By Susan Goracke
PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble had been rehearsing the upbeat pop tune “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic for several minutes. When it was time for her solo, Priscilla Ah Yek burst in with her clear high soprano voice. It was Priscilla’s second solo in the nine months she has been with PHAME, a Portland nonprofit organization offering arts education as well as performance and socializing opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities.
On this Tuesday afternoon in October, the ensemble — PHAME’s elite performance-based class requiring an audition — was rehearsing a medley of songs to perform at the Sparkle Gala, PHAME’s annual fundraiser set in early November. After dissecting several sections of the piece with each of the three soloists, Music Director Matthew Gailey asked the group to go through the song again. This time Priscilla nailed her part and beamed.
It was clear from her focused attention on Gailey’s instructions that 18-year-old Priscilla takes music seriously. With her natural ability and enthusiasm for singing, music has been a major interest, as well as the fun factor, in Priscilla’s life since she began entertaining her family by singing nursery rhymes as a youngster. A few years later, she could sing all the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” from the “Sound of Music.” From eighth grade until she left high school last year, Priscilla sang in school choirs, a highlight of her days in the public school system.
Several years ago, Priscilla’s mother, Kristen Ah Yek, saw a video of a PHAME performance and immediately knew the program was perfect for Priscilla. But Ah Yek had to wait to sign up her daughter until January 2014, when Priscilla was old enough. Since then, Priscilla has thrived in the program. She auditioned for and was accepted into PHAME’s Chamber Ensemble, plus she takes an iPad-based class called Music in Motion.
“I like to sing,” Priscilla says hesitantly, overcoming her shyness in front of a stranger. “I’ve found out with PHAME, I like Rock ‘N Roll. It’s my favorite.” Priscilla, who lives at home in Vancouver, Wash., with her parents and four siblings, also enjoys singing with her father, Roy Ah Yek. He performed in a Polynesian musical revue in his native Samoa before moving to the United States.
“These classes have given Priscilla her confidence,” her mom says. “Working with other students with disabilities has encouraged her to be open. She makes me so proud.”
30 years of serving the Portland community
Founded in 1984 as PHAME, an acronym for Portland Honored Artists and Musical Entertainers, the organization is celebrating its 30th year. Over three decades, as program offerings have expanded, PHAME has stayed true to its mission: to inspire Portland-area adults with developmental disabilities to lead full, creative lives through arts education and performance.
In addition to tackling fully staged Broadway musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” “Into the Woods,” “Les Miserables” and “Grease,” PHAME students have brought their high-energy vocal and instrumental performances to schools and community centers throughout Northwest Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, and to Brussels, Belgium. Two of the current 90 students have been with PHAME since its founding, and many others have been with the organization for five, 10 and 20 years.
“We’ve been deepening and broadening our curriculum, and our five-year goal is to have 160 students,” says Executive Director Stephen Beaudoin, who has been with PHAME since 2010. “But to do that, we’ll have to move to a larger space. We’ve had 17 locations in 30 years, mostly church basements.”
For the past four years, PHAME has called Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in inner Northeast Portland home. Beaudoin says the group is looking for a permanent home and plans to raise money toward that goal in the future.
Portland-based Vibrant Village Foundation has awarded PHAME three grants totaling $15,000 over the past three years.
“PHAME is a true gem in our community,” says Vibrant Village Program Manager Laura Koch. “The staff at PHAME are incredible at providing top-notch instruction and performing arts opportunities for an under-served and under-appreciated population, and for bringing together the broader community to support these talents.”
“We’ve been so grateful for Vibrant Village’s support,” Beaudoin adds. “They and our other donors allow our academy to operate and to offer our students a tuition well below what other programs charge.” While students are charged $80-225 per class for a 13-week term, students who can’t afford the entire tuition are given a discount. “Last year we granted about $17,000 in tuition assistance.”
PHAME students rise to teachers’ expectations
Back at the hour-and-a-half-long Chamber Ensemble class, Gailey patiently went over musical phrasing, harmonies and solos with students. His expectations were high, and students responded with concentration.
“I find pop and rock [songs] work for this group really well, but I do modify some of the more difficult material when needed,” explains Gailey, who has been with PHAME for three years. During that time he has introduced students to a variety of difficult music, from Broadway tunes to classical selections and complicated art songs.
“I want to challenge them, to not make this class just a social time,” he adds. “I’ve had feedback from students who say ‘Thank you for stretching us.’ That’s part of what PHAME offers: mutual respect. I’ve never had a group that was so gratifying to be in front of [directing].”
Gailey notes that a few students read music, but most learn it by ear by practicing with recordings he gives them to take home.
“Our students have a range of innate artistic ability and we want to prepare some of them to have a shot at working with Portland theaters, music groups and artists,” he says. “Our students have performed with groups like Pink Martini, Storm Large, Laura Gibson and The Portland Cello Project. We'd like to help facilitate those types of collaborations in the future. I'd also eventually like to see a collaborative community choir.”
Gailey has an impressive background in both music education and performance, and most PHAME instructors are working professionals in their chosen field, whether it is art, music, dance or theater. But they also have a passion for sharing their knowledge with our students, says PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart, who has been with PHAME since 2009.
“The program has evolved so much since I started here,” Dart adds. “We were offering about 10 classes then, and now we’re offering 22.” The current curriculum includes classes such as Playwriting, Musical Theater, Costume Design, Acting, Dance, Dance Fitness, Yoga, Music in Motion, Rhythm and Drumming, Songwriting, Choir, Chamber Ensemble, and a class called From Bach to Tupac: Mind Blowing Sounds! There is even a newspaper publication class.
“I think we have a good balance of the rigor and the fun,” says Dart, who works with teachers to design the classes. “Our expectations and standards are really high.”
Beaudoin adds, “We want to create the kind of life our students want to have, whatever their goals or dreams may be. For some, it’s to build a social network, and for others, it’s to pursue their goals in a professional setting. We want to help them go where they want to go.”
Chamber Ensemble shines at Sparkle Gala
A couple of days following PHAME’s 2014 Sparkle Gala, held Nov. 2 at the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland, Beaudoin was still exhilarated. With just over 360 in attendance, the event had raised about $208,000 for next year’s operating expenses.
“It was a fantastic success, an unforgettable night,” he reports. “The students just absolutely shined, and the event went beautifully.” In attendance were a cross-section of the broader PHAME community, including board members and parents of students, business leaders and elected officials.
“We used the $5,000 Vibrant Village grant to inspire other large donations, and we got five gifts at that level, Beaudoin adds. “It was a great night at the gala, but we still have a lot more to raise. I was proud of the students. They stepped up their game and gave a great performance, and the crowd showed their appreciation.”
For Priscilla Ah Yek and her mother, the night was equally exciting.
“I was a little bit nervous when I got to the mic,” Priscilla admits, thinking back to her “Counting Stars” solo.
“The response was just amazing,” adds her mom, who attended the gala with her husband. “They gave her a standing ovation. The woman next to me had tears in her eyes. I was proud of Priscilla, and I was proud of all the students. They worked so hard at rehearsals. PHAME is such an excellent program.”
For more information about PHAME and its upcoming PHAME @ 30 Holiday Finale on Dec. 13, go to www.phamepdx.org.
Last April, Vibrant Village Foundation awarded Reading Results a $75,000 grant over three years to expand their literacy intervention program to Davis Elementary School in the Reynolds School District. Recently, Vibrant Village Foundation Program Manager, Laura Koch, visited Davis Elementary with Jennifer Samuels, the Executive Director of Reading Results, to see how their program was going.
On the car ride out to Davis Elementary School, on 195th and Davis in SE Portland, I asked Jennifer to explain why they had chosen to expand their program to Davis, in particular.
Samuels explained that Reading Results has been working hard over the past year to prioritize three areas where: schools serve students who are not meeting reading benchmarks; a significant population of students of color exist; and there is a disparity in reading achievement scores between students of color and white students.
“We see this clearly in the data,” explained Samuels. “80% of students at Davis are children of color. However, 61% of white students are meeting or exceeding reading benchmarks, whereas only 37% of the students of color are reaching the same levels.”
This disparity of 24% between students of color and white students is exactly what Reading Results is aiming to address.
When we stepped into the classroom, a small group of students were working with a reading specialist, other children were working one-on-one with parent tutors and a larger group was huddled around a table in the corner with another teacher. The shared space was tight, but clearly functioning well.
Each student in the Reading Results program spends 30 minutes a day, three times a week with the “Reading Team”. Their goal is to improve reading skills and comprehension and to get students on track to meet third-grade reading benchmarks.
“We are shifting our curriculum to include reading fluency and comprehension, in addition to traditional phonics instruction,” noted Jennifer, as she showed me the tutor’s lesson plan for each child.
We watched as one student read a passage out loud, painstakingly sounding out the words that stumped her. The 60-second timer, which is part of the regular tests that Reading Results uses to measure progress, seemed to pass by all too quickly. It seemed like hard work to me, but the student finished with a smile on her face and a high five for her tutor. Practice, makes perfect!
Photography: Sarah Scribner
Last week, we visited Rosa Parks Elementary School to check in on the first and second graders who are learning to play violin, viola and cello through BRAVO Youth Orchestra. BRAVO, as it is affectionately known, is a new nonprofit in Portland that is transforming kids lives and their school culture through intensive, ensemble-based classical music instruction.
It was a Friday, and the kids were treated to a special guest performance featuring Eddie Parente on violin, Andre St James on bass (who is also BRAVO's cello teaching artist) and Adlai Alexander on guitar. The students sat and listened intently but as soon as the guitarist broke into song in an indigenous language, the room exploded with excitement. Giggles rippled through the crowd. Kids covered their faces with shy delight, and others glanced around the room excitedly, with giant grins and curious eyes.
The special afternoon jazz performance gave the BRAVO instructors an opportunity to talk to students about rhythm and improvisation, which they defined as “instant composing”. Several kids sat up in their chairs with their hands in the air, holding their imaginary instruments and pretending to improvise their own solos.
After the guest performance, the kids broke out into their sectional rehearsals. They carefully gathered up their instruments and sheet music and fanned out to the adjacent classrooms.
The violin section was taught by Eri Noguiera, a teaching artist from Brazil. Eri had never taught beginners, and was making incredible progress with the violin section. It was hard to believe that these kids had never picked up an instrument before September, just a few months ago. They were now standing in a semi-circle reading music and running through the scales with great confidence. The students played a piece they had never seen before, a testament to Eri’s skills as a teacher and the ability and desire of these budding musicians.