New program to provide free music lessons

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SHERIDAN — As a kid, Erin Hanke took music lessons from a family friend. Hanke, now director at the Whitney Center for the Arts, credited those lessons for kickstarting an eventual career in music.

“If I hadn’t had those lessons for next to nothing, it wouldn’t have been possible,” Hanke said. “If that’s what you love, it makes a big difference.”

Hanke will have the opportunity to be a part of something similar in the coming months. She will serve as director and piano instructor of the new Witzel Academy, which will provide guitar, piano and voice lessons beginning this fall for third- through 12th-grade students whose families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford private lessons.

Hanke reached out to Witzel Family Foundation executive director Dave Nicolarsen earlier this spring to gauge his interest in funding the program. He seemed receptive to the idea, so Hanke emailed him with formal details.

Nicolarsen presented the idea to the Witzel board shortly after, and it was approved.

The Witzel Family Foundation pays for teacher salaries but doesn’t have to provide much other than that.

“At most, a couple thousand dollars per month,” Hanke said. “They can make a very big impact with very few dollars.”

Hanke doesn’t yet have a sense of the interest level but has talked with people at Big Brothers, Big Sisters and plans to ask local teachers if they know of students who might be interested.

She said the application process to qualify for the program will be brief. The family merely needs to provide a financial statement of need and have it approved by the Witzel Family Foundation.

The academy will start small in autumn, with around 10 to 15 students. The lessons will occur weekly and will likely be taught in Sheridan College instruction rooms. Hanke hopes to expand it in the future to additional instruments and possibly work more directly with the college and YMCA down the road.

Hanke said she and her fellow instructors are hoping to attract students who enjoy music and will come prepared and excited to practice every week.

“If a kid is really interested in music, we don’t want the only reason for them not to study it to be financial,” Hanke said. “Our mission is to serve those kids who sincerely enjoy it and are just looking for the opportunity.”

Justin Parker will teach guitar. Parker is a Sheridan native whose musical career began in middle school with the oboe but quickly shifted to the trumpet and eventually guitar in high school.

Parker went to Sheridan College before studying music theory and composition at the University of Wyoming. He tutored other students in college and based his positive teaching style on one of his college professors.

“He’d tell what you needed to work on, but the first thing you heard from him was what he liked about what you were playing, and that was really refreshing,” Parker said.

Parker has been an adjunct instructor at Sheridan College since 2015 and mainly teaches teenagers and young adults, so he looks forward to potentially working with younger students.

Parker said learning music is an excellent brain activity for kids because it teaches them how to focus on different aspects simultaneously.

“You have to interpret the notes in front of you; you have to interpret what you’re hearing through your instrument and make musical adjustments while you play,” Parker said. “It’s the ultimate multitask activity, and for a developing mind, I don’t think there’s anything better.”

Michelle Jackson will instruct voice lessons. Jackson grew up in the Tongue River area and became interested in music around age 12. She began taking private lessons at age 15, eventually studying music in college and singing opera professionally in Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Jackson didn’t come from a musical background but said her family encouraged her interest and was willing to pay for private lessons, which turned into a college degree and multiple noteworthy opera performances.

She hopes to provide encouragement for kids who may not have had the same good fortune.

“I was incredibly lucky, and not every family has that opportunity,” Jackson said. “I love the idea that we’re giving kids a chance to explore this part of themselves and this potential in their life that may or may not have that luxury that I had as a kid.”

In college, Jackson taught kids — mainly ages 7 to 14 — and continued doing so occasionally over the years. She hasn’t given lessons in a couple years but is excited to work again with young minds.

“For me, the study of voice is the study of self,” Jackson said. “It’s such an amazing gift to be able to give somebody like a kid who is still working through who they are — to give them one more channel of exploration and discovery through music.”

The new program provides an opportunity for kids to learn more about music, and for instructors to give back.

By |Jun. 6, 2018|

About the Author:

Ryan Patterson joined The Sheridan Press staff as a reporter covering education, business and sports in August 2017. He's a native of Wisconsin and graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor's in journalism in May 2017. Email him at:


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