Caffe Lena has been gathering community members and music lovers together for decades. In March, it will also start to gather students with its School of Music.
Students ranging from ages 7-12 will get together once a week for 10 weeks to learn guitar, ukulele or fiddle. Then, on Saturdays, the Caffe will hold a Family Jam that’s open to all ages, so parents and siblings can come and perform together.
The idea behind the program was jump-started by Kevin Bright, a board member of the Caffe who is one of the original executive producers of “Friends,” as well as a filmmaker and the founding director of Emerson College Los Angeles.
He started attending shows at the venue back in 1978 and became a board member in 2016 when he heard about the Caffe’s need to raise funds for its major renovation project.
“[Caffe Lena] represents part of an American tradition that I think is endangered. We’re taking music programs out of our school, we’re not taking pride in American history through music anymore. . . So I want to preserve that great American musical folk tradition, [that] storytelling tradition and pass it on to a new generation before they get ahold of a phone or an iPad,” Bright said.
While he contemplated starting the School of Music back in 2016, he announced it last year in a moment of inspiration before Doc Severinsen’s performance at Caffe Lena.
“I got him to play at the Caffe last year and while I was introducing him, I just thought, I love this place so much it’s time to do something special again. So I just announced it in that moment . . . and Sarah (Craig) just went with it,” Bright said.
Shortly after that, Craig, the executive director of Caffe Lena, brought in Vivian Nesbitt to run the school.
Nesbitt has had a wide-ranging acting career, playing in television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Longmire” as well as Saratoga Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” She’s also been involved with the folk music scene for many years and started coming to Caffe Lena 20 years ago. Nesbitt and her husband, who moved up to Saratoga Springs a little over a year ago from New Mexico, also produced a folk music-focused national radio show called “Art of the Song” at the Caffe.
Most importantly, at least in terms of the School of Music, she also has extensive experience running an acting school.
“I sold my school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about a little over two years ago and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss it,” Nesbitt said.
She was impressed by Bright’s idea and by how quickly the community responded to it. The morning registration opened up, students were already signing up and the first 10-week sessions soon filled up.
Part of the reason could be because of the program’s philosophy.
“I’m not a formal music school person. I could never survive in a formal music school. But I love sitting in a group and [learning] by [watching]. So there will be skill-building so that people know how to hold their instruments properly. But the focus is about community and representing what the Caffe has come to mean to so many. It’s a place to gather and share music,” Nesbitt said. Students will receive skill-building music lessons and will come together to play at the conclusion of each session.
Starting out, the School will offer guitar, ukulele and fiddle lessons from James Gascoyne, Pete Pashoukos and Una Grady, respectively.
“This is a highly scalable program and the plan is to make it big and add in banjo, mandolin, singing, who knows where this could go. Bringing in adult programming possibly in the future,” Nesbitt said.
Another goal of the program is to remove any financial barriers.
The classes are $70 for the 10-week course if paid in full and otherwise $10 per class. The Family Jam sessions will be a $5 suggested donation.
However, for anyone who wants to take the classes but can’t pay for the course, or for an instrument, Nesbitt said to contact the school anyway.
“If there’s a barrier to entry, like ‘Oh I would love to but I don’t have enough money for the class.’ Not a problem. ‘Oh, I would love to but I can’t afford an instrument.’ Not a problem. We’re actually having community members step forward in their capacities of service to say ‘Let me help you find instruments for these people.’ So instruments will be taken care of,” Nesbitt said.
Students that qualify for the School Lunch Program at Saratoga Schools will qualify for a free scholarship, that includes an instrument.
While the first 10-week course is filled, the second one will start up again in the summer.
Eventually, Bright is hoping to bring in a public performance aspect to the program as well.
“Once we get the program going and get our feet under us, we want to put on a show with our students and do a fundraiser through that show. We’re looking forward to that and we hope that parents will be performing with kids or brothers and sisters. That’s what I want to see is different combinations of friends and family getting together and having a great time playing music,” Bright said.
As the program grows, Nesbitt hopes to create internship opportunities for those at local high schools. Especially for upperclassmen who hope to go on to teach music, assisting students at the Caffe Lena School of Music would be the ideal opportunity.
The School of Music classes kick off on Tuesday, March 10 and Bright hopes that the sessions will bring students and families together to celebrate music.
“I just want everybody to realize how important music is in all of our lives, how therapeutic it is for people who are sick and how engaging it is and magical it is still for a young child. That’s what this program is about. It’s just bringing a little of that magic to life,” Bright said.