Detroit, Michigan. Nashville, Tennessee. New Orleans, Louisiana. Olympia, Seattle and … Union, Washington? Pretty little Union in Mason County, with its population of only 631, may someday be listed among the great American wellsprings of music. If and when that happens, the primary reason will be Great Bend Center for Music, founded by general director Matthew Melendez.
Hailing from New York by way of Portland, Oregon, Melendez arrived in Union with a master’s degree in vocal performance and pedagogy and a doctorate in choral conducting. He’s a trained sociologist who’s conducted at Carnegie Hall, and was Mason County’s citizen of the year for 2012. To really fire him up, though, ask Melendez about the educational value of music. “Nationally,” he says, “we used to prioritize music as a foundational element of our educational program.” He points to a TEDxCanberra Talk by educator Anita Collins about music’s value as an educational catalyst, including evidence, Melendez says, of what “not just music listening, but music playing does in your brain, and what it literally does is it primes the pump for learning. Music participation is the only thing that activates every center in the brain simultaneously, so it’s an ideal warmup. It’s a neurological warm-up rather than a muscular warm-up, but it’s the same concept.” In other words, creating music fully energizes our brains and prepares us to learn.
By way of disclosure, Monica Carvajal-Beben, this writer’s sister, is on the board of Great Bend Music, and it was she who encouraged us to shine a spotlight once again on Great Bend Center for Music. It deserves that. At the rate Great Bend is growing, it’ll soon earn acclaim from far outside Union. “My staff is scattered across three time zones,” Melendez explains. “We have a teacher in Boston, a teacher in Detroit, a teacher in Wisconsin and two teachers here in Mason County.” Similarly, students can log into Great Bend classes from anywhere. One student “who lives in Bothell,” he remembers, “had no idea until the night before this class that she was physically so far away from the rest of the students … She comes to class and she’s literally weeping … We filled the whole rest of the half hour. That’s all we were doing is talking about that as a group, talking about what a difference it did make and what a difference it didn’t make” in the process and in how students interacted with fellow musicians. “Now,” says Melendez, “we have families in all four U.S. time zones, from here to South Dakota. We even have a family living in Jamaica right now. … It’s not inhibiting the sense of community at all.”
Community is the cornerstone of Melendez’s approach to music and teaching, in person or online. He believes music slips past ideology, identity politics and other distancing factors to help people meet on common ground. Thanks in large part to forward-thinkers at Hood Canal Communications and the high-speed internet service that company enabled in Union, Great Bend’s community has thrived throughout the pandemic. “All families, not just economically privileged families,” says Melendez, “all families pretty much have access to some sort of smart device, and we’ve been using them as pacifiers now for the better part of the last 10 years at least. So these kids — We have a couple 19-, 20-month-olds who are actively participating in class, and focused attention for 30 minutes, five days a week? Not a problem, where if we were physically in a room together, we would be spending the first two months, at least, of being in that class or that rehearsal just learning how to sit still. … The Zoom environment not only hooks into skills they already have, it automatically engages a level of focus … We get all the advantages of when we were physically together, with all these tools and tricks.”
Melendez sees music as “an equalizer among kids of different cultural and economic backgrounds. I love that our Mason County kids are in class every day with Muslim kids from Pennsylvania and Black kids from Boston and Louisiana and Chicago, and all of that is just there in the mix so it’s so much more of a robust environment. Kids, though, they’re not missing anything. They’re picking up on everything, but it’s just beautiful, these relationships that are getting built in their musically informed environment.”
Great Bend offers music classes for “Sound Scholars” aged 2 and up, including “Otter Pod” for preschoolers, “Seal Pod” for kindergarteners and first-graders and “Porpoise Pod” for kids in second and third grade. All these weekday classes are based on El Sistema, a Venezuelan movement that ties music education to community development, and all of them are utterly free. If a kid can clap hands or smack a drum, he or she can begin learning beat, rhythm and ear training through what feels like fun and games among friends near and far. Older kids have access to classes from podcasting and digital production to composition for video game soundtracks. The spring session will once again welcome kids and parents alike to a popular, Friday-afternoon stress-buster called “Family Ukelele.” “It’s our first intergenerational Zoom class, and I had no idea how much fun it was going to be,” enthuses Melendez.
“In this country,” he adds, “we typically give a child an instrument in fourth or fifth grade, and at the same time that we’re expecting them to deal with all of the kinesthetic and physical discomfort of holding an instrument, developing your embrochure, learning to manage your breath, learning to deal with the pain of developing calluses, all of that, we’re also throwing at them, ‘Here’s a bunch of Italian terms you need to know, and here’s how you need to count, and here’s what a staff is, and here’s what pitch means, and count this rhythm’ — which is crazy! And all of that literacy and vocabulary, we can give that at 16 months.” Melendez envisions a post-pandemic future in which “when I’m getting them in a real ensemble rehearsal in fourth and fifth grade, they have those skills already.”
Now imagine those advanced Great Bend students a few years from now as young adults. Imagine the songs they’ll write and the expansion of Great Bend’s community from state to state. It’s a lofty vision that’s already coming true. “We just opened registration for the spring term,” notes Melendez. “I’d love to see some enrollment in our classes from Thurston County families.” In the meantime, the organization also seeks responsible performance venues in Thurston County. Melendez is well aware of epidemiological concerns around public singing, and he knows firsthand how controversial antiviral precautions can be in rural communities. Luckily for Olympians, masking and vaccination are rapidly becoming the norm here, which might soon allow Great Bend’s community of students to sing and play where all can hear.
Photo credits: Great Bend Center for Music.
Great Bend Center for Music
Full class schedule at greatbendmusic.org/events-and-ensembles/
Online from Union
Free – $95