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Cover Story - Posted August 24, 2012 midnight
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photos by Jeff Harbin, Life of Riley Photography

Faces of the Future

Organizations instill passion for the arts in area’s youth

The future of the arts is dependent upon the youth.

This is a shared conviction among Amarillo’s multiple arts organizations that strive to cultivate a passion for the arts in youth who embody a perpetual spirit, orectic soul and an enduring dedication beyond their years.

See more faces of the future and behind-the-scenes photos from our cover shoot at the galleries at right!

Ranging from wee ones to adolescents, this group of youngsters can easily be deemed arts cognoscenti. They’re not just faces in the crowd; rather, every child’s face is a piece of the picture that forms the future of the arts in this city.

Amarillo Little Theatre, the Amarillo Opera, the Amarillo Symphony, the Amarillo Youth Choirs and Lone Star Ballet are just a handful of the organizations devoted to sustaining the arts in Amarillo, and their efforts to ensure this mission are evident in their educational and outreach programs geared toward children and young adults. Year after year, young ambassadors of the arts proliferate, a perennial testament to the commitment of the community.

“It’s amazing that Amarillo can support this number of youth programs,” says Sue White, executive director of the Amarillo Symphony. “There’s multiple theatre groups, there’s multiple dance companies. There’s many, many ways for students to become involved and experience the arts.”

This appreciation for the arts becomes an infinite receptacle for generations down the road to dip their toes into, whether destiny offers a career as a professional performer, a calling to financially support an arts institution as a benefactor, or even an unyielding love that moves an audience member to become an advocate for the arts throughout their life.

“When students study, you’re making an investment, you’re teaching a life lesson,” says Crystal Bertrand, academy director of Lone Star Ballet, which offers dance classes to 500 students at five satellite branches throughout the Panhandle in addition to the Amarillo studio.

“And therefore those students grow up to learn quality of life, which filters and circles back into our communities. My philosophy is if we can give them an appreciation of the art form, they can enhance that quality of life in somebody else.”

Crystal is one of the many proofs of this filter. Dancing with LSB for nine years, Crystal performed as a professional dancer before returning to Amarillo and embracing a role in the arts community.

Jill Bradford, a violist with the Amarillo Symphony and conductor of two of the youth orchestras, the Amarillo Youth Philharmonic and Amarillo Youth Sinfonia, began her string career as a child, and played in the symphony when she was a high school student when a youth orchestra did not exist.

“It was so important to me to have that,” says the Austin Middle School orchestra director. “That was where I belonged every week when I was growing up… I’m just hoping there’s a spark in some kid that I teach along the way who will be the next person that wants to give back.”

Jill says it is pertinent that arts organizations in Amarillo continue to lure its locally bred artists, like herself, back into the community. The cycle must continue in order for the Amarillo Symphony to remain just that: “We want to be the Amarillo Symphony, not the Symphony in Amarillo,” she says, this being her eighth season with the orchestra. “The symphony is made up of Amarillo people.”

Jason Crespin, director of the Amarillo Little Theatre Academy, is another product of the Amarillo arts educational programs. Beginning his seventh season with ALT and sixth year as academy director, Jason walked through the doors of ALT at the age of 15, landing a role in “West Side Story.” He graduated from the academy three years later and continued to volunteer throughout college at West Texas A&M University.

The ALT Academy caters to more than 300 children ages 3 to 18, all of whom participate in three annual productions, including at least one musical and one play. ALT offers four to five camps a year, including a minimum of two theatre camps and a dance camp.

Jason organized ALT’s first Glee Camp, which just hit its third year, for eighth to 12th-grade students during the summer. For kindergarten through fourth grade, ALT offers Stories to Stage, which allows kids to bring familiar childhood stories to life at the Adventure Space. For fifth through seventh grades, Camp Broadway is designed for children who want to participate in a musical theatre camp.

Like Jason, or as the kids endearingly call him, Mr. Jason, the students of the ALT Academy have found a home and family where they can flourish. “The kids now in the academy are getting that inspiration and they’re getting that passion for the arts that I had. It’s so inspiring to see kids who either go off and pursue theatre arts or musical theatre in college or just have that light bulb go on and they go see other productions and go see Broadway,” Jason says, snapping his fingers as if a bulb sparked an electric current. “They’re noticing lighting; they’re noticing choreography and they’re noticing other aspects they didn’t notice before until they got involved with ALT.”

The arts also provides a haven for children who want to stand up on stage, speak to a crowd, learn a dance routine and demonstrate what they’ve learned to an audience of loved ones and strangers alike. If a child finds himself the lone cello player or tap dancer at school, there’s a kindred spirit in one of the many entities waiting to welcome him with open arms and an open mind. The arts are also a place where children can form bonds with peers who share their passions and interests as well as fears and insecurities.

“The arts is the safest place to be in the sense that no matter what kind of day you’re having, no matter what things are going on in your life, you have a script in your hand or you’re listening to music or you get on stage, and you get to develop a whole new character and you get to leave yourself,” Jason explains, a vivacity shining in his eyes.

For the past five years, Canyon High School senior Chesley Hedger has found an alcove in ALT, a place where she can find fellowship with other kids who take pleasure in theatre.

“Most theatre kids are a little bit different. We’re a little bit quirky,” the 17-year-old gleefully giggles. “No matter if we get made fun of at school, we know we can come here and everybody likes everybody. These are my best friends.”

In the time Jason has directed the academy, he has seen a flood of children yearning to become a part of the ALT family, he says. When ALT staged “A Little Princess” in 2007, only 35 students auditioned. For this past season’s “James and the Giant Peach,” more than 200 children tried out for the popular children’s story. This season’s “Disney’s Little Mermaid, Junior” will certainly surpass that number, and five young students will step on stage for the premiere of the classic “Les Misérables” this month.

Entering its 20th season, ALT Academy has presented its students’ parents the opportunity to enter the realm of the arts in Amarillo, an experience they may have not delved into before, but now, it has become an integral part of their lives.

“We’re not only training the future of our talent, but we’re also training some of those parents to appreciate the arts even more,” Jason manifests, the love for his job and pride of his students exuding from his every word. “Hopefully, I’ll be around for all of this, to see some of these kids that are so inspired by the theatre, so inspired by the arts, to see them become parents and adults and see them giving back to their community with the arts and teach their children how important the arts are as well.”

While the arts organizations in Amarillo are indeed separate entities, students of the arts often overlap. Jason works closely with Linda Hughes, the director of production for the Amarillo Opera and founder of ARTS: An Alternative, a summer youth program established in the 1990s that encourages children of all social, economic and ethnic backgrounds to participate in an ensemble, gratis.

“We’ve had kids train at the masters program of the Amarillo Opera; we have kids that have been in Lone Star Ballet and all the venues in Amarillo,” Jason exclaims. “We love that they’re doing what they love… Just to see them in other venues or hear about how they got the school lead or the solo they wanted in choir. It just makes us so much prouder.

We support them in whatever they’re in, even if it’s not with us, as long as they’re doing something positive with their time.”

With the Amarillo Opera for eight years after being the ALT Academy director for five years, Linda became immersed in the arts as child when her grandmother introduced her to the stage at age 7. The children in Amarillo continue to amaze Linda. Their extraordinary talent is overwhelming she says, and she meets promising young performers every day. In addition to children’s unwavering commitment, dedication and admirable work ethic, Linda also attributes their undeniable talent to the community organizations.

“A lot of it has to do with the quality of training combined with the passion of the kid,” she states. “And the fact we have a major professional ballet company, a major professional symphony, an opera that’s a professional company – those places give our kids the place to perform.”

ARTS: An Alternative, which is the initial program for young people wishing to dive into the arts, is overseen by interns who teach children theatre and dance for one week, leading to a live performance. Performed at five venues across town every summer, the outreach program encourages children from every part of town and background to give arts a chance.

Lizzi McCabe, the education coordinator for Arts : An Alternative, who served as an intern for the program in 2011, says it not only fuels children with natural performing abilities, but it also ignites an interest in introverted, timid children who may have never watched a play before. At least 230 children ages 5 to 12 become involved with the opera during the summer.

"The kids surprise themselves and you get to see children do things that they never thought they'd be able to do or consider doing in the first place," Lizzi declares. "Some are naturals and you give them a line and they are automatically acting, but sometimes you see a child on Monday and Tuesday that's very closed and they have their shell on and don?t want to come out of it. And by the time Friday rolls around, they are singing loudly, they are moving; they're acting."

After ARTS : An Alternative comes Sunday Sessions, an audition-based class that Linda describes as "an intensive, conversational approach to teaching acting." From there, children can audition for Summer Youth Musical, this past summer?s performance being "Seussical: The Musical" and next summer the children will take on "The Wizard of Oz." Children then have the opportunity to become interns and enter the Artists in Training program, providing students with a performance possibility with an ensemble in the Amarillo Opera. While local schools offer arts education classes, these arts organizations provide students a step deeper into this world.

"They learn what it takes to become an artist and to become a professional, which is key to their success, this day and age, because you have to be a triple threat," says Linda, who founded the showcase-based Amarillo College Conservatory Theatre in May 2011.

This past season, children of the opera performed in two productions, "La Boheme" and "La Perichole" in addition to the youth musical. Kids can also join the children?s chorus for the opera's educational programs, "Lift Every Voice" and "Musica Variada."

"Without arts education, we won?t have the supporters and the people who appreciate opera," says Lizzi, who changed her major at WTAMU from performance to a double major in performance and music education because of her work with kids. "Without trying to show kids why opera and the arts is so important now, we won't have it in the future. We are trying to garner love and appreciation for a culture and the myriad number of things opera can do for somebody and the love they can get from it."

Kapriz Aguilera just stepped foot into the opera?s summer program. The dynamic 5-year-old loves all kinds of music, says her mother Rebecca, the opera?s company manager who entered the opera's
programs as a youth mentor at the age of 15.

"She's really enjoyed it. She's had a lot of fun. She'd come home singing their songs and dancing their dances, learning her lines. I just think this is great for her, to get started now because she's so little. I've been bringing her since she?s been in my belly," Rebecca says of Kapriz, a warm smile spreading across her face.

Apparent in its enthusiasm for working with kids, a solid production is not the Amarillo Opera's only priority; that is shared with a goal to offer strong educational and outreach programs for youth.

"It needs to be on the same level, if not higher, than the performance aspect," Lizzi begins. "We put on three or four operas a year. [Executive Director David O'Dell] wants education to be right up there so we have programs like ARTS: An Alternative all year long."

The Amarillo Symphony also reaches out to children throughout the area. In two days, 6,000 children witness their first orchestra performance through KinderKonzerts. String Family sends a group of symphony musicians to third-grade classrooms throughout AISD and CISD, exposing these students at a young age.

"Our primary focus is to build programs that help create future musicians so really our emphasis is supporting our youth orchestras and through those five ensembles we really focus on developing musicians that can perform," Sue details. "Our second area of education is creating those who are our future listeners and we do that through our education concerts and ensemble visits in the schools."

The arts not only teach lessons in theatre, music, dance and voice, but they also teach lessons in life. Students experience first-hand what it is like to work closely with a group. These kids encounter individuals with every imaginable personality, ethnicity and lifestyle. Self-control, self-worth and assertiveness are all attributes these kids gain.

“You really have to cooperate with other people and you have to concentrate,” says 11-year-old Sonia Chen, a violinist in the Amarillo Youth Symphony. “Even if you disagree, you have to listen to the conductor. You have to accept what you can’t change.”

Participating in a production, rehearsing on a stage day after day, hour after hour, the arts become more than a place for students to show off their skills. At ALT, it’s their responsibility to keep things organized and presentable and they understand that, Jason says. If new kids come along, the veterans make sure to let them know to take the trash out and that beverages aren’t allowed in the theatre. They want to keep their home pristine for forthcoming actors and thespians who will occupy the stage and seats.

The arts also give people a role to play, providing an outlet for emotions, and a place for frustrations and heartaches to take shape in a constructive force.

“It teaches us how to live,” Linda enthusiastically explains. “It teaches us about the human being and we learn that through research for the roles we play. It’s important we teach our kids, through theatre, how to live in this world. You have to be the storytellers – you’re a messenger.”

Vicki McLean, LSB’s director of dance, says children learn how to take a chance when they pursue the arts, and that takes guts and grace.

“That’s something you have to do in the arts,” says Vicki, who took her first ballet class at the age of 3. “No matter if it’s dance or opera or symphony, you have to have the courage to risk it. That’s tough.”

In its 28th season, the Amarillo Youth Orchestras, which consists of the Preparatory Strings, Amarillo Youth Sinfonia, Amarillo Youth Philharmonic, Amarillo Youth Symphony and Amarillo Chamber Players, serves 200 children ages 7 to 18.

“Beyond their music instruction and what they receive in youth orchestra training, they receive discipline and they know how to prioritize and make their schedules work,” says Sue, who became the head of the symphony in 2011. “They know that there is more to their existence than going to school. We teach them that there’s something more.”

Associating with the arts also strengthens brain activity and stimulates the mind, an added bonus the Amarillo Youth Choirs knows all about. At AYC, 225 students ages 8 to 14 from around the Panhandle participate in three boys and three girls choirs: Girl Preparatory, Boy Preparatory, Girl Concert, Boy Concert, Girl Choir’s “Pizazz” and Boy Choir’s “Spotlight.”

In addition to its celebration of classical music, the AYC also offers travel opportunities for its members through tours. The kids have flown all over the world to perform, from Little Rock and New York City to Austria and Italy. In the spring, the Amarillo Boy Concert Choir will fly to Honolulu, Hawaii.

“I wanted to provide an opportunity for young kids to get together and sing music of value… lasting music, music that moves kids’ souls, music that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” says Jerry Perales, artistic director for 17 years. “I think they like the structure, the self-discipline. They want to be in a program simply because they enjoy singing. They don’t just do it for the travel,” he chuckles.

Jerry doesn’t hesitate to emphasize the fundamental role music plays in everyone’s lives, a truth the choir members fully understand. If music ceased to exist, people would turn on their car radio and not hear melodic tunes or energetic beats, but the mundane voices of political pundits bantering on air. In a film, music rouses emotions, a single tune determining a tingling of suspense or a lyric triggering a sense of passion.

“You go to a movie, you watch Jaws, there’s no ‘bum, bum bum,’ no music,” Jerry conveys. “All you have is a stupid fish in the water. [The kids] understand the relationship of what music provides for society and for entertainment.”

AYC also notes its clever choir members, confirmed by their national test scores, like the SAT, Jerry says. Reading and learning music incorporates math skills, language studies, including foreign language
and history. “It’s an academic class. It’s not just a thrill,” he asserts.

With AYC for one year, Valarie Miles has already witnessed the benefits of music. “It’s a way to express yourself,” the poised 10-year-old states, her posture impeccable. “It’s a way for children to learn how to sing and read music. It is proven that if you do sing or read music that you’re smarter.”

Bryan Falke, a freshman at Amarillo High School, has participated in the boys choir for five years and intends to audition for the AHS choir.

“It’s just so much fun,” he says with a buoyant smile. “Mr. P. always says we’re crazy for staying with him for so long, but it’s totally worth it… It just makes you feel good because music has a big impact on emotions and the attitude and the way you grow up.”

This past season, the boys performed with the Amarillo Master Chorale and a small chamber orchestra to perform Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives” in October 2011. The girls performed with the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra and the Amarillo Master Chorale, Amarillo College Concert Choir and West Texas A&M Concert Choir.

“The arts contribute to our society and to our culture,” says executive director Katrina Perales as she gestures toward her husband, Jerry. “The arts complete a community and so by providing arts education to children, we are continuing that tradition of establishing our culture here in the Texas Panhandle and who we are as a people.”

A common thread that ties the arts organizations together is their determination to accept all children, to never turn any child away who is earnest about learning. If a family does not have the resources or ability to continue a child’s arts education, the arts organization steps in, whether it’s through a scholarship or community support. Sue recounts how a mother of a youth orchestra student had recently fallen upon financial and personal hardship, unable to pay tuition for her daughter’s orchestra sessions. But the symphony intervened because fostering children who crave the arts is one of its ideals.

“Through music she is uplifted,” Sue says of the student. “She comes to youth symphony and through the music she is uplifted and in turn her entire family is. Even if you only have one story like that, that’s one of the reasons we do this, to change lives.”

LSB takes their performances of “The Nutcracker” and “Rainforest: A Children’s Odyssey” to area schools, incorporating dance with classroom curriculum such as math, English and reading.

“We’re always trying to go somewhere to expand the art and knowledge of it, and try to develop maybe not a dancer, but a new artist or a new audience member that falls in love with the art,” Crystal says.

LSB’s Petite Feet is a program dear to Crystal’s heart. Ballet instructors visit local day cares and teach 2-to 5-year-olds about creative movement and storytelling. LSB also works with community organizations, such as the Maverick Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA.

At the Maverick, some of the children have never received instruction or a foundation in dance, and LSB wants to be there to grant that. Working with the YMCA, LSB offers tours of the dance studio to children. Everybody, no matter their skill level or experience is welcome. Vicki and Crystal were both given the opportunity to share the arts as children, and they want to reciprocate that gift.

“It’s all about giving and our purpose is to share those moments and to give back to the community what was once given to us,” Vicki offers. “We want our students to experience what we experienced when we were their age,” Crystal concludes.

It seems the arts organizations are busting at the seams with eager children hungry to become involved with the arts. Each year, the youth arts organizations become more popular and publicized, all thanks to the children currently enrolled. They were welcomed into the system, and in turn, they want to welcome more into this microcosm.

For a city with a population not yet more than 200,000, Amarillo’s arts support system is exceptional and is a huge draw for children. The level of skill children are exposed to at a young age and the professional opportunities that await them are a direct result of the community’s interest in the arts.

“This program has given me and so many other kids an opportunity to play at a much higher level of repertoire,” says Noah Littlejohn, a bassist, assistant principal cellist and Youth Sinfonia coach who rose through the ranks of the Amarillo Symphony. “You get the opportunity to work with teachers who are skilled in their own instruments.”

The happiness and satisfaction these children exude is not only apparent through smiles and laughter. Their body language is open, their demeanor is friendly, their voices are clear and their energy is contagious. Their pride has materialized into something tangible, and it’s thrilling to witness such an ardor in young people. Amarillo is a cultural oasis, as Jill puts it, and each coming generation’s obligation is to make sure that oasis continues to flow, to seep into our youth, to never recede or dry up.

“People did it for them,” Jason affirms, lacing his fingers. “They always have to give back to the next generation that’s coming. They were inspired by somebody. If they don’t come back and do that, then the kids who are coming up, who are they going to have to look up to?”

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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