Off the Hook Arts (OtHA) is a dynamic, evolving non-profit whose primary goal is to make music education accessible as early and as widely possible to the children of Fort Collins and neighboring communities.
Its broader mission is to enrich the lives of children and adults in our community by presenting unique musical experiences that spark imagination, learning, and joy.
For more than 20 years, research has explored the relationship between music education and academic, social, and creative achievement. These studies have yielded proof that, because musical experience activates nearly every region of the brain, it 1) strengthens the neural connections essential for higher IQ and improved information processing, memory, and motor coordination; 2) speeds speech, reading, and comprehension skills; 3) improves mental focus for extended periods; and 4) enhances emotional resilience, self-confidence, and empathy for others.
The earlier children can be involved in music, the more they gain from these benefits, and the more well-rounded individuals they become emotionally, socially, and intellectually. This in turn promotes their personal, academic, and professional success in life.
Founded in Fort Collins in 2012, OtHA is modeled on a unique program launched in 1991 by the Austin-based non-profit CHAMPS (Chamber Music in Public Schools). This program provides free, intensive chamber music instruction to students who might otherwise have limited access to one-on-one musical instruction and experience with musical expression that chamber music offers.
In 2008-2011, as Director of CHAMPS in Austin, Jephta Bernstein brought about significant evolution of the program: more community-minded music education, a focus on underserved schools and greater community outreach, as well as a collaborative project with the Miro String Quartet's Graduate String Quartet Program at the University of Texas. Because of this collaboration, UT graduate students still coach in the CHAMPS schools as part of their educational curriculum.
Relocating to Fort Collins, Ms. Bernstein developed a similar non-profit, educational chamber music program, enriching the existing school offerings at five campuses in the Poudre School District, and instituted an annual summer music festival whose proceeds underwrote the associated costs. To expand regional access to participation in this chamber music program, Ms. Bernstein subsequently founded the Chamber Music Academy (CMA), which today continues as one of OtHA’s two educational programs, open to students from middle school through high school regardless of their ability to pay, and has superseded the earlier school enrichment program. Students unable to afford the nominal charge per semester receive scholarships to cover this cost.
CMA students study a range of string instruments, woodwinds, or piano under coaching from professional teachers and performers, and learn to perform in groups from trios to larger chamber orchestras under the guidance of Michael Davis, former concert master of the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. Several performance opportunities throughout the year give these musicians venues in which to demonstrate their skills and achievements to the broader community. The CMA has been consistently praised by students, parents, and orchestra directors as having a significant impact on expanding students’ understanding and knowledge of music and learning how to work successfully in ensembles. Additional enrichment of our adult community is offered through informal “side kicks” to the CMA in the form of a non-audition string chamber orchestra and cello choir of amateur adults.
OtHA’s steadily expanding, free after-school educational initiative, the Meadowlark Music Program (MMP), serves elementary-age children, starting at age 6. Most students select either violin, guitar, or piano and receive a free loaner instrument each semester. Most are taught in group lessons by credentialed music teachers, a nurturing format for this age and skill group. Instruction focuses on beginner skills in musical concepts, the rudimentary foundations of their chosen instrument, and the rewards of focused attempts to play. Simplified classical music, folk and familiar tunes (e.g., nursery songs) are used. Semester-end performances give students the chance to show off their progress.
Bouncing back in fall 2021 from a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic, the MMP resumed operation with considerably wider reach across Fort Collins and surroundings through partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Fort Collins and Loveland, and The Mathews House non-profit that serves under-resourced families in Larimer County. Its musical offerings have also expanded beyond violin and guitar instruction to encompass piano and other instruments that students express interest in learning. Gratifyingly, MMP visibility and enrollment have been steadily growing as these initiatives have strengthened, resulting in a waiting list for the first time since inception.
To help fund the CMA and MMP and as a means of bringing music education to the wider community, OtHA also presents world-class performances by leading Colorado and international artists in a variety of genres, broadening the musical horizons of local audiences who might not have been able to witness such performances in major cities across the U.S. and elsewhere.
In recent years, OtHA’s Garden Concert Series has consistently drawn enthusiastic audiences to private gardens and other outdoor spaces, which intimate settings promote audience/artist interaction while exploring musical styles ranging from classical to South American to Turkish to Celtic to Nepali—true to our goal of presenting unique musical experiences that spark learning, imagination, and joy. In June 2024, OtHA will present a week-long program, named Music Spoke in a nod to just one of the spokes in the wheel animating our community’s lively cultural arts scene. This program will bring to Fort Collins a college age string quartet looking to launch into the world of professional chamber music. They will be featured in outreach concerts focusing on locations serving low-income children, including Realities for Children and the Old Town Public Library summer concert series, as well as their own solo recital. In addition, they will participate in workshops with the acclaimed Dali String Quartet and will perform with the Dali as an opener to a concert by Swing Je T’aime Gypsy Jazz. All events will be open to public audiences so they may gain greater insights into the collaborative dimensions and demands of chamber music.
 The Royal Conservatory of Music, The Benefits of Music Education, An Overview of Current Neuroscience Research, April 2014