Strings Music Festival captures student lives, perspectives in school-based songwriting program

John Camponeschi
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Students at Hayden Middle School are getting new opportunities to bring their views, feelings and talents to the stage through the School Days Program hosted by Strings Music Festival.
Strings Music Festival/Courtesy photo

The celebration of student voices and perspectives on life is becoming part of the extensive Yampa Valley music scene.

A songwriting residency, which is part of the School Days Program hosted by Strings Music Festival, is giving students new opportunities to bring their views, feelings and talents to school stages throughout the area.  

Katie Carroll is the programs director at Strings, and has worked to expand an initiative that began in 2020. The unique school-based approach to songwriting gives students the ability to use their lives, backgrounds and thoughts to write lyrics and music together in collaboration with nationally recognized artists.

The songwriting residency program fits perfectly into the Strings School Days objective of bringing music to students and young people, as well as adults, throughout Northwest Colorado. 

“Over 60% of Strings programs are free to the community, and the Strings School Days are a major part of those community offerings,” Carroll said.

The program has been in many districts throughout the region, including South Routt, North Routt and Hayden. It was first piloted in the South Routt School District in 2020 shortly before the pandemic began. Designed for the seventh through 12th grades, the program allows the students to work with professional musicians and adults outside of the classroom setting.

The program involves artists pushing into classrooms to work with students on writing lyrics and music surrounding aspects of the students’ lives. Following several brainstorming and writing sessions, the songs are then performed by the students and the artist with a little help from the staff of Strings. 

The pandemic only increased the importance of the program. 

“After COVID, we realized that not only was the program a success, but it was more important than ever to keep providing and expanding our in-person, connection-based residencies at schools,” Carroll said.

The artists that have been part of the program include Chad Hollister of the Chad Hollister Band, Zach Jackson of Mama Magnolia, Steve Foltz of Magnolia North and Travis McNamara of Trout Steak Revival.

Travis McNamara and Katie Carroll work with students on the song “Dear Future Self” at Hayden Middle School as part of the Strings songwriting residency program.
Strings Music Festival/Courtesy photo

The selected artists have prior experience working with students. For that reason, they are able to tap into the deep creative power that exists within the student body.

“The artists have consistently been humbled and inspired by our students in Routt County,” Carroll said. “To a person, each artist has told us how much they loved working with students and how inspired they are by our students’ writing and talents.”

“The program brought fresh perspectives, skills and experiences to our limited middle school music program,” said Vicki Blomquist, principal at Hayden Middle School. “By working with these professionals, students gained exposure to different styles of music, techniques and performance opportunities.”

The topics that the students have written songs about have ranged greatly. Popular themes include the natural world, public lands and the feelings and thoughts that they inspire. Others revolve around the experience of growing up, which in itself presents student perceptions of friendship, broken trust, finding the best version of themselves and wondering what comes next in life. 

One recent piece was written by the eighth grade class at Hayden Middle School and was entitled “Dear Future Me.” Carroll noted that she and the staff at Strings formed a deep emotional connection with the song, as the student-generated questions that it asked matched what many adults ponder in life. Those questions included “Who am I now?” “Do I care too much?” and “Am I letting others bring me down?”

“I actually sang it nearly word for word to my baby daughter,” Carroll added. “There’s a universality to the lyrics that resonates with everyone, not just eighth graders.” 

“I loved our song. It was amazing,” said Hayden student Emma Stanczak, who took part in the writing and performing of the song. “Travis really took everything from everybody and made it into our song. It wasn’t just one person. It was all of us.”

“It was super enjoyable for me because I got to get up there and sing instead of just being in the background,” added Stryker Witherall, who also contributed and performed. “I think this was a pretty great opportunity because I don’t really have it that much.” 

Hayden Middle School students perform their song “Future” in front of their peers and district staff.
Strings Music Festival/Courtesy photo

“Their self-expression is moving,” Carroll said, while elaborating that the songs have also become popular with the artists themselves. 

“I thought it was a lot of fun. It was definitely good to do something outside of schoolwork while still being inside of school,” Stanczak said. “I liked being able to write our own song and to be able to have freedom of speech with what we were writing.”

Travis McNamara, who worked with the eighth grade students at Hayden Middle School, thought the experience was “really wonderful” while also being inspiring for him as a musician. 

“The kids have so much going on in their lives, and getting to see it come out in their writing has been very cool,” he said. “It is always a dance trying to get middle schoolers to open up and talk about their inner worlds.”

Earlier in his life, McNamara experienced the transcendental nature of music. 

“I needed my music classes when I was a kid,” McNamara said. “I had so much that I wanted to learn, and they spoke to me in a deep way — in ways that other classes didn’t.” 

Principal Blomquist said she sees importance in the program allowing students to delve into their emotions while examining their own lives, and the world around them, in a deeper and more powerful manner. She was also impressed with how McNamara has created a deep, personal connection with the students who participated in the process. 

“My hope is that kids can see that their feelings are important,” McNamara said. “Their words are powerful and their instincts are good. They can create things with just their minds and a pencil and that is how songwriting helps them.”

Regarding the future of the program, Carroll is optimistic.

“Currently, we are able to choose one school per year to work with the students and the artists.” 

Ideally, Carroll wants to be able to work with all eighth graders in Routt County, and eventually expand at the elementary and high school grade levels as well.

“Songwriting is unique. It’s not a required school class or a regular assignment,” Carroll said. “I hope that this medium encourages their creativity, and I sincerely hope that it inspires students to be more self-confident and sure of themselves as they offer new ideas, communicate with adults and converse with and include their peers.” 

For more information on the songwriting program, as well as the other school-based programs that the Strings Music Festival offers, go to

Editor’s note: John Camponeschi is a history teacher at Hayden Valley Middle School in addition to working as a freelance writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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