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Kris Kerzman, Variety contributor, Published November 18 2013

F-M nonprofit spreads music to underserved, isolated audiences

FARGO – Picture a music venue. Think of the people there, standing and sitting, singing along to their favorite songs and maybe getting up to dance.

Chances are, what you’re picturing is a far cry from the setting for the latest concert by Sonja Holmgren.

On a cold, rainy Friday afternoon, she brings her acoustic guitar into a board room at Friendship, Inc., an organization that provides residential resources and personal care to people with special needs in the Red River Valley. Since these people don’t have access to those venues you might be imagining, Holmgren comes to them.

As she works through her set of American standards, country songs and the occasional Christmas carol, the atmosphere of the board room is replaced with the atmosphere of a concert arena. People sing along and dance. Holmgren chatters with the 20 or so people in attendance, asking for help with lyrics to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and cracking jokes about the awful weather.

Dori Leslie, Friendship, Inc.’s chief operating officer, said Holmgren’s frequent appearances are enjoyed by both her staff and people they serve.

“We find that entertainment is very healthy for the people who we support,” Leslie said. “And bringing someone in like this is wonderful. We find singing and music a universal language for everybody, whether they have a disability or not.”

Holmgren’s performance was made possible by an organization called Angels of the Muse, a non-profit operating in Fargo-Moorhead since 2004 with the goal of bringing music to under-served populations who would otherwise have little or no access to it. Participating musicians play at sites such as the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, Dakota Boys Ranch, Nokomis Childcare Center and the YWCA.

“We wanted to serve these isolated populations that never get to hear good music,” said Jack Schauer, founder and coordinator of Angels of the Muse, who patterned the organization after Bread and Roses, a large non-profit in California.

Over the years, he’s worked with folk, jazz, blues and rock musicians, placing them into sites on a monthly basis.

“We get such good responses from every place that we perform,” he said. “That keeps us going. If people ignored what we did, it would be difficult to keep motivated.”

Schauer said that keeping musicians involved and securing funding has been challenging for Angels of the Muse. He’s working to expand fundraising efforts into the business community and is always looking for performers willing to help.

Aside from the site concerts, Schauer also organizes a showcase of Angels of the Muse performers at the Spirit Room a couple times a year. A singer, songwriter, and guitarist himself, he said they got a “fantastic reaction” to the last showcase in October and are looking to build on that success.

Holmgren said she “can’t imagine not doing it,” and her benefits of playing for such a unique audience go far beyond the small stipend she’s paid. She hopes those benefits will help the group expand.

“It’s kind of a calling, I guess, and it’s for such a good cause,” she said, adding that she also loves the opportunity to meet and talk to people.

“I play at Churches United for the Homeless, and I swear it’s my favorite place to play. There can be anywhere between 50 and 150 people that come and go through there. It’s a big venue, which is one reason I like to play there, and I think they’re the best audience. They always want to talk to you, and it can be so interesting. They come from all over the country.”

“Those people don’t get entertainment, and they can’t afford to go anywhere,” she added.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net/artspulse.