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AHAA sets the stage in Ashland

For the past two summers Ashland High School student Katie Horn has attended the Oregon Bach Festival Youth Choral Academy at the University of Oregon. The intensive 11-day program brings together some of the finest young singers in the nation and helps them work on their musicianship skills through a variety of workshops, rehearsals and concerts....

"I worked with professionals, and I was treated like a professional," she says. "I learned how to prepare for singing, how to sing with emotion that the music needs. I took movement classes, and sang in several performances. I'm a much better singer because I went to the academy."

Horn's summer courses were made possible thanks to the Ashland High Arts Advocates (AHAA), a parent-run organization that raises money to support summer scholarships for students taking fine and performing arts classes. AHAA's primary fund-raiser is the Winter Fine Arts Festival, a variety show to be presented this Friday and Saturday at the school's Mountain Avenue Theater.

The festival showcases work from each of the school's art departments. The theater classes have 20-minute performances. Each of the school's three choirs will sing a few songs and the dance classes participate as well. "It's a giant variety show," says Russ Otte, the director of the school's music department. "About 250 students are on stage at one time or another through the night. It's a wonderful and very professional deal."

Before the performances begin, the artwork of some 150 students will be displayed in the theater lobby, and all of it will be sold through a silent auction. The proceeds of the auction, along with the admission charge and concession sales, will go entirely to AHAA.

Unique in Oregon

"This is a booster organization for arts, similar to the booster organizations for athletics," explains Joey Ngan, who is directing the AHAA program this year. But while parent booster groups for athletics exist in nearly every school district, AHAA is the only parents' arts booster organization in the state.

AHAA is now in its 18th year, and this year's Winter Fine Arts Festival is the 11th. "Every year we've done a little better," says Ngan. "Last year we joined the Oregon Arts Council of Jackson County in order to broaden our connections, and this year for the first time some community members have donated art work for the auction. I want to stress that we don't take political positions, because we get donations from all points of view."

The organization is run completely by volunteers and there are no administrative costs. AHAA's only expenses are for advertising and printing the program for the Winter Fine Arts Festival. Otherwise, all proceeds go directly into the support of student artists.

Last summer, AHAA gave $500 to each of the seven fine and performing arts departments at the school, says Ngan. "The departments can use the money for anything they want. They buy equipment or pay for field trips, anything the state allows."

An additional $4,000 raised in 2003 went directly to 25 student scholarships. Every student who applied for a scholarship received at least some funding.

To be awarded the scholarship money, students must submit an application to their teachers, who judge the relevant worth of the programs and make funding recommendations to AHAA. The scholarships only partially pay for the programs. The students and their families must come up with the rest of the cost.

Students are enthusiastic

Breaking every stereotype of the apathetic teenager, a group of Ashland High students recently gathered together in a music rehearsal room and enthusiastically spoke of how AHAA made it possible for them to further their arts studies.

"I took a SOU special studies class in comics and picture books to hone my illustration skills," said Steven Becraft, a senior. "It was taught by Miles Inada, who's the department chair in art at the university. The scholarship made it possible. I couldn't have afforded to take the class without it."

Becraft had never taken an art class at the high school before his summer scholarship, but his interest has been piqued and he now takes several drawing and painting classes.

Senior Jeremy Thompson used the AHAA scholarship to attend Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Junior Seminar last summer.

"There were 65 students that stayed in the SOU dorms for two weeks," Thompson explained. "We saw all the plays, and we went to a lot of workshops and had guest speakers like actors and (OSF Executive Director) Libby Appel. I learned a lot about the entire theater field, and this is something I'll carry with me the rest of my life."

Danika Taylor, a junior, attended the Vocal Arts Academy at SOU. "We were critiqued on our singing, which helped us understand more what we should be doing," she said. "We took master classes and learned the international phonetic alphabet, so we could sing in each language and know the differences between them."

Taylor is now president of Ashland High's treble choir, singing second soprano.

The youngest of the students was Hugh Bitzer, a sophomore who plays French horn in the school band. He attended the Northwest Band camp in Twin Rocks last summer on an AHAA scholarship.

"It's a week-long program," Bitzer said. "I played in three different bands, and was led by conductors from all over the state. Musicians from the Oregon Symphony came and worked with us. It was a lot of fun."

The students are well aware of the state of arts funding for Oregon schools. "You can see physically that funds are short," said Becraft. "The school doesn't have the budget to fix the equipment. There are broken amps and other things."

"Don't move the piano, the leg is loose again," reads a sign taped on the piano at the entrance of the school's music room, underscoring Becraft's point.

Still, the students are grateful for AHAA's help, and credit the organization for improving the state of arts education at Ashland High.

"I've gone around to other schools and seen absolutely horrendous programs," Thompson said. "I don't want to think about how things would be here if we didn't have extra money coming in."

The Winter Fine Arts Fundraiser runs Friday and Saturday at the Mountain Avenue Theater. Doors open for the silent auction at 6 p.m., and performances begin at 7 p.m. Tickets are $9, at the Ashland High School office and at Treehouse Books on the Plaza.