Some people just have that musical bug in them—that desire to sing and dance. For many kids, that can be satisfied in school and church choirs. But most schools don’t start their choirs until fourth or fifth grade, so where do the younger kids go for musical inspiration? And what about the kids who want more than their school or church choir?
Now, they all have a musical outlet in Woodbury, thanks to Lori Sager and her Aspire Music Academy, which started in September at Merrill Community Arts Center. “This is actually something that has been in the recesses of my brain for a long time, but it never came to something that could actually happen,” Sager says.
Sager, founder and director of the program, has been instructing choirs since she herself was a high school freshman, and has been offering private vocal and piano lessons through Miss Lori’s Studio. “The story really comes from the fact that I’ve been teaching and leading groups a long time, and I love it. It’s my favorite thing to do,” she says. She works with some of the local schools, “but I see where kids miss the link; how do you audition, how do you perform to a higher level vocally, and with the combination of vocals and dance, and just straight vocals as well.”
Growing up in Florida, Sager says she had wonderful opportunities throughout high school and college to perform, “and in a place like Woodbury, we have a community musical theater, but we don’t have choral performance like what I was used to in Florida growing up.” So the main inspiration behind the academy was simply to give kids a platform to learn. “I love for kids to perform and grow and to see them thrive,” she says.
But while she had the passion and the drive to get the academy going, she needed help. That’s where George May, whose children have been students of Sager’s, came in. “Because all of this heart is where I get lost,” Sager says.
“So George was gracious enough to say he’d help me put it together, and when we started brainstorming how we could make this happen, then it happened really quickly,” she says.
May’s kids have been students of Sager’s, but they’ve also sung in a church choir and worked together for Sager’s Woodbury Community Theater Stars on Broadway series, which was a huge production. For the last installment (the third) of the series, the cast consisted of nearly 145 people, 50 of whom were under the age of 10. “And you could do everything Disney that you ever imagined,” May says. “These kids show up and they have this great experience for two months and then the show is over, and they go back to school, they go back to sports, they go back to whatever they do and they turn around and say, ‘but I want to do that again.’”
The trouble is, there’s not another show for them to do. “Where do they go? What do they do? How do they get the experiences that they want?” May says. “And so really all Lori thought was, ‘Let’s give them what they want. It’ll be all year long and it won’t just be in the context of a show.’”
And that’s how Aspire Music Academy works. It’s a yearlong program, broken into fall, winter, spring and summer terms, with two tracks—recreational and performance—for kids from first grade through high school. Sager says they built the tracks similarly to dance programs. “My daughters were at Woodbury Dance Center and they were very involved; one was on the dance line and on the performance track, and my other daughter was on the recreational track.” Both loved the program, and Sager knew it would work for choirs, too “because there are kids who aspire to … perform the rest of their lives, and there are kids who just love to sing and dance with their friends,” she says. “So we wanted to make sure it was available to both.”
The recreational track starts with the Sparks group for grades 1-3, and features one rehearsal per week and one recital per term. The next group is grades 4-6, then 6-8 and 9-12, with the same number of rehearsals, but 1 to 2 recitals per term. The performance track starts with grades 6-8, with the option of choral or show choir focus, and then has the same options for grades 9-12.
The different options come from Sager wanting to make sure that every kid has a place to fit. “I think that’s part of what I love about what I do,” she says. “It gives a kid a place that’s safe, fun, where they can make friends and be a part of something that’s bigger than just them. And they just love that. They thrive on that.”
And, May adds, “The little kids—when is their first chance to do anything like this? There’s less available through school because whenever budgets get tight, the arts get slashed. The younger groups are getting fewer and fewer hours of school music instruction, and this helps fill that void.”
Adam Ryerse, a member of the East Ridge High School Bel Canto Choir and Chamber Choir, participates in Aspire’s Adrenaline, a mixed choir with a show choir focus for grades 9-12. He likes Aspire because “I get to sing and dance with people from several different schools,” he says. “The music that we do is upbeat and the people who run it make it fun.” His father, Mac Ryerse, sees the benefits as well. “It gives kids an extra opportunity beyond school to learn, practice their craft, and compete in a fun environment. The directors are very positive and provide lots of growth opportunities.”
While Aspire is the brainchild of Sager, and May helped make it happen, it would be hard to do without Merrill Community Arts Center. The partnership with Merrill helps Aspire and the art center.
Michelle Witte, executive director of Merrill, says the center has been wanting to do more classes for the arts and expand access, “but we also are a small nonprofit, which can make it difficult to hire staff.” With the Aspire program, they fulfill each other’s needs. “It was a good, obvious, partnership for us; we have the location and they have the staff.”
Aside from needs-based benefits, Aspire helps further Merrill’s goal. “Our mission is to build community by providing opportunities for interaction that make arts accessible to all,” Witte says. “What [Aspire is] doing is making arts available. For us, we don’t necessarily want to do all the programming. We like working with others in the community who have the expertise.”
And the Aspire model is great because of the term-based groups. “Kids are busy!” Witte says. “Maybe they want to do something but they can’t fit it in.” It makes it possible for them to join Aspire while basketball is out of season, for example.
“I’m of the opinion that life’s a little better when there’s some music in it, even if you’re not chasing it as your livelihood,” May says. “You get this stuff into peoples’ lives, they meet different people … it improves their lives overall.”
And that’s why Sager has been teaching music for all these years. “I like joy,” she says. “I thrive on happy joy. And I think that when we get together to do this, that’s what happens.”
Aspire Music Academy
Aspire Music Academy delivers instruction in age-group choirs, focused on choral singing and vocal performance. For more information on the recreational and performance track options, as well as upcoming performances, go to the website.
Kate Witte, a student at Woodbury High School, participates in the new Aspire Music Academy in Woodbury.
“The music that we do is upbeat and the people who run it make it fun.”