The Classical Station’s interview with Sara Maria Blanton for Preview!

Interview with Sara Maria Blanton
by Bethany Tillerson (Photo credit: Sara Maria Blanton / Raleigh Music Collective)

Our guest for Preview! on November 5th was Sara Maria Blanton, the Executive Director and founder of the Raleigh Music Collective. Rob Kennedy spoke with her about the Raleigh Music Collective, its goals for the community, and how it helps music students in Raleigh.

KENNEDY: Sara, tell our listeners when the Raleigh Music Collective was founded and who it serves.

BLANTON: In 2019, I was in the midst of a job transition and was having the common what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life mid-twenties crisis that a lot of my generation has. I have a music degree and I love teaching. I was trying to decide if music was what I wanted to continue doing, or if it was time to begin to think about other career choices. A friend of mine had started working at a local refugee nonprofit here in Raleigh called Refugee Hope Partners. We were just talking one evening and I thought, what if I buy just 12 violins out of my pocket and we begin offering once a week free violin classes for the refugee population that they served? I also had private lessons for about 15 students at the time. I was really curious about what it would look like to create a program where we can take students who are refugees or Title I and have students who can’t afford things like private lessons play side by side.

So we started lessons and group classes and that fall, it was absolutely amazing because I structured the program so that once a month all of the students come together to for something we affectionately call Squad Saturday. It’s modeled after a collegiate studio approach where the students have a chance to play pieces that they’re working on for each other, receive feedback from other students and teachers, and they also do chamber music together. COVID shut things down for a semester and we had to pivot. Because we are a nonprofit and we’re not strictly limited to a public school space, we had a lot more flexibility. We were able to reopen again in person in the fall of 2020 with a lot of distancing. We also had Zoom classes. That fall, we saw our program triple in size, partly from the additional classes we began offering at the refugee program, but also through the Zoom classes that were able to reach a lot of South Raleigh students who had lost access to their strings programs.

From there, we got a very tiny grant, about $3,000 that fall. We are growing in size, and right now we serve over 150 kids annually. Our program has continued to serve that initial refugee community in North Raleigh, and we now have a second location in South Raleigh, in partnership with the city of Raleigh, where we offer tuition-free classes to students third grade through juniors for violin, viola and cello. And they take chamber ensembles, private lessons, group classes. We also have camps that happen throughout the year. As well as this, we also have begun to add in these professional tracks where students who are in middle and high school have the opportunity to work with an expert in the field. Our professional tracks at the moment are a gigging track and a conducting track, and it begins to give some of these middle and high schoolers a taste of things that they can continue to do as a professional musician if it wasn’t strictly performing in a symphony.

KENNEDY: Sara, tell us about your teaching methods. Your website mentions string classes, which sounds like a lovely idea. Do you use a particular methodology?

BLANTON: Yes, we do. Because we are an after school program, sometimes teachers are not always able to commit to those programs. So we said, as a program, we are going to require all of our teachers to use the Bornoff Approach. All of our teachers receive training. And this approach has been around for years. George Bornoff created it specifically for students in group classes to be able to move at the same pace as students in private lessons. So it’s a really good fit for how we structure ourselves as a program. All of our students, from the beginning through the advanced level, use this approach and then begin to add in additional repertoire and methods.

KENNEDY: Sara, our nation is perhaps better known for the band programs that seem to proliferate at every level. That’s got to be tough competition for string players. How do you encourage young people to take up learning such demanding instruments?

BLANTON: Once our students begin to participate in the programs and the classes, we find they get bought into this sense of community that they get to create with other students. And they’re also creating a skill that they can be so proud of. So many of our students, a lot of their life happens on technology, and I think there is just something so tangible about having a skill that they have to work hard for. They see themselves get better throughout the year, and it is an honor for us to work with these students. At the beginning of each year, our students write short term, middle of the year goals and then long term goals, and we revisit those throughout the years. Our students see themselves getting better, which I think draws them in.

We train our students with a classical foundation, as we are a classical program, but we work really hard to show them additional ways they can use the violin, viola and cello training that we are giving them every week. They can learn how to conduct. They can learn how to be a gigging musician. We have begun bringing students with us to perform in ways that they can actually be hired at weddings or cocktail hours for various fundraisers, and then they actually get paid for that. We also have students who we are teaching how to read chord charts and they are learning how to show up with a band and either create bass lines or melody lines outside of strict note reading, which is an incredibly marketable skill for these young musicians. We also are talking with local recording artists who are going to come in and work with the kids to teach them how they can go into studios and lay down tracks for string lines. A band leader might say, “I had this idea, can you play something like this?” And they learn how to do that in a studio so they can take this classical training we give them. Maybe they do want to go to conservatory, audition for symphonies, but a lot of them are also going to want to play for their church or show up to a band and be able to play along to a chord chart. And so we show them ways that they can take this foundation and apply it in many different scenarios.