At the Great Bend Center for Music, music is the medicine to generate social change and strengthen communities
When Heidi Nelson returned to the Olympia area, she looked for a creative outlet that could help her reconnect with the larger South Sound community. Upon returning to the area, Nelson was invited to join a community choir led by local musician and educator, Matthew Melendez. Although Nelson initially had the nerves to sing in a group setting, she soon became a regular member of Melendez’s choral ensembles, including those run by Melendez’s non-profit organization, the Great Bend Music Center.
During the choir rehearsals for the Great Bend Center for Music, Nelson cultivated a deep bond with other members of the South Sound community. With choir members from all walks of life, Nelson says the community choir was able to find common ground thanks to the shared experience of musical creation.
âThese are people I would never have come into contact with, otherwise, just because we’re not in the same circles,â says Nelson. âI live in Olympia, so I drive the 45 minutes to Mason County, when we can meet in person. I gladly drive there to go and do it. There are all kinds of people. You never know who will walk through the door at the start of the term, which is really a lot of fun. Matthew has created this environment where you feel comfortable introducing yourself and being comfortable messing up everything and learning, and that’s not a very common thing.
Based in Mason County, the mission of the Great Bend Center for Music extends beyond performing arts or music education. Harnessing the power of music and the shared experience, Great Bend Center for Music Founder and CEO Matthew Melendez believes music can be the answer to strengthening communities and generate social change.
At the heart of the Great Bend Center for Music are community choral ensembles. A choirmaster by training, Melendez conducts a range of choirs, ranging from young students to adults. Each choir is built around inclusiveness, so no audition is necessary. As a way to create shared meaning and camaraderie, the emphasis is not on skills alone, but rather on the experience of working together to create common air. The choral ensembles formed by the Great Bend Center for Music have performed in various local venues and have been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2019.
Originally from New York City, Melendez moved to Mason County when her husband started a new job in the area. Melendez had previous experience as a professional musician and as VP of Marketing while living across the country including New York and Portland, Oregon. While adjusting to small town life, Melendez sought a new sense of purpose in the close-knit community of Mason County.
A song for change
That goal came when Melendez accepted a position as a substitute teacher, eventually working in nearly every public school in Mason County. From class to class, Melendez learned about the community and its need for additional artistic outlets.
âAlternative education was how I got to know the community, through the kids,â says Melendez. âAnd I was shocked at how little these kids thought of themselves, because of where they were. Just because of their location. And it just killed me. I quickly realized that there was nothing to say. There is nothing I can really say to counteract this.
Hoping to create a more permanent impact within the community, Melendez decided to back to school to pursue a master’s degree in vocal interpretation and pedagogy and possibly a doctorate in choir conducting. Melendez planned to use his education to create art and music programs for residents and students of Mason County.
Established in 2017, the Great Bend Center for Music was built on years of previous music education programs in Mason County. While leading various choirs and musical performance groups over the years, Melendez noticed the formation of unlikely friendships and the music’s unique ability to unite community members who came from different backgrounds or had different personal opinions. .
âThe choir members first got to know each other without the labels, then the labels didn’t matter,â says Melendez. âAnd that, I think, is potentially very powerful. And we have seen example after example on this subject. It was the power of making music to help people see that they had more in common than they realized. “
At the Great Bend Center for Music, musical creation and the associated shared experience is seen as a tool for social change. And through this music, Melendez seeks out and explores possible avenues where music can help solve pressing community issues, including those related to incarceration, homelessness, mental health, and elementary education.
âWe need these opportunities for members of a community to cultivate respect,â says Melendez. âMusic is not the only way to do it, but it is by far the most effective and it is by far the lowest fruit. And that’s the foundation of everything we take for granted about music today, in terms of the impacts on academic success, its impacts on therapy, and outcomes in well-being, care. from memory to Parkinson’s disease.
To encourage community development practices, the Great Bend Center for Music is partnering with a range of organizations across Mason County, to help enrich and improve existing community services. This includes working with schools and religious communities as well as Masons’ health, and the YMCA of the South Strait. The Great Bend Center is also working to expand its services beyond Mason County and into Kitsap, Pierce and King counties.
As a long-time participant in the activities of the Great Bend Center, Nelson recently accepted a new position at the Great Bend Center for Music. As the organization expands its services in and around Mason County, Nelson will undertake projects that will help support the organization’s mission and day-to-day operations. Nelson also plans to participate in future choral ensembles with the center, continuing to practice his musical art in a supportive environment, while forging new friendships along the way.
âMatthew is a very good teacher and you feel safe around him,â Nelson says. âYou feel safe doing this nonsense or you feel safe asking the questions. No question is a stupid question with him. He will be ready to explain it and he has a knack for explaining it in a way that people will understand.
To learn more about the organization’s work in the community, visit Great Bend Center for Music website.