Swallow Hill builds community through music enrichment

The nonprofit is celebrating 40 years in Denver


For the last 40 years, Swallow Hill Music has been steadily growing its footprint in the Denver area. What started as a small collective of musicians has grown to a school and concert programmer that reaches tens of thousands of people annually.

For concert-goers and volunteers like Christy Ramee, the nonprofit has become more than just a place where she can listen to local music. For her, its a community and a place where she’s met close friends.

When Ramee moved from Atlanta 25 years ago, she immediately began research to find Denver’s music community. In Atlanta, she and her husband had friends to go to concerts with, and enjoyed mingling with music lovers.

“When we moved here, I didn’t know anybody. I wanted to find the music community,” Ramee said. “It very quickly came to light that Swallow Hill was the place.”

Swallow Hill runs concerts in three venues in its own building, located at 71 E. Yale Ave. The building also houses its school and staff. In addition to the Yale building, the school has two smaller locations in Denver. Swallow Hill also runs concerts in venues across the city, and helps book musicians for other organization’s events.

Last year, 64,000 people attended concerts through Swallow Hill and there were 64,000 visits to the school, said CEO Paul Lhevine.

Little Swallows

The nonprofit also offers outreach programming to low-income families and schools. Music education is a large part of what they do at Swallow Hill, Lhevine said. Swallow Hill also works in music therapy, particularly in memory care with adult Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Music helps to bridge the gap between the left and right side of the brain, Lhevine said. For young students, this can eventually help with math, behavior and language skills.

“Music as an educational component drives math and language and social positive emotional behaviors,” Lhevine said. “You can’t think about half beats or full rests or three-quarter time without thinking about math.”

For Lhevine, the potential to grow Swallow Hill’s outreach programming was what drew him to the job back in 2015. In addition to its paid school, Swallow Hill offers classes to K-12 schools and early childhood education with the Little Swallows program for locations that have at least 85% of their students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

When Lhevine started, outreach only represented about 1% to 2% of Swallow Hill’s programming. Now, that number is closer to 30%, he said.

This year Swallow Hill will be in 125 classrooms each week working with around 1,700 kids Lhevine said. Four years ago, it was only in one school and worked with 65 kids.

Lhevine said donors are excited about the program, which has helped Little Swallows expand into more schools. More schools are also seeing its success and asking for the program.

“There are so many early childhood education school and centers in our seven-county area that are in deep need and we are only skimming the surface,” he said. “Yes, we have been blessed with funding, and we can do so much more for so many kids that need it.”

Outreach programming got started in Denver schools. Swallow Hill is now expanding to Mapleton and Aurora. Lhevine said the goal is to get to all seven counties.

Musical history

Forty years ago, Swallow Hill got its start in a north Denver neighborhood of the same name. It was originally located on East 17th Avenue, across the street from where Steuben’s is now.

As the school grew, Swallow Hill moved to South Pearl Street. Then in 1998 it moved to the current location on Yale.

Swallow Hill also puts on around 250 concert events throughout the year. Staff runs sound at events throughout Denver, such as the Oriental Theater, Four Mile Historic Park, the Denver Botanic Gardens and more.

“It’s everything literally from 75 seats to 5,000,” Lhevine said. “We’re pretty active all over the concert space.”

At first, Swallow Hill was a program run by the Denver Folklore Center, which sells instruments. After buying an instrument, the store would sometimes be able to offer lessons for an individual. Those lessons turned into classes with multiple people and kept growing from there, Lhevine said.

“It literally kind of grew and blossomed,” he said. “From 2005 to 2015, in that decade we doubled the size of our music school.”

The school is now the second largest acoustic school in the country.

It’s never too late

The acoustic music school, which is mainly housed at the Yale location, takes music even further. Tyler Breuer said that many of their students come in as older adults to learn to play an instrument for the first time. In fact, Lhevine said, 80% of the students are adults.

That was the case for Ramee. Around 10 years ago, she began taking music lessons for the first time. Ramee had inherited a ukulele from her in-laws, and she wanted to give it a try. With no prior musical experience, she jumped in to learn.

Now, she plays in a ukulele club once a week, and said that some of her very best friends were people she met through the class.

Five years ago, when she won a guitar at a Swallow Hill concert, there was no question about where she would turn for lessons. Although this time, she had a little more confidence in her skills.

“They were very welcoming to students with no music background,” she said. “The teachers were able to get down to a real beginner lesson.”

For Breuer, this is the goal of the school. He wants people to realize that it’s not too late to pick up an instrument and learn. Bruer said he’s also hopeful that people will begin to feel empowered through their own creativity, even if it’s just for yourself.

“I describe (the school) as a place where people can come and get empowerment,” Breuer said. “At the core of it, our biggest deal is community. It’s mixing it up in a classroom that you don’t know the musician next to you, but after eight weeks of classes you’re going to be collaborators with that person. You’re going to be peers.”

Ramee agreed, saying that learning to play has made music a “much richer experience” for her. She now enjoys playing in group sessions at Swallow Hill.

For Lhevine, Swallow Hill means community — one where people can enjoy an experience that brings people together. “Music enriches our lives,” he added.

“From being the place where we go in the happiest of times, or that place where we go in sad times,” he said, “music rounds us out and does bring joy.”


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