The question feels like a no-brainer, especially considering the fact that Brian Nelson is addressing a group of toddlers. "You guys, we have this big, giant drum over here. You think we should play it?"
Nelson has just wrapped up a performance of a song about hot pots and silly colonels on his Martin acoustic guitar. He doesn't wait for an answer before he starts reaching past the mini-pianos for the massive djembe sitting in a corner of a freshly renovated classroom at Swallow Hill's new satellite location on the Colorado Free University campus.
The chorus of delighted cries that follows his question is loud enough to give the sense that there are more than just four little ones in attendance. The kids, all between the ages of two and four, immediately rush forward with drumsticks and mallets, gathering around Nelson and exploring the drum's range of sounds. Their parents watch with broad grins from seats in the back of the room.
Swallow Hill Music School
This kind of tactile experience was exactly what Leonard Teague was looking for when he signed up his son, three-year-old Xavier, for the Little Swallows course.
"We wanted to get him in a class where he can start learning about music," Teague says after the first meeting, on a sunny Saturday morning in early March. "There were coordination skills, listening skills, participating, having them do things on their own without the help of the teacher or the parent."
It's a teaching philosophy that's hardly new at Swallow Hill Music, the school and concert facility that started in 1979 as an offshoot of Harry Tuft's Denver Folklore Center. For more than three decades, Swallow Hill's headquarters, at a 22,000-square-foot church off South Broadway on East Yale Avenue, has served as a home base for that tactile, experiential and communal brand of musical instruction. Through a slate of CEOs and dozens of teachers, the organization has remained rooted in teaching music to students of all ages through firsthand experience and an accessible curriculum. Swallow Hill courses include instruments ranging from accordions to ukuleles, and the school has always stressed the building of community as one of its central missions.
What's different about the class that featured Nelson's songs and the raucous rounds of drumming is its location: Xavier Teague and the other three kids in the Little Swallows class were among the first at Swallow Hill's new satellite facility, which opened earlier this month. The new digs, at the former Lowry Air Force Base, are much smaller than the school's historic headquarters on Yale: Tucked away in an upper floor of the Colorado Free University campus, they comprise only three classrooms and a small reception area.
But despite the smaller scale, school officials see the new facility as a promising way to deal with capacity issues that are becoming more and more of a concern at the Yale location. More important, they say, the classrooms at Lowry will allow the organization to expand the mission that's been at the heart of the school since its beginning.
"We are out of space at the Yale location most evenings," says executive director Tom Scharf. "We still have the capacity to add more students per class, but we're using every room. That was one idea that got us thinking about satellite locations. The other one that I think was more pressing was the idea that there were different parts of town that really wanted our services."
Starting about three years ago, Scharf and other Swallow Hill administrators began looking at new bases in Highland, Boulder and elsewhere, but Lowry seemed the most promising prospect. The neighborhood features a mix of million-dollar mansions and apartments that participate in federal affordable-housing programs; the stretch that once housed Lowry Air Force Base now hosts a diverse mix of schools, including the Denver Montclair International School, the Stanley British Primary School, and Bishop Machebeuf High School.
The density of young families in the neighborhood, as well as in nearby Stapleton, seemed to present an ideal fit for Swallow Hill's unique brand of education. But finding a new home base was hardly a straightforward process. A potential spot in an upper floor at the Lowry Town Center shopping center fell through following concerns from a nearby grocery store about parking and noise.
"[That's] despite the fact that we're not a very noisy group," Scharf says. "The most unfortunate part about that was that we had a signed contract for seven months, and they held us at bay for almost a year. That really set us back."
Colorado Free University proved to be a lifesaver. CFU president Helen Hand saw a close correlation between Swallow Hill's goals and the university's mission of continuing education. Both organizations include adult classes as a central part of their teaching mission.
"They have a similar community-outreach idea," Scharf says, adding that he first contacted Hand when he took the gig as Swallow Hill's executive director seven years ago. "We stayed in touch. When [Lowry Town Center] didn't go through, we started chatting again, and she said she might have extra space. We both thought it was a great cultural fit."
The new center at the CFU campus is in a stately blond-brick building that once was the fire station for Lowry Air Force Base. Though Scharf acknowledges that it could stand to be a bit bigger, it's a perfect toehold from which to tap into a new community.
Scharf and his fellow Swallow Hill execs also looked locally to find the satellite school's new director: Andres Cladera, a native of Uruguay who lives in Lowry's Montclair neighborhood.
Cladera has held posts as executive director of the Microscopic Opera Company and the Renaissance City Choirs, both based in Pittsburgh. He earned a master's degree in orchestral conducting from Carnegie Mellon University and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in both piano and vocal performance from the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. His is a professional and academic résumé with roots in the world of classical music, a seemingly different world from that of the democratic, accessible and downright folky mission that has long served as Swallow Hill's bedrock.
But both Scharf and Cladera insist that the classical realm isn't such a far cry from the realm of folk music.
"What's really important to me is that music is music. Classical, folk music — there's a common ground there," Cladera says. "I come from a Latin background. To me, folk music in Uruguay is drumming, it's tango, it's merengue, it's a little bit of salsa. A lot of folk music that is part of life isn't necessarily in my training, but it's part of who I am. It's how I connect to Swallow Hill music."
Cladera adds that he'll look to incorporate different traditions into the instruction at the satellite school. For now, the programming includes early-childhood development courses; guitar, ukulele and violin lessons for older kids; and banjo, guitar, fiddle and ukulele classes for adults.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I'm hoping to reach the African-American community, the Latino community," Cladera says. "I want to bring in those traditions and that music to Swallow Hill as well."
Lessons in those diverse sounds could very well be on the radar for the four kids banging the djembe in Brian Nelson's first class as a Swallow Hill teacher. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Nelson recently moved to Colorado after a stint teaching in New Mexico. His curriculum of participatory drum sessions, call-and-response folk songs and body movement felt like a perfect foundation for exploring all folk traditions.
"It's a lot of movement and songs and drumming," Nelson says. "I try to get a lot of input from the kids, and I just try to vary it up so we can keep the flow going. I want to challenge them, but I just want them to have a really good time."