Music school thrives in historic building

MIDDLEBURY — The historic Middlebury Community House has long been admired as an aesthetic jewel nestled into its Main Street perch at the downtown gateway. At the tender age of 200, the community house is particularly fetching when its Federal-style features — including lustrous white wooden balustrade and four rising chimneys — are bathed in sunlight.
Though resplendent in its beauty, the community house has largely been a silent witness to the history that has unfolded in front of its doorsteps. Erected as a family home in 1817 and then donated to the town of Middlebury by the Stewart family back in 1932, the stately structure has opened its doors only sporadically for occasional functions.
Until relatively recently.
The community house now reverberates with the delightful dueling sounds of guitar, piano, percussion, voice and even ukulele — all courtesy of the students and teachers who are part of the thriving Middlebury Community Music Center (MCMC). Sadie Brightman, an accomplished pianist in her own right, founded the school at the community house in 2013 believing local music instructors and their students had been yearning for a nice venue in which to march to their own tune.
She was right.
Four years after planting the seed, Brightman has seen the MCMC become firmly planted at the community house. It has become so successful that it has branched out into space at the nearby Aurora Learning Center on Peterson Terrace.
“It’s going really well,” Brightman said. “Our growth has really been driven by the needs of the community, and that’s been an incredible thing to see. I started this school sensing there was a need, and the last couple of years have shown us that was definitely the case.”
Seven days a week, MCMC students and teachers tote instruments of all sizes through the community house doors, filing past a wonderful array of antique furnishings and adornments that provide an idyllic backdrop for the classical music selections permeating the halls.
The MCC contains six teaching studios that are often filled during the “prime time” hours of 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., according to Brightman. Center hours run around 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
When Brightman opened the MCMC, she asked for use of around half of the community house.
By the end of its first year, the school was occupying the entire building.
Incredibly, the MCMC now has 24 teachers serving around 250 students.
   MIDDLEBURY COMMUNITY MUSIC Center instructor Stefanie Taylor gives a viola lesson to Susan Jefferies in the Middlebury Community House. MCMC has seen great success since opening four years ago.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Some of the instructors — like Brightman — are Middlebury College faculty members. Others are scattered throughout the county, with resumés that include orchestral work.
All of the instructors are considered MCMC faculty. They conduct private lessons with individual students and also help teach a series of MCMC offerings.
Brightman attributes much of the success of the school to the quality of its teachers.
“There’s a network of established teachers and new teachers who have helped define who we are,” she said.
Brightman gave particular thanks to Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, who agreed to delegate a paid student intern to the MCMC. That intern helps with administrative chores, events scheduling and many other tasks, all of which help the center hit all the right notes.
The center has become a hub for creativity, drawing music lovers from infants to seniors. Their efforts carry from room to room, and that’s fine with MCMC leaders.
“We hear each other,” Brightman said. “We consider it the ‘happy hum’ of the music school. It’s just so part of the culture (for a music school) that you walk by and hear so many other instruments going on. I’ve had that be such a benefit in teaching. I’ve had my students stop, or come in and say, ‘I heard this really cool sounding song. Can I play it?’”
Area music lovers can get a free sampling of MCMC students’ talents every second Wednesday of the month, at 6 p.m. That’s when students perform short musical selections.
Having a bunch of students and teachers together in one place provides for a symphonic exchange of ideas. It has also led to musical partnerships.
 “It’s a positive environment to work in,” Brightman said.
Students can learn together in a variety of center programs that include group voice class, chorus, acoustic music ensemble, group piano for adults and jazz improvisation, to name a few.
No one is too young to develop an affinity for music, MCMC officials believe. With that in mind, MCMC offers a program called “Music Together,” designed for children from birth to kindergarten age. Participants and their parents or caregivers gather for bonding and play amid the sweet strains of music.
And the MCMC has been taking “Music Together” on the road, to two area child care centers — Mary Johnson in Middlebury and the New Leaf Montessori in Leicester.
“Sometimes they coo on pitch,” Brightman said of some of the youngest Music Together students.
The MCMC has had a relationship with the Aurora School for the past couple of years. The former private school — which closed this summer amid declining enrollments — used to send two piano students per semester to the MCMC. Aurora has since remade itself as a learning center, and MCMC teachers will now be able to do some instruction there. Specifically, the center will offer a Music Discoveries class for preschoolers and the “Allegro Chorus” for kids.
“It is suited to kids, has parking, and is close to the center of town,” Brightman said the Aurora campus.
The MCMC is also launching a new “Outreach Orchestra Project” at Bristol Elementary School. Open to children in grades 3 through 8 from the five-town area, the orchestra project will be led by bassist Ron White. Log on to mcmcvt.org for more details on all of the MCMS’s offerings.
Some of these younger students might become future MCMC learners, wanting to become proficient at an instrument simply for their own enjoyment. Others might choose a career in music, as is the case with several current MCMC enrollees.
Celebrated flutist Karen Kevra of Cornwall is among the teachers who make regular pilgrimages to the MCMS to help students get the most out of their musical talents. Kevra is the creative force behind the Capital City Concerts that annually offer top-notch classical music to audiences in Middlebury and Montpelier.
Kevra’s arrival in Middlebury coincided with the opening of the MCMC, and she’s pleased to see it flourish.
“The space works surprisingly well,” said Kevra, who teaches aspiring flutists. “It’s basically a cool, old house. The spaces are large, open and sunny. You get a sense that others are working on music with you and around you.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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