by Nicole Murray

Back-to-school season is just around the corner and already backpacks and school supplies line the shelves at local department stores. The start of a new school year is the traditional signifier of a clean slate and an opportunity for self improvement for students from elementary school through college, but what about the rest of us? The older adults who have been out of school for decades or the young folks who may find themselves outside of the traditional school structure. At what point should our “education” start or stop or at the very least, our commitment to bettering ourselves?

This month’s spotlight is intended to focus on youth and adult learners but I think that there’s something that we can all take away from Aitina Fareed-Cooke, owner of Get Fokus’d Productions, and Dr. Katherine Levy, founder of the New Horizons Band of Fredonia, and that is that the arts are important because they promote lifelong learning. Not only learning in the traditional sense of acquiring a new skill set, but learning more about ourselves; the worldviews that we hold and how we communicate and exist with others. After speaking with these two incredible leaders, their message was clear: Whether you’re young or old, everyone has a place in the arts and no matter your age, you can always learn something new.

At the very end of her interview, Aitina Fareed-Cooke, owner of Get Fokus’d Productions, remarked, “You know, there’s something I calculated recently and I said that I would mention in the next interview that I did. Over the last 3 to 5 years, I have worked with over 20,000 young people in various capacities.” This number seemed to surprise her but quite honestly, it makes a lot of sense. Not only does Aitina frequently work as a guest speaker at various schools and youth facilities but she has also developed a branch of her company that mentors dedicated young people who have a passion for the arts called “Young and Fokus’d.”

The mission of Young and Fokus’d was born from a quote by Shirley Chisholm: “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.” Originally, this quote was interpreted by Aitina to create Young and Fokus’d, a mentorship program that recognizes gifted young artists who may have been dealt a bad hand in life and gives them the motivation, support, and encouragement to pursue their dreams. But now, this is also a quote that she regularly uses to encourage those who come through the program to begin to shape their own narrative quite literally “through the lens of art.”

In fact, the frequent piece of advice that Aitina gives the young people she works with is to think of your life as a camera. The body of the camera is similar to your own body and the aperture similar to your own eyes. What you see through the viewfinder is what you choose to focus on during the course of the day and you, and you alone, have the ability to shift what you see by either moving the camera or replacing what is in the shot. She adds, “Maybe a shot of dirty laundry may not be what you want in your viewfinder so you put the laundry away OR maybe you can frame the shot differently and turn the dirty laundry into something beautiful. That decision is up to you.”

There are highlights of some of the young people who have participated in the Young and Fokus’d program available on the Get Fokus’d website so that you can hear their stories and support their work. For example, Emeka Wajed (Instagram: @madebymek_) is a visual artist whose chosen art form is custom sneaker design. He says, “I’m really just a cartoonist without an outlet, then when I find one… sparks fly.” Another young entrepreneur with a unique art form who has passed through the program is makeup artist, Kaylene Adams (Instagram: @facebykay_). Thanks to Young and Fokus’d, not only does Kaylene do incredible makeup art on a number of celebrity clients, but she has also begun her own business, Beautique Lab, with her own brick and mortar store on Franklin Street in Buffalo.

If you would like to support any of these young up-and-comers, you can support them with a monetary donation through the Get Fokus’d website or you can donate supplies that are highlighted on each of their individual highlights pages.

Aitina recommends to any person, young or old, who would like to get started in photography to head over to CEPA Gallery and utilize any number of the resources they have available at their facility, whether it’s enrolling in a program or just speaking to an experienced photographer. She adds, “And, if you can get some coins together, get a disposable camera and go start shooting. Or, nowadays everyone has a phone. It’s a machine in your pocket, utilize it!”

One of the things any musician can tell you is that after any concert or performance that you give, you’ll always have someone come up to you afterwards who says something along the lines of, “Oh, I used to play an instrument back in school but I haven’t played in years!”

Well, Dr. Katherine Levy, professor of music education at SUNY Fredonia, has something to say to that and that is, “Join the New Horizons Band of Western New York!”

The New Horizons International Music Association is an international nonprofit organization whose mission is to offer an entry point to music making through lessons, group instruction, and ensemble playing for adult learners. The first New Horizons band started in New York state at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and has since grown to include chapters across the United States and in Canada and Australia. The Western New York chapter is led and conducted by Dr. Levy and made up of those who learned an instrument earlier on in life but have gotten away from it, joined by those learning an instrument for the first time, and some retired musicians as well.

Hosted at SUNY Fredonia, these “chronologically gifted” (so they call themselves on the New Horizons website) adults aged 50+ come together twice a week for two hours of instruction: one hour of sectional playing led by SUNY Fredonia music education students and one hour of ensemble playing. Admission to the program is low cost, has no audition for membership, and is accessible to any number of adult learners who may find traditional instruction difficult.

Positive attitude is everything when it comes to New Horizons rehearsals. Sometimes a section of the music will be too difficult for a particular member and they are advised to “play what they can,” and either simplify or omit that part and that’s okay! All members whether they come from a musical background or not are there because they want to learn and get better, no matter where they started from. “Professional musicians don’t always recognize how off-putting our traditions are,” said Dr. Levy, “and when we want to build audiences and want more people to be interested in music, if they don’t have accessibility to doing that music, we lose out.”

Social interaction is also another great reason to join the New Horizons band and friendships are very quickly formed within each instrument section. Additionally, intergenerational friendships between the New Horizons members and Fredonia music students were an unexpected but welcome aspect to the program. New Horizons members often form a very close bond with their student mentors and will attend their recitals and other performances offered through the college. College students are eager to hear stories and share in collaborative musical experiences while learning to see music through the eyes of an adult learner.

Said Dr. Levy, “This intergenerational back and forth is not only old and young, it’s professional and amateur. It makes students think about their music making, their music teaching, and what it is about the way we learn to play instruments and ‘tradition’ and then deciding which traditions apply to these folks.”

The New Horizons Band came back together this summer after a long hiatus due to the pandemic and it was an emotional experience for all. The music will continue this fall when the Fredonia students arrive back on campus. You can find more information on the group at the link here.