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Music school brings new life to historic home

MIDDLEBURY — It’s always visually pleasing to enter the Middlebury Community House, the brick Federal-style building at the corner of Seymour and Main streets in downtown Middlebury. The foyer features a sweeping spiral staircase, crystal chandelier, and doors with blue, white and gold cloisonné enamel hardware.
Now that the Community House is home to the Middlebury Community Music Center, the experience is audibly pleasing as well. Entering the foyer on a weekday afternoon, one hears “Moonlight Sonata” being worked out on a piano in the rear salon, a violin sawing away in the parlor, and upstairs — is that a bagpipe? (It is.)
The Middlebury Community Music Center, or MCMC, opened with informal programs in August 2014; its inaugural Fall Session began in September. It is the result of Sadie Brightman’s vision intersecting with the needs of the Middlebury community.
Brightman, MCMC founder and director, grew up in Lincoln. In high school, she studied piano under Diana Fanning, an internationally acclaimed pianist and Middlebury College faculty member. Brightman continued her music education at Wesleyan University, the Prague Conservatory, and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass. Brightman began teaching as an undergraduate, and first experienced a community music model while teaching at the Northampton (Mass.) Community Music Center.
After marrying and starting a family in Massachusetts, Brightman wanted to be closer to her family in Addison County, and they relocated to Middlebury in 2009. She began teaching piano from her home.
“I was nervous that there wouldn’t be enough students,” she laughs, but “the piano teachers here were relieved that there was another (teacher)!”
Brightman’s home studio grew, until she reached the point where she couldn’t take on any more students. She was moving from Middlebury to Lincoln, and knew her students wouldn’t trek all the way to Lincoln. While searching for a teaching space in Middlebury, she happened to stumble into the Community House.
“The logistics seemed great,” Brightman recalls. “Downtown accessibility is a huge part of it; kids can take the bus here right from school.” In addition, the building’s design struck her as “so suited for music learning. (The students) know they’re coming here for something special.”
Brightman began teaching piano in an upstairs room in the Community House, which, at the time was underutilized.
The Middlebury Community House Board of Trustees agreed that the building could be used more.
‘TO BENEFIT THE PEOPLE’
The Middlebury Community House was built between 1816 and 1817 as a residence for the Hon. Horatio Seymour. In 1932 Seymour’s great-grandchildren Jessica Stewart Swift and Philip Battell Stewart, donated the building and its furnishings “for the use and benefit of the people and Town of Middlebury and vicinity, especially the boys and girls.”
Through the years, the house has hosted community meetings, a food shelf, and children’s programs. “This was the meeting place before the library had a meeting room,” says Lynne Boie, president of the Community House board.
But as organizations that used the Community House acquired their own buildings, Boie says, “it was obvious to the board that the house was losing money. It had outlived its use as a community meeting center. We were hosting social functions … (and) having to dip into the endowment.”
In May 2013, trustees solicited input into the house’s future and hoped to find a group to inhabit the building and pay its operating expenses, freeing the board to focus on the house’s maintenance.
Up stepped Brightman with a plan. Boie recalls, “Sadie got me in the hall one day and said, ‘You know, I’d like to turn this into a music school.’ And I said, ‘Oh, please!’”
Brightman drafted a proposal, and the board accepted her application in December 2013.
“We thought Sadie’s proposal best fit the mission of the house,” Boie says. “The Swift family was just delighted at the idea of children making music in the house.”
Middlebury Community Music Center moved rapidly from proposal to reality. Minor changes were made inside the building; Boie says the board was thrilled that many historical artifacts could remain in the house. And Brightman found that the local community was more than ready for a music school.
“I spent January 2014 reaching out to as many teachers as I could think of,” she says. “It didn’t take long at all; this niche was so ready to be tapped into.”
MCMC launched its website (mcmcvt.org) in early August 2014; several weeks later, the center ran Camp Adagio, a week-long chamber camp for musicians ages 7-18. The camp was fully enrolled.
Instructors offer private lessons at MCMC year-round; a variety of group classes — including music theory, improvisation, and composition — take place during 10-week fall, winter and spring sessions (Spring Session begins April 6). Programs are available for all ages, from infants and toddlers in Music Together and Music Discoveries, up to adults. MCMC also inherited the Allegro Community Choruses, a trio of choruses for early elementary, late elementary and adult singers.
“We want to grow the entire musician,” Brightman says.
Currently, 128 students take private lessons at MCMC; another 41 participate in group classes. The center’s 20 faculty members bring an array of professional experience to their teaching, and provide instruction in 16 instruments (soon to be 18). Some scholarships are available to MCMC students through the Institute for Clinical Sciences and Arts.
Emily Sunderman, who teaches violin at MCMC, is grateful to have a base at the Community House and the scholarships.
“When I taught primarily from my home in Cornwall, lessons were limited to students with the financial means and time to commute to my home,” she said. MCMC’s “financial aid … provides me with the opportunity to teach to students regardless of the family’s financial means.”
Students and teachers stress the unique learning environment of a community music center. Karen Kevra travels from Montpelier to teach flute at MCMC.
“I love the fact that there’s a central place to go and teach,” she says. “It’s great to be part of a music school; it’s a way to get plugged into the community, to meet other musicians.”
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Bronwen Kent and her three children take piano lessons at the center.
“It’s been nothing but a positive experience,” says Kent, who sits on the MCMC board. “You see so much of the community when you’re in (MCMC). It’s a mini social hub: you see people waiting in the lobby who you didn’t know were taking music lessons.”
Brightman agrees: “It’s about bringing people together, having musicians share experiences in a casual, passing way, which is what you get with a community space. … Studying and teaching music can be a pretty isolating experience; (MCMC) puts it into a more social setting.”
MCMC holds “Performance Salons,” on the second Wednesday of each month to showcase students’ work. A year-end concert at the Town Hall Theater is scheduled for June 14.
Brightman sees room to grow. She wants to expand classes for adults, offer robust summer programming beyond Camp Adagio, collaborate with the Middlebury Arts Walk and with Middlebury College (an undergraduate volunteer is spearheading this effort), and develop outreach into local schools. She’s also looking for donations of quality upright acoustic pianos.
“My dream is to have a piano in every room (of the house),” she says.
Her big dream, however, is already reality.
“It feels like fate, in a way, that this school is where it is, when it is. … There isn’t a day when I’m not grateful,” Brightman says. “It feels like I get to host a great party all the time. The building feels so alive now.” 

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