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Island Music Center welcomes new additions, big changes to come

A student brushes up his bass skills with instructor Steve Newton. The Island Music Center provides an opportunity for students to build a passion for the arts.  - Cecilia Garza / Bainbridge Island Review
A student brushes up his bass skills with instructor Steve Newton. The Island Music Center provides an opportunity for students to build a passion for the arts.
— image credit: Cecilia Garza / Bainbridge Island Review

The Island Music Center’s new executive director, Jon Doll, left Bainbridge Island for England in 2010, when the center was still a relatively new idea.

Up until 2008, the building on Northeast Valley Road was known as the Island Music Guild.

For 10 years it had been known as the guild.

Now Doll, who first became involved with the guild in its first year almost 14 years ago, is back and — pending a board decision this month — the name will also likely be back. It signifies the organization going back to its roots.

The name originated as the Island Music Guild to reflect the organization’s society of teachers. It was founded by teachers and created to be a community resource, a place for lessons, concert performances and rehearsals.

“We’re really trying to bring the emphasis back on the teachers,” said the organization’s former board president Marilyn Bonkowski.

In returning to its roots, the guild is bringing back old blood with Doll’s addition and its founding principals by putting teachers back in decision-making roles as Bonkowski recently demonstrated when she nominated Suzuki piano teacher Keely Sawyer to take over this year’s presidency.

After returning to the Island in August, Doll volunteered to take up the guild’s empty post as the executive director.

For the past two years, he lived in England where he worked with the nonprofit organization United Way.

But despite a successful career in the nonprofit sector, Doll is a lifelong musician. His mother was a soprano vocalist, actress and writer, and influenced him to nurture his creative spirit.

His father used to tell him he couldn’t make a living with singing and music, but, he said, cutting music out of his life was not an option.

“If you love to write songs, if you love to play music, then do it,” he said. “Are you going to wait for someone to pay you to do it, unrealistically?”

“How many people play sports without getting paid for it?” he asked. “You’re not going to tell someone who has a lot of energy not to play sports unless they get paid for it. Why should it be any different from music or doing art?”

Doll didn’t leave his passion behind when he left for England. While there, he produced two CDs and made lifelong friends in the musical social spectrum of London.

He made his start at a pub called Barnes, located on the Thames in southwest London. The pubs in London, he describes, are a religious institution for music. They are a place where social class and baggage are dropped at the door, where plumbers, construction workers and business executives alike buy pints for each other and musicians play for free just to have a place to perform.

“Even at the office, they were probably wondering, what’s he doing writing songs? What’s he doing with a guitar in his office?” Doll said.

“When you deny yourself those things, you either become someone you’re not, try to become someone you’re not, or try to tell yourself that’s not who you are anymore.”

But if there’s one thing he did take from his father’s work ethic it was his business and organizationally inclined mentality.

From his time at United Way, which extends 10 years, he adopted a simple idea as his mantra: When times are difficult, instead of doing this (he folds his arms around himself, hugging his body), you do this (he opens his arms wide), where we can all compliment each other through collaboration.

Collaboration is the future, he explained. And it’s this thinking that many organizations forget in difficult economical times, not a wholly unfamiliar idea to the guild which experienced the risk of closing last year.

Bonkowski, the previous president, stepped on board last year during rough waters. The Island Music Center was in a state of dire financial stress after the city cut grants that provided substantial funding for the 10 or so arts and humanities organizations on the island.

Because of this, Bonkowski spent much of her 18-month term getting the center back on its feet.

“We were discussing whether our doors will even be open,” recalled Keely Sawyer, a Suzuki piano teacher and the new board president. “We’re starting this year knowing that we’re sustainable.”

Since then the center has established a membership plan, enrollment fee and gathered financial support from the community to continue.

Sawyer, who grew up on the Island, sat on the board as a teacher representative for a year before taking the position as the new president.

With Doll working as a volunteer to revitalize the energy and personality of the old guild, with better financial independence and with Sawyer as a clearer bridge between the teachers and the board, there is a lot being done.

Together, Doll and the board are re-establishing the organization as a community resource, for students to get the type of instruction that is lacking in conventional fine arts programs in public schools.

Doll is also using his background in building a “United Way” to better collaborate with other arts organizations on the island to build the guild as a rehearsal and performance venue.

With this in mind, the building is undergoing a number of renovations. This month they are creating a cabaret atmosphere by painting the concert hall dark red, tearing down walls to put in a connecting cafe and bar, and redoing the lounge area.

“There’s a lot you can do when you’re not focusing all your energy on survival,” Sawyer said.

 

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