Sweet Notes

Music is a gift. It reveals uncharted territories of life. As a skill, it very well reveals another sensory altogether. And, through its scholarship program, Sandy’s MusicGirls sets out to see it is a gift every girl can afford.

photography by John Kazaklis

When Steve Morrison’s wife, Sandy, passed away in March of 2014, friends wanted to know how they could leave a memorial gift to always remember her. Morrison was at a loss; he didn’t know what to tell them. Then he arrived at an idea that would wholly match Sandy’s life’s passion and, equally, honor her memory. “She was a musician. A really good musician. And that was a huge part of her life,” Morrison says.

He considered that perhaps friends could donate to a music charity, but he couldn’t think of a single one that would be fitting. Eventually he came to a conclusion as to the perfect way to pay tribute to his late wife. He created a scholarship program encouraging the music education of young girls to attend camp around the state.

Soon, the donations came flooding in. “It grew beyond my initial dream,” Morrison says. “The community was excited about doing more than sending aspiring musicians to music camp, and, in addition to the scholarship, the Sandy’s MusicGirls program now holds their own music camp each summer, has family music camp-outs, offers private lessons, workshops, and much more.

“My original idea was to support girls to play traditional type music, what Sandy and I were into, which was folk music, bluegrass genre. So we started out with fiddle and banjo lessons, but since then it has evolved into supporting girls to go in whatever musical direction they want. We’re not trying to promote any one kind of music anymore, but [rather] to play their passion.”

At the origination of MusicGirls the ages ranged from nine to 19, but it was discovered that a lot of girls were getting their start in music well before that. The minimum age for the annual camp is five years old. “We feel like you should at least be able to hold the instrument,” jokes Morrison. Some kids start at age three. They are not ruling out that option, but it would be more individual instruction than group practices.

Sisters Hannah and Abby found out about Sandy’s MusicGirls through a friend. “We have always been really interested in music but have never had an opportunity to go, especially to a program that is just right up the road.”

I was able to catch up with the girls right before heading to their weekly ukulele class. This was the last week of classes, the end of a five-week workshop. Next month the girls will take a violin class, and then after that they begin a five-week dulcimer class. Not having much experience with strings, the girls can now play Bruno Mars and Moana. And they play them beautifully, too. “Music brings everyone together,” say the girls. “If you play this certain instrument, you already have a common interest. It’s cool.”

The scope of MusicGirls is to help local girls in their development as musicians, but Morrison has learned there is no reason to put geographical boundaries on it just yet. Girls are participating in summer camp from as far away as Lakeland, Sebring, and Melbourne.

What started out as a scholarship has turned into a holistic program, with music as its healing element, to give girls a variety of opportunities, since a scholarship might work for some girls while others aren’t ready for that quite yet. MusicGirls meets the needs of all girls working to learn an instrument, including younger girls who are just learning the basics. The groups offer private lessons for families in need of financial help.

The only qualification to become an instructor is to be female. “I want the girls to see women excelling and being a positive role model,” says Morrison.

He went to the Lake Wales Art Council to see if Sandy’s MusicGirls could be a part of the council to get more young people involved in the music and art culture in that town. The board agreed to let the program be a project of the council. Its annual music camp is held at the Arts Center, although they may quickly outgrow that space and seek a larger one.

Morrison was able to connect with his good friend from Sebring, Jim Robertson, to be the camp director. Robertson scours Florida for the best music instructors for the girls attending summer camp in Lake Wales. He finds an expert in each instrument to meet the needs of all learners. Girls have their choice of learning how to play two instruments, a songwriting class, along with singing lessons.

The camp has been free for the past three years, made possible by the support of the Lake Wales community. “I haven’t really had to fundraise for it. They just ask me how much I need and are happy to help make it happen,” says Morrison. The first year of camp the total number of girls who attended was 19, the second year hosted 33, and this past year the camp hosted 52 girls. Word of the camp has spread quickly over the years, and the demand for next year will be even more.

“Some girls have never heard bluegrass music before,” says Morrison. “For the past two weeks, we went to a festival in Arcadia and they fell in love. That’s one thing that I really want to do with this program: expose girls to the incredible array of music that is out there in the world today. By taking them to these festivals, they get to hear uniquely American music. They get more than just the music itself. They get to learn about the culture, to know that you have a lot of choices in not just music but in life, in a lot of ways.”

There’s no better combination than nature and music. Morrison organizes campouts where the girls bring their families into nature and create the opportunity to play music informally with each other in a space outside of the usual four walls. It creates a relaxed setting, either at music festivals or at a quieter state park.

Self-esteem is important when you play music. You have to learn to stand in front of people and be confident. That is part of the mission: to build music skills and self-esteem in young girls.

Music classes are four dollars per class and are held at the bottom floor of the Lake Wales Public Library.


Sandy’s MusicGirl Scholarship

Lake Wales Arts Council

P.O. Box 608

Lake Wales, FL 33859-0608