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Holy Names Music Center provides music education

Suzanne Bjork retires from Holy Names Music Center.

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Believing that music is "a gift from God for the good of all" is behind the dedication that has guided Suzanne Bjork for the past 15 years working at Holy Names Music Center, first as office manager and then as its executive director.

"It has been one of the great honors of my life to serve the mission of the music center and the charism of the Sisters of the Holy Names," she said.

Billing itself as Spokane's Community Music Center with a commitment to providing music for everyone, Holy Names Music Center (HNMC) continues a long history of music education in the Pacific Northwest.

The center evolved from the music departments first of Holy Names College, which was established in 1907, and then, after the college moved from the Mission Park area and changed its name to Fort Wright College in the early 1960s, of that college.

It became a stand-alone nonprofit in 1982, operated by the Sisters of the Holy Names at the time Fort Wright College closed, as some other small liberal arts colleges.

In 1990 the campus, including the building that housed the Music Center, was sold to Mukogawa Women's University, a private university in Nishinomiya, Japan, to be its international branch campus.

Since then, although it continues to be operated by the Sisters of the Holy Names, it functions in a partnership with Mukogawa Women's University for use of its facility.

Suzanne has strong feelings about the importance of music education and believes firmly that the music experience that touches the children and adults who come to the center not only enriches their individual lives but also contributes to the life of the community, as these same students go on to support the Spokane Symphony and other music and arts programs in the region and beyond.

To show how important music can be to an individual, she tells the story of her grandson, Atom.

"Our family was a sports family," Suzanne explained, "but Atom was not particularly interested in sports and was also experiencing some instability. In sixth grade band at Garfield Elementary School, he heard a trombone, was intrigued and expressed an interest in learning to play.  I suggested he take music lessons for a year and connected him with Stanton Cobbs, the faculty member who teaches trombone."

After his year of music lessons, which he continues, and the support of Stanton, Atom advanced to junior high, a new school for him, and joined the band as a trombone player. There he found a home. It has helped him excel in junior high.

Suzanne related that with this confidence he also decided to join the chess club and baseball team. The music training that Atom received helps him persist through the victories and defeats of sports and life, she said. She attributes this to the home he has found as a musician in the Yasuhara Junior High School band.

HNMC has now existed as a separately incorporated music center for 41 years, providing quality music instruction and performance opportunities, Suzanne said.

HNMC relies on income from private tuition, as well as annual fund-raising programs.

"We depend on these efforts to be able to offer scholarships, especially to young musicians from the region," she explained, "This year, our gala at the end of April was particularly successful with most of the proceeds dedicated to tuition assistance. This school year, we gave more than $30,000 to students in need of assistance."

Suzanne expressed her pride in the contributions HNMC has offered over the years of its existence, detailing its many programs.

• It has been able to give more than $450,000 in financial aid to more than 1,000 young musicians and provided over $60,000 in Talent Grant scholarships to students who exhibit potential.

• It has provided hundreds of Spokane public school students classroom music through a Music Support Team in collaboration with the Spokane Youth Music Consortium, of which HNMC is a founding member.

• Its Music for Vets program has served more than 100 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders.

• Its Music Together program for families with young children has promoted family bonding through the Catholic Charities CAPA (Childbirth and Parenting Assistance) program.

• It has provided low-cost facility use for musician performances, student recitals, and nonprofit organizations.

• It has provided a free honors Chamber Music group for talented, hardworking young musicians and after-school music at several community centers.

Suzanne determined that HNMC has taught more than 10,000 students through group and private lessons over the years of the Music Center's existence. 

"I am especially touched by the fact that we have taught more than 5,000 Japanese women who have come to study here a course in American music.  When they take that course, they learn all the verses of our national anthem.  I find that so moving."

The search process for a new director is already under way.

Suzanne is the sixth director of the HNMC since its incorporation and, in spite of her commitment to music, she wants to spend more time with her family. She will leave the center at the end of June.

Suzanne traced the growth of the center under each of the past directors and talked about her own goals during her time as director.

Just after Fort Wright College closed, the first center director, Sister Janet Gorman, worked hard to simply save the gift of music for the Spokane community by separately incorporating the center.

Subsequent directors sought to make HNMC a community music center, started programs for adult groups, strove to build up the faculty, increased student enrollment and made the center more visible within the community.

"My goal during my time was to develop the business side of HNMC so it could support music lessons and pay the faculty. Often musicians have to piece together many small jobs in many different locations to be able to make a living. I wanted to be sure that our 35 faculty members would be paid a better wage," she said.

Suzanne was a stay-at-home mother and didn't begin to work outside the home until 2004. For the next few years, she held positions with the Spokane Interplayers Theatre and the Spokane-based arts organization Allegro Baroque and Beyond.

When the position of office manager opened at HNMC in 2008, she was hired and used the opportunity to learn the various facets of what it would take to be a successful director of a community music center. When the previous director resigned, she applied successfully for the position.

HNMC and its predecessors have many student and faculty alumni in the music world. A few are famous, like Thomas Hampson. A few make a living professionally, like Mick Wetzel, a violist at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Others are music educators in the region's universities and community colleges.

Still others are music directors in the churches of the Spokane region.

The contributions of former students show the truth of Suzanne's belief about the importance of music in forming people who contribute to the good of the community.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June 2023