Sunday profile: Artistic learning twice as nice under Tami Wisley’s direction of ArtistYear program

Band teacher Tami Wisley instructs from the front of the classroom during the 5th grade brass band practice at Carbondale Middle School.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Band teacher Tami Wisley instructs from the front of the classroom during the fifth-grade brass band practice at Carbondale Middle School.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Eighth-grade trombone student Nicole Topete is getting double the benefit out of band class this year.

That’s because Carbondale Middle School band has not just one but two teachers, thanks to the Americorps ArtistYear program and the school’s primary band teacher, Tami Wisley.

Wisley is the band director at both CMS and Roaring Fork High School, but she has also worked as the lead coordinator for ArtistYear in the Roaring Fork School District since its inception three years ago. 

The program places music and visual arts teaching fellows in area schools for a year, in conjunction with the Aspen Music Festival and School. 

The paid fellowship helps young teaching artists become established and pay off student loan debt through a year of service, while exposing students in low-income and rural communities to the arts.

Topete started out playing trumpet and baritone, and now is an accomplished trombone player with the eighth-grade brass and jazz bands.

This year’s teaching fellow in Carbondale, Rosalie Avery, happens to be a trombone player, too.

“When I play the music the first time around, I don’t always understand the melody or some of the notes or chords,” Topete said. “When (Avery) is there, I can listen to her and then I tune myself to her playing. After hearing her play it a few times, then I can understand and play it.”

That’s exactly the above-and-beyond type of individualized instruction the Artist Year program can create, Wisley said of having the addition of Avery in the band room.

“Her time basically doubles the instructor in the classroom,” Wisley said. “So, instead of me with a classroom of 30 or 40 students, there’s two of us,” she said. 

“She’s a professional musician and knows a lot about music, and she’s really fun and brings a lot of life to the classroom.”

Growing the arts 

Teacher fellow Rosalie Avery looks to Tami Wisley during the 5th grade brass band practice at Carbondale Middle School.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Avery is one of five teaching fellows who are spending the school year in music and art rooms from Glenwood Springs to Basalt through Artist Year. 

“I compare it to ‘Peace Corps for the arts,’” said Wisley, whose job it is to work with the organization, based in Philadelphia, to place teaching artist in the local schools.

Teaching fellows are given a stipend of up to $21,000 for the year, plus insurance, in exchange for 1,700 hours of service in arts teaching. 

The Roaring Fork Schools join inner-city schools in Philadelphia and New York City in participating in the program, thanks in part to financial support from the Aspen Music Festival and School.

That support is huge in bringing music and art education to students who might not otherwise be exposed to it, Wisley said.

“We know that relationships make the biggest difference in education,” she said. “When you have one teacher who’s giving it their all, that’s great. But students connect with people in different ways, so I love the fact that students connect with someone when I can’t always do that on my own.”

Coupled with immense support from Jazz Aspen Snowmass, music education is thriving in the Roaring Fork Valley, Wisley added.

Students like Topete, who just participated with 120 young musicians as part of the AMFS All-Valley Honor Band, and some recent high school students who’ve been accepted to notable music schools, are examples of that success, she said. 

Finding her own passion

Wisley (formerly Suby) is in her second year teaching band in Carbondale after several years teaching at Glenwood Springs High School.

She replaced former band instructor Mark Gray at CMS and RFHS, who had become a bit of an institution in Carbondale’s music education scene.

“It took some time for the students to accept me, but they’re all in now,” Wisley said, noting that the band program between the middle and high schools has grown to about 170 students this year, from about 130 when she started.

“We just had 34 kids in the All Valley Honor Band, including almost all of the seventh and eighth grade,” she said. “It was an amazing event. The students are seeing what’s possible for themselves musically, and they love a challenge.”

At the high school level, Mark Johnson from Jazz Aspen Snowmass leads the jazz band.

Between that partnership and ArtistYear, Wisley said she continues to learn herself.

“Just watching them, and what they’re doing with the kids, and the coaching them from what I know, I get to be a better teacher.”

Wisley was born in Bangkok, Thailand, where her parents were in community development. After stints in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, the family returned to the United States where she attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

“I came out to Colorado to be a ski bum in 1994,” as the story often goes for Roaring Fork Valley transplants. “I lived in my Volkswagen, taught snowboarding and worked at art galleries, because I had an art history minor.”

After doing that for a few years, she went back to school to become a teacher. 

“My first day in the seventh-grade classroom, I knew this is what I was going to do,” Wisley said. “Sixteen years later, I still love teaching. It’s exhausting, sure. But then the kids fill you all the way back up.”

She has two sons, Quinn, who is in the seventh grade at CMS and plays the saxophone, and 5-year-old Teddy, who is “probably going to be a drummer,” Wisley said.

Community fellowship

“It basically changes the program, and what’s possible for kids,” Wisley said of the ArtistYear program.

Glenwood Springs Elementary and High schools, Riverview School, along with all three Carbondale schools and Basalt Middle School are benefitting from artist-teacher fellowships this year in band, choir and the visual arts.

Next year, she hopes to place a theater writer in one of the schools.

Wisley works in conjunction with Margo Drakos, founder and CEO of the ArtistYear program — also a former artist in residence at the Aspen Music Festival — to place the teaching fellows in the Roaring Fork Schools. 

Current ArtistYear teaching fellows

Art Williams — General music, guitar and choir at Glenwood Springs Elementary and High schools; Aspen Music Festival and School Bel Canto choir.

Cecelia Gulley — General music, choir and percussion at Riverview School (K-8), and AMFS Bel Canto choir.

Rosalie Avery —Bassoon, trombone, clarinet and violin at Carbondale Middle and Roaring Fork High school, and AMFS Beginning Strings.

Jeanette Adams — General music, double bass, cello and violin at Crystal River Elementary School Carbondale, and AMFS Beginning Strings. 

Delaney Kjellsen —Basalt Middle School visual arts.

“We have a rather intensive recruiting process in institutions across the nation,” Drakos said. The list ranges from Julliard, Duke and UCLA to several higher education partners in Colorado. 

“We identify not only their art form and expertise, but also their commitment to service and passion for teaching and bringing the arts to underserved youth in particular,” Drakos said.

Artist Year received $1.45 million in National Americorps funding in 2017, and additional funding in 2018 to essentially double the program over three years, she said.

To date, the program has trained and supported 136 ArtistYear fellows, serving in 126 high-needs schools.

Locally, last year alone, five teaching fellows provided 8,000 hours of arts education to more than 2,100 students in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

Many of the teaching fellows end up staying in the communities where they are placed after their fellowship is completed. Some are hired on full time in the schools, and others teach private lessons or become involved in organizing other arts events and programs. 

“It wouldn’t be impossible to do without our local leads,” Drakos said. “Tami is one of the key components to our approach … to come in and expand and enhance what they’re already doing.”

That support extends to other local organizations, such as Carbondale Arts and the local libraries, she said.

“Bottom line, arts in schools keep kids in school, especially those who are high risk for drop out or other challenges” Drakos added.

In Carbondale, Wisley’s band students will conclude the school year playing during the May 1 First Fridays street celebration, followed by the fifth-12th grade band concert and dessert cafe at Roaring Fork High School on May 13. 

The ArtistYear fellows will then have a graduation party on May 15, which will involve several of the students, as well.

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