Music Teacher Brings Education Into the Mix at Performance Center
by Deb Belt
Published on Wednesday, 30 November 2013
Ben McClara stands in the lobby of the GPAC, a modest building in Oak Park just off Stockton Boulevard, where he runs the Sacramento Preparatory Music Academy.
“We seem to be in the invisible building here,” he says with a laugh. “When I describe the location, people ask: ‘There’s a performing arts center there?’”
In spite of the seemingly phantom locale, McClara describes a rich schedule of performance, theater and music education happening at the center. Productions of “Cabaret” and “Spring Awakening” have been performed there over the past two years, along with student recitals, classical, baroque and bluegrass concerts. The music academy offers lessons in piano, woodwind and string instruments, basic percussion and musicianship.
“We have an amazing music education program going on here, just under the radar,” he says. “We are having the time of our lives.”
McClara works with two other Sac Prep Music teachers and three visual artists also occupy studios there. They all chip in for the rent. McClara and a friend converted the building from a decrepit office space into a funky, intimate performance venue and school, complete with a 47-seat theater, dressing rooms and music studios.
Students at the academy range in age from 5 to 62, and McClara grants scholarships to about 30 percent of his students, meaning they get free music lessons. “When I see something like a grandma paying for her grandson’s lessons with her Social Security check, I offer a scholarship,” he says. The academy also has a free string ensemble that students can join.
The school benefits from donated instruments that are passed on to students. “You know you’re doing something right when someone calls out of the blue and says: ‘I have a keyboard to donate,’ which happened recently,” McClara says.
The center has been running for two years at the intersection of Stockton and V Street. A community group called California State Grange helps make it happen. Bob McFarland, president of the agricultural organization, wanted the building to be a performing arts theater. When McClara heard of the idea, he told McFarland he needed a space to teach music.
“Bob offers affordable rent to artists, and I am grateful for that,” McClara says. “We put in the blood, sweat and tears to transform the building, hauling out the old cubicles, putting down new flooring and painting every square inch of the theater black.” The theater seats came from Sacramento City College’s old venue. Tickets to performances at the theater range in price from $10 to $20 and generate money for upkeep of the center.
A recent performance called “When the Bass Hits the Fan” featured Thomas Derthick, principle bassist of the Sacramento Philharmonic, who performed Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 at pitch on a double bass, an extremely difficult feat, according to McClara. “He received the longest standing ovation I have ever seen,” McClara recalls. “We go out of the way to bring special music here and that benefits students, the neighborhood and the public.”
Understated and amiable, McClara started playing music in the fourth grade, beginning with the violin. He went on to play trumpet, baritone, tuba and electric bass before settling on stand-up bass. He recalls playing at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in the seventh grade and says he’s attended about “every college in town,” completing the music program at American River College, where he studied with Joe Gilman. At Sacramento State, he received a bachelor’s of music in classical performance, and he’s now working through a master’s program in music theory and bass performance at Sac State. “I am the product of wonderful Sacramento teachers,” he says.
Growing up in the neighborhood near the center where he now teaches, McClara recalls going to the Coca-Cola Company on Stockton Boulevard to watch the green glass bottles roll by on the conveyors. He says he’s proud to be working in his old stomping grounds of Oak Park. “It’s important to me to teach in this neighborhood and help prepare students to compete at the collegiate level,” he says. “I’m keeping it local, and I believe in that.”
For more information about Sacramento Preparatory Music Academy, call 382-2770 or go to sacprepmusic.com