks at the center cause to have bigger-picture conversations about what the future holds.
“Where do we see ourselves,” she says. “I fully expect the organization to be around in another 25 years. I expect maybe there is more than one location, maybe we have a fleet of tiny stages.”
For more information visit centerforthemusicalarts.org.