Music Academy’s Compeer Program Builds Memories and Melodies in Montecito

Keeping the Beat, with Heart: Supportive Program Brings Much More than Music to the Community

Music Academy’s
Compeer Program
Builds Memories and Melodies in Montecito

Keeping the Beat, with Heart:
Supportive Program Brings Much More
than Music to the Community

By Andrea Weir Estrada | July 27, 2023

A FEW OF THE COMPEER FAMILIES: From left, Dean Carter, Mark Stori, and Joshua Kail; Sese, Heather, Noah, and Madison Ntem, with Paul Armitage (in brown shirt); and Lois Phillips and Sarah Bobrow | Credit: Zach Mendez

Read about Compeer program members Dennis Thompson, Lois Phillips
and Music Academy fellow Sarah Bobrow here.

Trumpet player Paul Armitage had never visited Santa Barbara before attending the Music Academy’s 2023 Summer Festival. Likewise, he’d never met Heather or Sese Ntem or their children, Noah and Madison. Even so, rather than finding himself isolated and on his own in an unfamiliar city, Armitage was welcomed as an honorary member of the Ntem family, and they have experienced the festival together.

This is all courtesy of the Music Academy’s Compeer Program, an initiative that matches academy fellows, like Armitage, with local families and individuals who serve as cheerleaders, tour guides, and a ready-made support system.

“This program has become the heartbeat of the Music Academy community and sets this festival apart from any other in terms of audience engagement,” said Academy Dean Tiffany DeVries. “This program is all about relationships, community, and connections. Here at the Music Academy, world-class music thrives alongside genuine friendships because of the Compeer Program.”

While the Music Academy provides housing for the fellows for their eight-week stay in Santa Barbara, the Compeers provide familiar faces and local connections. Fellows might meet once a week or so for dinner at their Compeers’ home or at a restaurant; they might take a beach walk together or have a coffee date. And Compeers have an opportunity to experience the richness of live classical music from the perspective of their fellows and get to know classical musicians whose stars are just beginning to rise.

It’s a win-win situation for all.

FAMILY STROLL: The Ntem family and Paul Armitage | Credit: Zach Mendez

“For Compeers, there’s no better way to enjoy a performance than by knowing the performers,” said DeVries. And for the musicians, knowing someone in the audience is there specifically to hear them “means the world to the performers, and their faces beam when they find their Compeers in the audience.”

“Before this summer, we’d never attended a classical music performance — let alone taken the kids to one,” Heather Ntem said, “and now we’re doing it and we love it.” The Ntem family has attended two performances at the Granada, both of which enthralled the 7- and 4-year-old children. “It’s so fun to see them so engaged,” Heather continued. The children’s first order of business as audience members, she noted, was to find Armitage among the sea of musicians on stage. “They always find him, and they are in touch with what he’s playing. They know what his instrument sounds like.”

Music fellows participating in the annual Summer Festival have been selected from among “the best of the best,” said Dean Carter, a member of the Academy’s board of directors. He and his husband, Mark Stori, are Compeers to viola player Joshua Kail, who recently completed his master’s degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. “They are top musicians from around the world. You think of this as something that happens in big cities like New York or Los Angeles, but we get to interact with this level of talent right here.”

Since the Compeer program launched in 1998, more than 3,000 fellows have been matched with nearly 500 Compeers. This summer, 115 Compeers — including 33 first-timers — have been matched with 137 music fellows. “Every fellow who wants a Compeer has one,” said Carter. “But sometimes we don’t have enough, so some are matched with two or three fellows.”

The Compeer Program was founded by the late Leatrice Luria, a Music Academy patron who sought to break down the barrier between audiences and performers, bring them together in meaningful friendships, and create a deeper sense of community at the festival. Matches between Compeers and fellows are based on similar interests, hobbies, and other commonalities such as hometown, alma mater, and language studies.

Take Armitage, for example. He is interested in Afro-Cuban music, which has been a big part of Sese Ntem’s life. During one of their first outings together, Armitage joined one of Sese’s drumming classes. “Then, as a whole family, we went to the Santa Barbara Harbor and had lunch,” said Armitage.

“This program is all about relationships, community, and connections. Here at the Music Academy, world-class music thrives alongside genuine friendships because of the Compeer Program.”

—Music Academy Dean Tiffany DeVries

Since then, there have been other gatherings, and many with other Compeers and fellows. “One of the natures of being an orchestral musician is we end up being in a practice room for hours and hours,” Armitage said. “The Compeer program connects us with people who have been around the city for a long time. So rather than just spend hours in a practice room in Santa Barbara, we spend hours in a practice room but also get to connect with this beautiful place.” A native of Riverdale, Georgia, Armitage recently completed his undergraduate work at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He will begin a master’s program at Rice University in the fall.

“My family is on the East Coast and they can’t make it out to Santa Barbara this summer, and that’s totally understandable — I don’t blame them for it,” Armitage said. “But it’s also awesome to have my own family in Santa Barbara.”

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS: Academy Boardmember Dean Carter (left) and UCSB Swim Coach Mark Stori flank their fellow, Joshua Kail | Credit: Zach Mendez

Heather Ntem acknowledged she was hesitant about adding another commitment to the family’s already-packed summer schedule, but she was buoyed by Sese’s enthusiasm. And she has no regrets. “We do fun things, and we just hang out,” she said. “Paul is teaching us, and the kids really love learning from him.”

When Noah Ntem celebrated his seventh birthday a couple of weeks ago, Armitage came to the party and played “Happy Birthday” on his trumpet, an unplanned highlight of the party for 100 or so guests. “I don’t think anyone in our family will ever look at a trumpet again and not think of Paul,” Heather Ntem said.

The relationships are at the heart of the Compeer program’s success. “You get to understand the people behind the people you see on stage,” said Carter. “You get to know them, cheer for them, you get excited when they play beautifully, and you learn their stories. I know there are Compeers who stay connected to their fellows over time.”

This marks the second year Carter and Stori, the assistant men’s swimming coach at UC Santa Barbara, have served as Compeers. “It’s my favorite part of the summer,” Carter noted. “And I know Mark — who’s a swimmer, not a musician — really enjoys it, and he’s gotten into organizing events.

“You get to know the stories of these world-class musicians,” Carter continued. “You get to understand how they connected to music, how they connected to their instruments. And it’s so multicultural — these are students from all over the world — so we hear their stories about growing up in other places. More than just making beautiful music, they’re beautiful human beings.”

The program has created its own ripple effect. “Our next-door neighbor loves opera, and she got engaged with the program. And our neighbors across the street are Compeers. So, we call this [part of our street] Compeer Corner,” Carter said. “It has created connections within our neighborhood. We’ve all rotated for gatherings at different homes — we’ve had brunch and dinner together, and we have a barbecue coming up this weekend.”

Those meaningful friendships Luria hoped to nurture when she conceived of the Compeer Program 25 years ago seem to have come to fruition.

“We have incredible human beings coming into our community,” said Heather Ntem, “and they’re giving us a gift, just in having these relationships. They’re so lovely and bright.” 

Credit: Zach Mendez


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