Inspiration and creative stimulation are not unusual at St. Francis Convent where the arts are valued. Adult mentors might be considered commonplace in a religious organization like the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. On a typical day, music streams through the halls when the organist practices in Sacred Heart Chapel and when students at St. Francis Music Center show instructors the results of last week’s practice.
What is unusual is the patience and commitment the Franciscan Sisters have for those who wish to be in a rock band. Guitars, bass, keyboard and drums — volume, energy, purpose and passion.
Robyn Gray, director of the Music Center, sports a shirt with Sforzando emblazoned across the front. That partially describes URock, a two-week summer music camp for young people who have always dreamed of being in a band.
URock, now in its seventh year, is also a chance for youths, ages 10 and older, to fulfill the dream. Gray said, “Participants learn so much more than playing music. They learn to listen to one another, play together, create harmony, build friendships, interact socially, think critically, communicate, gain self-confidence and learn the power of teamwork. They belong.”
The program draws students who do not normally participate in extracurricular activities or band and choir. “URock inspires youths to make right choices and to influence others to do so as well,” Gray said.
“For many, music is the answer,” said Greg Langlois, who teaches guitar, bass guitar, banjo, mandolin and recording using Pro Tools. “I enjoy all types of music from blues to Bach; my passion is music and working with students. These kids are our future and it’s them we serve at this camp.”
The program is “rigorous and demanding,” Langlois said. “Each band picks three songs to master, they learn to ‘jam’ together where they listen closely and keep rhythm and they have intensive instruction – in the full group of URock participants, in each band and as individual performers.”
Their work culminates in a final concert before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the Green Fair Folk Festival, set this year for Wednesday, Aug. 7, on the west lawn of St. Francis Convent. Last year, a sister told a performer that she “should be on America’s Got Talent” to which the student replied, “My parents wouldn’t let me … this year.”
A few seasons ago, a student’s mother said that her son was at a crossroads between taking a path to a good life or following his friends into a lot of bad choices and decisions, Gray said. “She said that URock pushed him so far down the right path that he realized he had a lot to give to the world and went on to college, a choice she never thought he would make.”
As a result of URock’s success, Gray and Langlois received a grant from Catholic Health Initiatives, a granting group that focuses on non-violence, to create a year-round program that will train teens on instruments and help them form bands. The grant will help to provide instruments and lessons for those who can’t afford them and will focus on weekly jam sessions. Teens will mentor each other as the program grows. “Music in itself promotes non-violence. Music gives teens a way to express themselves, to feel as if they are being heard. It is also all about harmony and playing well together,” said Gray. “For teens who think there’s nothing to do in rural Minnesota, URock might be a fantastic answer.”
In the hallway of St. Francis Music Center is a poster that says, “If you think nobody cares, think again.” The Franciscan Sisters may wince, then smile, in the evening hours when they hear the volume coming from the second floor but they open their doors in welcome to the students whose lives may be encouraged.
Opened in 1979, the Music Center is home to 18 instructors with high levels of expertise who provide lessons to more than 325 students to study piano, guitar, strings, voice, percussion, theory and composition, dance and gymnastics. In addition, the Music Center offers two string orchestras, a community choir and other choral groups.
Financial aid is available for those families who would not otherwise be able to participate in the programs. URock is sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls (FSLF) with financial support from the Five Wings Arts Council.
To learn more about St. Francis Music Center, visit www.sfmusiccenter.org, email Robyn Gray at [email protected] or call (320) 632-0637.