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Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

SISTERS - The look on Kathy Mattea's face as she listened to Benji Nagel sing said everything, her easy smile conveying encouragement, interest, curiosity.

Mattea, a country singing pro with a couple of Grammy awards on her shelf, listened to Nagel, a 17-year-old aspiring musician, in the Sisters High School choir room. On the first Thursday in April, she could have been anywhere, but she'd asked to come to Sisters to spend a day working with students.

Sisters was happy to oblige.

It turns out that the little town in the high desert has a unique pipeline to Nashville. Mattea has visited before. And so have Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Lee Ann Womack and a dozen other musical greats. Last February, Lyle Lovett turned up for a performance in the cozy Sisters High School auditorium. Not bad for a town of 1,500 people.

The musicians have performed there as part of a nine-year series of benefit concerts organized by the Sisters Schools Foundation that - all told - have netted half a million dollars for the three-school district.

In years when school budgets across the state have been shrinking, Sisters schools have been able to maintain key programs because of the money raised from the concerts, school district Superintendent Ted Thonstad said.

"It funds things there'd be no way for us to fund without it," he said. Thonstad came to town two years ago from Condon, an Eastern Oregon district that had to cut its music and arts programs as state revenues plummeted and enrollment declined.

Sisters has been able to stave off the worst of such cuts. The money raised from the nonprofit foundation gets divided among the elementary, middle and high schools. This year, $54,000 has been distributed. The elementary school bought musical instruments and math and reading program materials, and funded student field trips with its share. The middle school purchased media lab computers, art and science lab supplies, even a heating system for the school greenhouse. The high school used its portion to buy foreign language computer programs, science computer lab upgrades, musical instruments and a digital movie camera.

The support averages $55,000 a year, and represents just half a percent of the district's annual $9.8 million annual budget, but it provides crucial help for some students, Thonstad said.

Not all children learn the same way, and not all kids are motivated by the same things.

"Some of us learn through music and some of us learn through art," he said. "If we don't want to leave any kids behind, we have to have all of those programs."

Still, the money may not be the best thing about the concert series. In addition to staging a show, performers also agree to do one number with students.

Which is why elementary-age youngsters have sung with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, middle-schoolers have backed up Womack and the high school jazz band received some tips from Lovett before they opened his Februrary show.

Students also work on the production crew, setting up the lights and sound systems. They get to learn from the pros who travel with the bands.

"Lyle Lovett's lighting guy came and looked at what the kids did and said, `This is amazing. You've got this right.' ' Thonstad said.

There's nothing like hands-on experience as a teaching method. "I think it's the way we learn best," he said.

Which brings us back to the choir room and Kathy Mattea. For the past couple of years, Mattea has found herself drawn to teaching and has worked with college students in master-class settings. When her latest round of concerts brought her back to Oregon, she called the Sisters Schools Foundation folks and offered to spend a day with students.

"We liked the school so much, we asked if they'd like us to come back," she said. Mattea brought her husband, Grammy-winning songwriter Jon Vezner, and lead guitarist Bill Cooley with her.

She and Vezner sat in with choir students, advising them on ways to work on their vocals, and she confessed to them that as a youngster, she wasn't exactly a star.

The first time she heard her voice recorded, "I sounded like crap," she said. Her love of music pushed her to study, to practice and to improve. Despite her success, she still works with a voice teacher, she said.

In another session with students, she described the importance of being open to all kinds of music and experiences.

"I came into music from the folk tradition, sitting around with guys in a circle and church folk groups. I was like a sponge. This is your time to be a sponge," she said.

While Cooley spent a couple of hours with the high school jazz band - "a smokin' jazz session," according to student guitarist Nagel - Mattea and Vezner shared life lessons in the choir room.

Their message:

Be patient.

It's OK to be imperfect.

Trust the inner voice that whispers when you're on the right track.

Help each other.

Be kind.

Following your heart isn't always easy and it isn't always fun, but it can be rewarding.

In the afternoon, Mattea, Vezner and Cooley sat down with half a dozen budding songwriters for a critique session. It could have been a tough-love "American Idol" type experience, but the Nashville veterans had a more generous agenda as they listened to the students perform an array of wistful, romantic and heartfelt songs.

"This is the part of learning not to judge yourself," Mattea said when one young singer had a moment of stage fright.

"Wow. I'd love to get my hooks into that as a producer," Vezner said at the conclusion of a particularly haunting melody.

"Do you ever have music in you," said Cooley to a student with a melodic and soulful voice.

In the back of the choir rehearsal room, parents Jeri Fouts and Susan Arends watched the workshop unfold like happy co-conspirators. While the Sisters Schools Foundation is the product of many willing volunteers, it's Fouts and Arends who breathed life into the concert series.

It began in 1996, when parents met to discuss looming budget cuts and what might be done to ease the impact. While some parents suggested the tried and true fund-raising standards - bake sales and bingo - Fouts had something else in mind.

The wife of sports commentator and former football star Dan Fouts, Jeri had worked for years as a concert promoter before the family moved to Sisters in 1993. With her Nashville connections, she was confident a benefit concert series would give the fledgling group more bang for its buck. Arends, who owns a travel agency, stepped up to handle the logistics and pretty soon the parents had become a formal nonprofit foundation with a plan.

"Jeri and Susan made it happen," Thonstad said. "But there's a lot of volunteers. It's really a community effort and that's what makes it so great."

Putting on a concert is complicated, said Fouts, with details and deadlines. In the beginning, they arranged three concerts each year, building the shows around performers' schedules. Womack, for example, came the night after her 2001 Grammy win and the day before she was due to perform for the president at the White House.

Because the concerts were well-organized and successful, several artists have returned over the years. John Hiatt, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Kim Carnes and Karla Bonoff have all come back for repeat performances.

Their travel expenses are covered and they receive a "credit card" with a list of Sisters businesses that will serve them for free.

The foundation has cut back the concerts to two a year, to ease the work load, Fouts said. And they find that performers now are actually helping them recruit.

Lyle Lovett's drummer, Russ Kunkel, told Fouts he'd put in a good word with singer-songwriter Carole King, who he'll be performing with this year, she said.

It's a gratifying sign of the the foundation's success, but Fouts also gets a kick out of seeing the impact on students such as Nagel, who plans to study music at Portland State University after he graduates.

He's already got some impressive credits, aside from performing in the jazz band. Because of the concert series, he has sung with John Hiatt and opened for Lovett. Being critiqued by Mattea, Vezner and Cooley was icing on the cake, he said.

"I appreciated it and it means a lot coming from them. You could tell they were being honest," he said.

They were also being role models, said Shasta Hyland, a 16-year-old student who sang with Mattea when she performed in Sisters in 2004.

"It helps a lot of us realize we can go somewhere with our talents," she said.


Country music star Kathy Mattea and her singer-songwriter husband, Jon Vezner, talk to music students at Sisters High School. Mattea has visited Sisters before as part of a series of benefit concerts to raise money for the school district. Mattea performs as part of a day she spent working with music students at Sisters High School. "Lyle Lovett's lighting guy came and looked at what the kids did and said, `This is amazing. You've got this right.' ' - TED THONSTAD, SISTERS SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT Thomas Boyd / The Register-Guard Bold text and this is light text Kathy Mattea glances at her husband, Jon Vezner, during a session with students. The couple offered advice to young musicians and songwriters. "I came into music from the folk tradition, sitting around with guys in a circle and church folk groups. I was like a sponge. This is your time to be a sponge," Mattea told Sisters High School students. Thomas Boyd / The Register-Guard
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Title Annotation:Schools; Music icons including Kathy Mattea help a small town raise big bucks for schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 16, 2006
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