As a girl, Sophie Kuether remembers watching the 1978 movie "Grease" with subtitles so she could write down the lyrics and sing along. Her first theater performance at age 7 was playing Little Cossette in "Les Misérables." Now she's a singer, pianist and percussionist.
But likely her proudest moment was Wednesday evening at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, when she was slated to sing one of her own songs while sharing the stage with some of today's top country artists.
Kuether got that chance through a partnership with the Country Music Association (CMA) Foundation, which sent musicians to Columbia Heights High School on Wednesday to talk about songwriting with students leading up to the CMA Songwriters Series show at the Ordway.
Songwriter Josh Osborne and members of the contemporary country band Old Dominion sat down with a group of students to share who inspires their music. After listing the givens — the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and so on — Osborne and the band gave a big nod to Minneapolis-based rap star Lizzo, who leads the Grammys this year with eight nominations.
Kuether, a 15-year-old freshman at Columbia Heights High, asked the musicians how they get past writer's block. They said collaboration is key — which is also true for the Columbia Heights Public Schools and the arts.
About six years ago, Columbia Heights High partnered with VH1's Save the Music Foundation after the school district cut its band program. Superintendent Kathy Kelly said that collaboration enabled the district to offer band to fifth-graders, and that in turn led to this year's connection with the CMA. Columbia Heights is one of only four high schools selected nationally this year for the partnership.
CMA and U.S. Bank awarded the school a $34,500 grant for recording studio equipment and music staff development. Some of the funds went toward a recent weeklong seminar trip to New York City, where students like senior Peter Heryla met New York University professors and attended live performances.
"I wouldn't have thought that opportunity existed," Heryla said. "Our school pulls out all the stops for, not just music, but also for art and for theater."
Heryla was part of the fifth-grade class to benefit from the revitalized program. "It's developed into a huge part of our district and who we are," he said. "And the fact that one of our strongest programs is fine arts I think says a lot about our school and that we want to support our students and what they want to do."
Students became so interested and involved that the band room became increasingly smaller. So last year, the district went to voters with a $17 million referendum that included plans to build a bigger band room and renovate performing arts spaces. Residents bought the district's "Head in academics, hearts in the arts" mantra and approved the funding.
"When you look in the long term, you have students that may see an artist today or go to a show in the future and go, 'I want to do that, too.' But along the way you gain an appreciation for the arts," Kelly said. "The Twin Cities is famous for having a really strong arts, culture and entertainment base. And so I think that it just gets our students ready for the world ... and they'll be more well-rounded in their approach and their perspectives."
Columbia Heights alumna Rebecca Schultz was part of a large group of U.S. Bank volunteers who painted the new band room and gymnasium stage Wednesday as the school hosted the CMA artists and foundation officials. Schultz said volunteering at the school that fueled her love of music was rewarding beyond words. The 2011 graduate spent hours in the old band room playing the contra alto clarinet, a large instrument that required her to sit on a phone book to reach the mouthpiece.
"Pretty much all my friends were in band," she said. "I feel like, especially in movies, they portray it like the 'band nerds,' but I never got that feeling at Columbia Heights, ever."
Kuether got her first glance at the new band room Wednesday. Gazing up at the high ceilings, she held her face in her hands, nails painted bright magenta to match her personality.
"It's going to be an amazing upgrade and I'm really excited to get to experience it," she said.
The 4-foot-11 student envisions years of growth in the space. She's small but has a big voice.
"I have to compensate in some way," she said.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751