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Saturday, June 3, 2023

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Arts + CultureMusicAt 50, Blue Bear School of Music is just...

At 50, Blue Bear School of Music is just tuning up

Opening an East Bay campus, bringing back live performances, and more sweet-sounding news from the institution.

Steven Savage has a lot of plans for 2022 at Blue Bear School of Music, which he founded 50 years ago with others in his band: a new campus in the East Bay on Solano Avenue, a partnership with Mission Bay’s Mercy Housing, live performances as soon as that seems safe, he tells me over Zoom. But what seems most exciting to him is that his friend for the last half century, singer-songwriter Bonnie Hayes, who’s also on the video call, will come back to the Bay Area to be the executive director at Blue Bear’s East Bay campus.

Hayes wrote songs on Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy Album of the Year, Nick of Time, and her tunes have been recorded by Cher, Robert Cray, Adam Ant, and Natalie Cole among others. She will leave her job as Chair of the Songwriting Department at Berklee School of Music to come back to the school she went to as a teenager, and to work with Savage, who she started a punk band with in 1971. Hayes says Blue Bear was the most important thing for her musical development, and that, later, working at the school taught her be a good administrator. Having done things like simultaneously setting up and keeping two summer camps going for Blue Bear, she says she now knows how to successfully run a program, hire great teachers, and stay within budget. 

“I came to Blue Bear to take piano lessons,” she says. “And look at how much I learned.”

Savage launched the school, which teaches rock, blues, jazz, folk, and pop in 1971, thinking it would just be something to tide him over. “I founded Blue Bear with four other people. We were a rock band and we thought we’d start this little school, so we’d make some money and get by until the rock band breaks big,” he said. “It turns out the school was a better idea. We were creating community and spreading the joy of music.”

This year that joy can spread even farther. Savage says the school has a lot of programs at community centers in the Bayview and the Tenderloin, and officials at Mercy Housing, apartments for low and very-low income families and seniors, reached out to them. For offering free classes to the residents (as well as at a discount to other low-income housing tenants in the neighborhood), the school can use a ground floor space in the building at a reduced rate.

He says they’re excited to be offering music lessons in Mission Bay, particularly to children. “For a lot of them it’s an incredible opportunity to do something they love and to have the joy of making music,” Savage said. “And there’s the discipline and the rigor. Plenty of kids have blossomed.”

Hayes thinks for kids to create a piece of music can give them some sense of agency over their lives. 

“A lot of young people just don’t feel any control in this world we’re in right now where there’s so much food and housing instability and income inequality,” she said. “I always tell them a song is like a house— you can build equity. You can sell it. You can get royalties. Plus it’s a form of expression if you make a piece of music that didn’t exist before. Also having your story being something outside yourself is a way of transcending sorrow and getting words that turn it into something powerful and meaningful.”

Savage says they also post the music teenagers make on Soundcloud, as a way of building community along with a form of expression. That’s key to what the school does and he looks forward to gathering again. The school went from 24 toddler classes to two on Zoom with the pandemic. For a while now, those classes have been meeting in parks. The band classes for teens and the adult workshops also dropped to nothing, but this semester they have been able to have some with all participants vaccinated. 

Savage can hardly wait to make music in person again and to see the students and colleagues he’s connected with over the years. Hayes agrees those bonds are crucial. “The older I get, the more it feels important to maintain a connection of mentoring or teaching,” she said. “Anything without that feels empty.”

When asked what has been most rewarding about his half a century at Blue Bear, Savage, who earned a Ph.D. in cultural musicology from the University of London and teaches musicology at San Francisco State University, doesn’t hesitate. 

“I’m proud I lived my life as a professional musician and of all the musicians we’ve hired to help allow them to be professional musicians in this world,” he said. “As much as I love what we’ve done, I’m most proud of helping so many musicians to make a living.”

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