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Road to world-class music runs west

It's a long way from the band room at the Dawson-Boyd High School to the big city stages where some of the world's best musicians perform.

That's why for as long as anyone can remember, the school has been bringing some of the world's best musicians to the band room.

The latest to make the trek west were the members of the Artaria String Quartet of St. Paul. Along with offering a public performance on Friday evening, the musicians devoted three days over the last three months to working with four quartets of senior high students.

No different than those who preceded them -- jazz musicians Maynard Ferguson and George Mauer among the more recent -- they found the trip to Dawson well worth the making.

"What wasn't fun?'' answered Artaria violinist Ray Shows rhetorically when asked what they most enjoyed about working with the students.

"The music was fabulous,'' fellow violinist Nancy Oliveros quickly added. "And the students were like sponges.''

The 16 students who were so quick to learn alongside the nationally recognized string quartet had auditioned for this opportunity. There was more interest than available spots, according to Jeannette Lund, orchestra director at the school.

Although the K-12 school has an enrollment of just over 500 students, there is no shortage of enthusiasm when it comes to music, she said. Well over 70 percent of the students are enrolled in the school's music programs, which includes choir, orchestra and band offerings.

It's all part of a tradition here, said Kevin Szumal, band director. The school day is purposely divided into eight periods to better accommodate the music program. It allows for scheduling the three music programs in the middle of the day, and preventing the scheduling conflicts that would otherwise keep some busy students from participating in all of the music programs.

The practice of bringing professional musicians to the school is a long standing tradition too, according to Melanie Benson, chorus director. The community has long recognized that very few of its students are going to have opportunities to attend performances by accomplished musicians in large city venues.

By the same measure, the community has recognized how important music can be to a child's education. There is a great deal of research showing that students who study music have an advantage when it comes to learning other subjects, said Szumal.

"Music is for life,'' added Benson.

For the last eight years, the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association has been responsible for bringing musicians to the stage of the school's Memorial Auditorium and, when possible, to the band and choir rooms.

The association's director, Luanne Fondell, said she is sometimes surprised by how well things can work out. When Maynard Ferguson came to town, he led his entire band into the band room. The professional musicians worked one-on-one with Szumal's students.

To make things like that possible, it takes a lot of community support and grant funding, said Fondell.

Generosity and connections help too.

Two-years ago, world-famous violinist Midori and pianist Robert McDonald performed in Dawson. The event was an unqualified success, said Fondell.

The two musicians performed at a reduced cost so the Arts Association could set aside funds to offer another public program and provide high school string students with another opportunity to learn.

The association turned to Dawson-Boyd alumna Claire Givens for ideas on what kind of opportunity to offer. She owns Claire Givens Violins in Minneapolis.

She recommended Artaria, and not just because of the critical acclaim the quarter has earned for its music. The four musicians also offer educational outreach programs and operate a year-round Chamber Music School.

The four musicians said they discovered that yes indeed, the road between Dawson and St. Paul can be long, but well worth the taking. They said they especially appreciated how friendly the students were, and were impressed by how well they mastered the works. "These were very, very challenging pieces,'' said Shows.

It's a challenge the students took on while juggling very busy schedules, noted Lund. The school's orchestra director pointed out that many of the students are also involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities. On the day of the performance, a few of them even arrived late for the final lessons because they were in Willmar competing in a Future Farmers of America event.

The four student quartets performed their works before Artaria took the stage last Friday, and then took their own seats in the auditorium to watch if their teachers got it right.