Through her decades of experience as a professional singer and dancer, voice and theater coach and troubled youth mentor, Diana Larson has seen how lives can be changed for the better through exposure to performing arts.
She’s seeing that happen again as the leader of the Soundstage group at Jemtegaard Middle School (JMS) in Washougal.
The Soundstage students will join Portland-based pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison and former “American Idol” contestant Mac Potts of Vancouver for “An Evening of Music,” beginning at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Washougal High School’s Washburn Theater.
“It’s neat for me to bring this kind of stuff to Washougal,” Larson said. “The kids are really excited because they’ll get a chance to shine on stage. To be able to work with (Harrison and Potts) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The event, which will feature songs by the Beatles, will open with a performance from students River Montgomery (guitar) and Barrett Justis (drums), and Vancouver-based guitarist Michael McCabe, who has been tutoring Montgomery and Justis in recent weeks. The trio will perform “Revolution” and “Blackbird.”
Harrison will play a set by himself, then collaborate with the Soundstage students on a medley combining “All You Need is Love,” “Imagine” and “A Little Help from My Friends.”
Following Potts’ subsequent performance, Harrison will return to the stage to join Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton for a performance of the Beatles’ hit song, “When I’m Sixty Four.”
“The show is going to be great, and I think the audience is going to love it,” Harrison said. “The thing that I notice at these kinds of shows is that they give the kids a chance to perform in a professional way. They are the ones that get the most out of it.”
Harrison, who has known Larson for more than 10 years, is a strong advocate for music education. He founded the Snowman Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing instruments, instruction and inspiration to disadvantaged youth in the Pacific Northwest. The Foundation’s “Ten Grands” concert series, which showcases a concert featuring 10 master pianists on 10 grand pianos, has raised several million dollars in cash contributions as well as donated instruments to support youth music programs.
“He loves to do it,” Larson said of Harrison. “He’s a people-person, and he does anything he can to help kids. That’s his passion.”
Tickets to the Nov. 14 Washougal event are available via EventBrite.com. Proceeds from the event will be used to fund projects at JMS, including Soundstage, a part of the Club 8 after-school program that provides students with a variety of activities to develop their interests and talents.
“The kids have done incredible work,” Larson said. “I want the show to inspire people. When they leave, I want them to feel that they saw something great.”
‘A group of creative misfits’
Larson, who grew up in Washougal, was influenced by her choir teacher at Washougal High School, Nona Olson.
Harrison’s performance will include a tribute to Olson, who is hoping to travel from her Gresham, Oregon, home to attend the concert, according to Larson.
“She had a big impact on me,” Larson said of Olson.
After graduating from Washougal High in 1976, Larson became a professional performing artist, spending time with the Seattle Pops and Oregon Symphony, and a private voice and theater coach. But her life took a different turn about five years ago after one of her private students was arrested.
“I helped him out during that time,” she said, “and that (experience) totally changed his life and changed my life.”
Larson enrolled at Washington State University-Vancouver (WSU-V) to study human development, and began a performing arts program for juvenile offenders at the Clark County Juvenile Justice Center. After she graduated from WSU-V in 2018, Larson accepted a job as a special education staff assistant at JMS.
“I was planning on still teaching private lessons while working at JMS,” she said, “but (JMS Principal David) Cooke asked me, ‘Would you be interested in leading an after-school music and drama program here?’ I said, ‘Yes.'”
Larson named the group “Soundstage” and started to recruit students, ending up with about 20. During the 2018-19 school year, the students performed a production called “Shakespeare, Steampunk and Soundstage;” created a two-minute video to help their peers understand and remember elements of the school’s “Character Strong” curriculum; sang carols at the city of Washougal’s annual Lighted Christmas Parade; took a field trip to one of Harrison’s concerts in Portland; and produced an “ecosystem rap” video for Hathaway Elementary School students.
Larson also leveraged her connections to arrange a series of guest speakers, including Katherine Cooke, a television news reporter for KGW in Portland.
“Kids that very rarely spoke in class were getting up there and doing scenes from Shakespeare in front of 100 people. It was incredible,” David Cooke said. “Every kid has some sort of special talent, and we have to make sure that we create opportunities for that. For some of these kids, it was acting. They felt comfortable. (Larson) is very connected to the arts community, and she’s been able to use that to our advantage.”
This year’s Soundstage includes about 40 students.
“I didn’t have to recruit this year. It’s got legs,” Larson said. “The amount of kids that come consistently (is impressive) because they don’t have to be there. We have great camaraderie. It’s cool because there’s a lot of things that kids can overcome by being in this (group). That’s where I focus — the social skills, the ability to get along with each other. We have those things. We’re like a little family. One of my students called it ‘a group of creative misfits.'”
Larson wants to teach her students more than just performing skills, however. Her first priority is to help each one of her students feel better about themselves.
“I had a kid in juvenile court who never said a word,” she said. “Then one day he quietly said, ‘Will you teach me how to sing?’ and I gave him private lessons. Then one day he got up and sang Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and blew everyone away. That changed his life. He started to talk more and became more confident. I’ve seen that here (with Soundstage) times 40. If administered the right way, what music can do can be very powerful.”
Larson gains the trust of her students by creating a safe environment where they’re not afraid to be themselves.
“Some of the kids in there are naturally reserved and shy, and socially may not fit in as well, but they found their family,” David Cooke said. “They found their sense of purpose. (Larson is) like the team mom. She’s very nurturing. That social need, that connection that they really wanted with adults, was found.”
Harrison described Larson as “tenacious.”
“She’s a genuine servant to the things that she believes in, and the thing that she believes in the most is those kids,” Harrison said. “The reason that she’s able to change the lives of those kids is because she puts her boots to the ground. She doesn’t just talk about it in theory. She’s right there working with them, listening to them, helping them get prepared. She’s a sounding board for those kids. I do a lot of teaching myself, and I know that kids don’t just ask you questions about music. They’re asking you questions about life. When you can add an adult mentor to a child’s life, that’s another great ingredient for success.”