Since its opening in 1960, Caffe Lena has been a welcoming home to burgeoning songwriters and musicians, offering opportunities to create and play music for the world to enjoy.
Now the Saratoga Springs spot invites children ages 7 to 15 the opportunity to learn and play the fiddle, guitar, ukulele, banjo, mandolin, bass, percussion and more during 45-minute, 10-week sessions after school under the guidance of Oona Grady and James Gascoyne as part of its School of Music program.
Caffe Lena board member Kevin Bright, the Primetime Emmy Award-winning director whose credits include the smash television comedy series “Friends,” is credited with introducing the idea of the after-school program.
“Kevin really wanted to see young people playing acoustic instruments, singing folk songs to ensure that we were passing the legacy on to the next generation, and he very generously funded the startup,” School of Music Program Director Vivian Nesbitt said during an interview inside the renovated Caffe Lena.
Nesbitt relocated from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to join Caffe Lena.
“I have a background in curriculum development and strategic planning for small academies,” Nesbitt said. “I created an acting school in Albuquerque and moved from there.”
The School of Music has changed dramatically from its concept meetings to the current product offered at 47 Phila St.
“The original idea was that we had single-instrument classes, basically learning the song from scratch and then everyone would come together in a jam [session],” Nesbitt said.
That idea was scrapped, and lessons are now offered as a group with multiple instruments during each 45-minute session. The system of learning is different from the traditional viewing of sheet music and replicating the written dictation on the instrument of choice.
It’s all done by ear.
“Now your action varies with what the other instruments are saying as well, so that they can … they get that feeling of being part of something that’s a really interesting dynamic,” Nesbitt said.
In the intimate setting of just four students, the focus is on the music, not the mechanics.
“We want children listening to each other and thinking that if that is a G chord, I know how to do that on the ukulele, so I’m going to play that on the ukulele for a second,” Nesbitt said. “They find the tune on the ukulele and they can play that. What does that voice sound like with the group? There’s a lot of freedom in this environment.”
The role of the instructors includes more than timing and tuning when introducing new folk songs to a group.
“We try to make sure that children know where the songs come from,” Nesbitt said. “We hope in the future that children will know where the songs came from. We try to stick with the old songs with tried-and-true education in them.
“James [Gascoyne] will give intros about the songs, and we also ask them to do a little research and find out where the songs come from.”
The School of Music also prides itself on including students and families of all economic backgrounds.
“Our goal is to get instruments and lessons into the hands of anyone who wants it, regardless of economic status,” Nesbitt said. “If someone is finding that an instrument or the cost of joining the class is prohibited, we have a full scholarship — the Matt McCabe Scholarship Fund — that includes an instrument.”
McCabe died in January. He supported many individuals and organizations throughout the Saratoga Springs community, including donating instruments and equipment to Caffe Lena.
In his memory, the Matt McCabe Scholarship Fund was established as a way to remember his contributions and continue to share the memory of his generosity.
The after-school program was scheduled to kick off on March 10, 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic placed its invisible stronghold on New York state. Two days later, local school districts temporarily shut down.
“I have a lot of experience in doing stuff on Zoom, and also it is part of my personality that we can’t let these people down,” Nesbitt said. “They signed up for something, we have the technology, that’s not the issue. Everybody just needs to figure out how to do it.
“The first couple of classes were not pretty. Once everybody learned that you could use emojis it became really kind of hilarious and fun. It worked really well for some and it worked not at all for some, and that was absolutely fine.”
Currently, the Caffe Lena after-school program is offered as a 10-week course with small ensembles, four students in each class for more one-on-one time.
And instruction is not limited to youngsters. Caffe Lena offers four night and weekend classes that have been a rousing success, with instructors online from Sweden and banjo students participating from Wales, North Yorkshire, Australia and Austria.
Nesbitt has a vision for what the student School of Music program can become.
“My hope would be that Caffe Lena would be full from 10 o’clock in the morning until 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the afternoon with children’s programming,” Nesbitt said.
As always, the goal is to have young people introduced to and hopefully embrace the music that has made Caffe Lena the musical haven it has become known as.
“Our goal is to have children understand that it’s up to them to make music instead of just receiving it off of a phone, and that they can make those songs they can sing themselves and they can share something.
“We have one child who came when she was 5. She just wanted to be able to learn and play “Happy Birthday” so she could play it for her parents. That’s what she learned on the fiddle. It was rewarding for all of us.”
For information, visit www.caffelena.org.
Caffe Lena School of Music
Year Founded: 2020
Mission: Rooted in folk tradition, we learn and play in small, friendly groups, master a repertoire of enduring folk songs, and write some new classics too. With a focus on learning to play by ear rather than reading sheets of music, we hope playing music will become your go-to social pastime, because when you learn to play an instrument, you have a companion for life.
Areas Served: Saratoga County
Quote from director: “Our goal is to get instruments and lessons into the hands of anyone who wants it, regardless of economic status” — Vivian Nesbitt