Dear friend of Blue Bear,
A few months ago, our board and staff spent some time reflecting and writing stories about songs that had special meaning to us. Again and again, our stories seemed to carry such meaning because they gave us a sense of connection.   

At the time, we had no idea what 2020 would bring, or how much we’d need to feel the connection that only music can bring.  We thought it would be a great time to bring these stories out again, and I’m delighted to share them all with you.  Enjoy!

Dr. Steven Savage
Executive Director
Blue Bear School of Music

Richard Strauss Blue Bear Co-Founder and Board Member
In mid-summer of ’65, I got a package in the mail. I knew instantly who it was from – the only person  who ever sent me anything, my big brother Steve. I was about to enter high school. He was midway through his years at Berkeley and, like a shaman, he was my portal to the many magical realms of the Counterculture. Whatever he was selling, I was totally addicted and I’d already made several pilgrimages from home in arch-conservative Orange County to visit Steve at college. So, when I ripped open that mailing envelope and pulled out a 45, chills went up my spine: BOB DYLAN. 

I studied the label – 6:13 long! Before even listening, I knew this would be something to reckon with. There were secrets here that would be epic somehow, and I waited all day to put the record on. In  the privacy of my room that night I finally dropped the needle: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”

Oh my God! I played the song over and over and over again, soaking in the attitude, the razor-sharp scorn, the defiance, even as I struggled to understand the words. And the world that produced them: “When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose…” That first night listening to “Like A Rolling Stone” I discovered something: not just the power of music – you could hear that every time you turned on the radio – but the sheer Mystery of it. Like Stonehenge. Or your first crush. And in one way or another, I’ve been after the unexplainable ever since. Without that package from Steve, and the magic inside, I might never have dropped out of college five years later to play music with him…and cofound a school of Rock ‘n Roll. 

LISTEN HERE: Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone

Stephanie Lamond Little Bears Director 

In middle school, I saw the movie Across the Universe for the first time, and remember being absolutely shattered by Evan Rachel Wood’s version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” She sings it on a New York City dock to her brother, the appropriately named Max, who is silent and shell shocked with PTSD after his stint in Vietnam.  Max’s vacant, haunted expression while she sings the stripped-down and delicate iteration of the song were seared into my mind. Years later, in the depths of my own healing (from what is a story for another time), I clung to it. 


I never painted it on my childhood bedroom walls, and it still hasn’t made it into my tattoo collection, but I listened to it without fail every single morning to help me get out of bed, and adopted it like a mantra; it’s almost closer than those things, it’s part of me. “Blackbird” was with me while I regrew my wings, and it gently dusted me off and set me back on my feet.

LISTEN HERE: Evan Rachel Wood from Across the Universe – Blackbird



Cole Odin Berggren Blue Bear Outreach Director

Music for me has always been about feeling, and while I can love a short, to-the-point pop tune just as much as a repetitive 10 minute dance track, I also appreciate more complex works of art. When people ask if I have a favorite song, while most would say, “I have several,” I can single out one that is the pinnacle, for me, of songwriting, feel, tone, vision, and voice. My favorite song is “LATERALUS” by the art-rock-prog-metal band TOOL. 
It’s a multi-leveled song about our humanity in relation to the universe and how we fit into it, but there are sub-themes and ideas that also course through it. It’s about positivity. It’s about surrender. It’s about beauty. It’s about feeling. Furthermore, it was written with the golden ratio – aka the mathematical Fibonacci sequence, the  source of spirals that we see in nature everywhere – in mind, as the syllabic pattern of the vocals climbs up and down the numeric pattern. It’s deep on so many levels, and the climax (instrumentally and lyrically) is glorious (did I mention I was a music nerd?!). HAH! Yes, it’s a spectacular example of songwriting and it showed me a depth that I had never heard before. 

And with that, I urge you to “…Feel inspired. To fathom the power. To witness the beauty. To bathe in the fountain. To swing on the spiral. SPIRAL OUT. KEEP GOING.” 🙂 


Dennis Criteser Blue Bear Program Director

Instead of growing up, I pretended to be a recording artist and eventually produced 8 albums in my bedroom studio. For more than half of those, I was either a student at or working at Blue Bear. I traded album-making for baby-making (and made a great one!), and music fell to the side. 

When my baby had to pick a language to learn in middle school, she went for Italian, and we started learning together. A teacher sent me a link to an Italian song that blew my mind – I felt like I was in high school and had just discovered the best band in the whole wide world! The song was “L’unica cosa” by Marta sui Tubi. It sparked a deep exploration of Italian singer/songwriters and reawakened a desire to play music.  Fast forward: my trio, Bella Strada, specializes in songs by Fabrizio De André, and I love playing music again!

LISTEN HERE: Marta sui Tubi – L’unica cosa


Tom O’Connell  Chair, Blue Bear Board of Trustees

One of the best things about life at Blue Bear is being surrounded by individuals who have such deep knowledge of the music industry: musicians, producers, and performers. It can also be intimidating given that my qualifications are basically that of generalist music superfan, spanning many genres.

When asked to think of a song that is meaningful to me, I immediately thought of Ben Harper and his genre-spanning music, be it blues, soul or rock. And specifically, I thought of “Not Fire, Not Ice,” his quiet but powerful song that was played as the first dance at my wedding to my beautiful wife.

LISTEN HERE: Ben Harper – Not Fire, Not Ice


Bonnie Hayes Blue Bear Board of Trustees

When I was 13, in the late ’60s, the world seemed like a big lie. School was lying to me about the past and future, my parents were lying about their marriage being stable, church was lying to me about what God wanted me to do, the United States government was lying about the war in Vietnam. I spent a lot of time reading intellectual novels, sassing my mom, and smoking her purloined More cigarettes in Golden Gate Park with similarly disaffected boys. The only truth, the one thing that made me feel that pure, authentic thrill of hope and inspiration was music.  I played Bach inventions on piano, and tried to figure out how Cream, Janis Joplin and Stevie Wonder came up with that brilliant music, made with some kind of alchemy out of the same boring old classical notes that I was stuck playing.

One day, I was listening to the Beatles’ White Album and noticed the song “Martha, My Dear.” The song is played on piano, with no drums or other instruments except Paul’s whimsical vocal. I had developed a good “ear,” honed to a razor edge by my sneaky method of avoiding actually reading music by getting my piano teacher to play for me, more slowly, the music I was supposed to read. Suddenly it dawned on me that I could probably figure out that Beatles’ song. I went to the piano, and with a few stops and starts, I was playing “Martha My Dear.” I quickly figured out “Lady Madonna,” followed by a few other Beatles piano songs. I played them over and over, so many times that our next door neighbor screamed out his window for me to stop.

My whole life changed that day. Somehow, a door had opened into the music I treasured, that I thought came from some kind of magical power that only certain special people had. I could make that music mine, carry it with me, recreate it at will, absorb it like food.  I saw a path to an un-boring future, a life that wasn’t a lie. After that day, all I wanted to do was music. And I love helping students make that same connection—it’s like being a magician. 

LISTEN HERE: The Beatles – Martha My Dear

Melanie Brooks Blue Bear Development Manager

My parents are Deadheads, and raised me in a very music-filled house and community. I’ve been taken to countless Dead shows, and spent endless hours of my life listening to bootleg show tapes. I’ve never, ever, ever liked the Grateful Dead. 

In the mid-90s, a friend of my parents’ gave me the Dead cover album, Deadicated. They knew that I was a huge Jane’s Addiction fan, and thought this might change my mind about the Grateful Dead. It worked. Almost. I absolutely loved Jane’s Addiction’s version of “Ripple.” Listening to the song performed by a different band, I heard past the music and all of a sudden heard the Dead as songwriters and poets. It made me feel like my parents might just be on to something. I still don’t love the Dead, but now, whenever I hear the song (played by anyone!) I feel a lovely sense of connection to my family.

LISTEN HERE: Jane’s Addiction – Ripple


Tracy Hawkins Blue Bear Board of Trustees 

I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by stacks of Motown vinyls and a giant record player in the heart of our home. Motown is a great passion of my mum and therefor was the soundtrack to my childhood – The Four Tops, The Temptations, Smokey, The Supremes, Marvin, Stevie, but most of all the Jacksons. My absolute favorite memories include sitting on the floor surrounded by albums with my mum. I was a child of the ’80s in the UK but I loved, and still do, the music from the ’60s originating from Detroit. With that as my musical foundation I graduated to Michael Jackson and Off The Wall is still my all time favorite album.

LISTEN HERE: Michael Jackson – Off The Wall

Nazan Aktas Former Blue Bear Teacher and Front Desk Staff

When I was 14 years old I went to my first real concert. Before that I’d only been to ballet performances, musicals, operas, etc. This was my first rock concert. It was in Izmir, Turkey in 2006 and my school principal thought it would be a good idea to take some students to see a group of renowned cellists from Finland. What she didn’t realize was that the group was called Apocalyptica and they were a metal band. They opened the show with a song called “Path,” and from the first few notes I was completely hooked. 

After that show, I begged my mom for 3 months for a cello and cello lessons. I listened to them obsessively and exclusively during those months, and “Path” was my favorite song. When we moved back to America, the first thing my mom did was buy me a cello and find a cello teacher for me and I never looked back. Thanks to that show and that band, I found my musical calling and my path ;).

LISTEN HERE: Apocalyptica – Path


Wyeth Coulter Blue Bear Board of Trustees and NextGen Advisory Board Chair 

My family loves dogs. We got our first in 1994 when my parents and then 2-year-old sister went to the pound to see if they felt connected to any of the dogs. They had their eye on this one German Sheppard and asked to play with him a little. However, the second the shared kennel door was opened, a one-year-old golden retriever ran out straight to my family. My parents immediately knew they were taking this dog home. 

He had yet to be given a name since he had been sold to the circus when little and had constantly been moved around. He had never really been in public and was easily scared by such things as cars on the highway. On the drive home, it was obvious how nervous he was as he barked at just about everything that they passed on the highway.  My parents could not get him to settle down until finally my dad turned on the radio to “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. 

LISTEN HERE: Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World

All of a sudden, the new Coulter family dog calmed down almost like magic. My parents then named him Satchmo, Louis Armstrong’s nickname. From that day forward that song became almost an artifact of my family and reminds us always of the power of music!

Renee Richardson Blue Bear Board of Trustees

There is no one piece of music that I love. I love all music. Any one piece of music has the ability to change my mood; inspiring me to dance, or sing out loud, or bang my head! When I think about my automatic response to music I am reminded of my Great Aunt Stella.  Stella was one of a kind. She once turned down Frank Sinatra in a New Jersey dance hall… “because he was always with the wrong crowd,” she told me. Great Aunt Stella wore stilettos until she was 75 and had the legs of a Radio City Music Hall Rockette! When my aunt Stella heard music, no matter where she was, she would get up and dance. I remember being at a dinner party and the food was just being set out before us but something in the song that was playing in the background compelled Stella to get on her feet and twirl and smile and sway to the music. Eyes closed. That is exactly how I feel when I hear music, it delivers a message to my core and compels me to dance like my Great Aunt Stella.

Dr. Steven Savage Blue Bear Co-Founder and Executive Director

Why are tragedies the stuff of life and comedies just for fun? Having kids makes songs pop into my head from my lifetime love of music – which of course I sing to them (and they complain).  Most recently – “Don’t Make Promises” by Tim Hardin. 

He has a deep vibrato on his voice which I usually hate, but for some reason this just kills me. This song is so tragic, and his life was as well. I learned it on piano – and cried. Tears of Joy, Tears of Grief. 

LISTEN HERE: Tim Hardin – Don’t Make Promises


Tennessee Mowrey  Blue Bear Teacher and Marketing Associate

Music guides me. I spent a good amount of 2018 traveling the world, living out of a backpack, sleeping in hostels and on trains. I was going through a breakup and my grandmother was dying, and by the time I had taken the Trans-Siberian and was deep in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia I was pretty rattled. In certain ways I felt that, by traveling, I was melting myself down and building myself back up again. In that time, I kept coming back to the album Every Open Eye by CHVRCHES – it was melancholy enough for me to resonate with but upbeat and positive enough to keep me happy. The chorus of the song “Make Them Gold” on that album summed up my thoughts nicely – “We will take the best parts of ourselves / And make them gold.”

One particular day in the Mongolian desert I was especially homesick. I was fifty miles from the nearest place to catch a bus, more than five hundred miles from a city, and didn’t know how to hold those thoughts within myself that I maybe wanted to go home but even if I really wanted to, I couldn’t. The sun was setting, so I climbed up to the top of the nearest sand dune to watch the light. As far as I could see, all the way to the horizon, there was no trace of human settlement. 

Just sand, shrubs, and dunes. I pulled out the guitar I was traveling with – a red Chiquita travel guitar given to me by Blue Bear that I had named Frederick. Slowly, I plugged Frederick into my pocket amp and then plugged my headphones in as well. I turned it up as loud as it would go and slammed on my guitar, playing that song, screaming the lyrics to the empty sunset in front of me. The wind snatched up my song and brought it into the vastness where not a soul would hear it.

By the time I was halfway through the second verse I was crying and couldn’t get any more words out. I played my guitar on the top of that sand dune until it was fully dark and dinner was served. That moment was the beginning of a sea change for me. I stopped fighting the changes I felt within myself – the melting down and rebuilding – and committed to taking the best parts of myself and making them gold.

LISTEN HERE: Chvches – Make Them Gold


Claire Cochran Blue Bear Board of Trustees 

The first time I was really moved by music I was with my parents seeing The Phantom of the Opera in Los Angeles. I was ten years old. I had never been to a big theatrical musical before and was awed by the entire experience. I recall the immensity of the feelings that accompanied my experience of that show. Andrew Lloyd Webber is clearly a master of tying emotion and the human experience to music. I recall at various points sobbing alongside a song (“Think of Me”) when the notes swelled and so did the orchestral movement. I also recall the feeling of my heart rising up out of my chest during other numbers, my toes and fingers tingling and the hair raising on my head (“All I Ask of You”). 

At the end of the show, when everyone rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation, I remember thinking to myself, “Yes, obviously this is what you do at the end of such an amazing experience.” I cried and clapped my hands furiously. My parents and my sister made fun of me afterwards; they had enjoyed the show, yes, but had not shed a tear or clearly been moved in the same way I had. That was, I believe, my first true moment of love with music. It took me on a roller coaster of true emotion and I have had the same connection with it ever since. Music can fundamentally change my mood, any day any time. Thanks Andrew Lloyd Webber!

LISTEN HERE: The Phantom of the Opera

Jim Peterson Blue Bear Teacher and Board of Trustees

I grew up listening to my Dad’s record collection of 1950s and 60s jazz records. He liked cool cocktail piano jazz like Oscar Peterson, Andre Previn, and Dave Brubeck. Brubeck’s saxophonist, Paul Desmond, wrote the tune “Take Five” and I always thought that was one of the coolest songs on the album of the same name. 

When I was in high school I broke into the band room after hours with a buddy and we played every instrument in the joint. The minute I blew into the alto saxophone I knew that was for me. Soon after that, my Mom, a music lover herself, was very generous and bought a 1920s silver plated King alto saxophone for me and the first thing I taught myself to play was “Take Five.”

LISTEN HERE: Dave Brubeck – Take Five


Julie Omran Friend of Blue Bear and Former Member, Board of Trustees

I was in the back seat of my dad’s car with my younger brother when I heard the news.  I was 9 years old and couldn’t quite understand what the DJ was telling us through the radio.  John Lennon had just been shot and killed. My dad had to explain it to me, that “a bad man had done a bad thing to a good man.”  Then I heard “Yesterday” playing through the speakers. I had literally grown up listening to and singing with The Beatles, as if they were my second set of parents. 

That was the first time in my young life when my brain connected the dots between the art and the artist behind it. Now that artist was gone, yet I was still hearing his (and Paul’s) music. I was stunned and awe-stricken. To this day, whenever I hear “Yesterday,” I go back to that place in the back of my dad’s car and remember exactly how I felt.

LISTEN HERE: The Beatles – Yesterday


Sandy Lange Blue Bear Finance Director 

In fifth grade I was in Choir. I think I was in the alto section. One day during practice, the leader stopped us mid-song and directed the alto section to sing alone. She then pointed to me and stated I was throwing the entire section off and I shouldn’t sing. I was to just mouth the words. The fact that I could throw off an entire section and essentially the whole choir made me feel confidence in my voice – on- or off-key.



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