It began with a piano.
Actually, it began without a piano. Twenty years ago, a group of Squamish piano teachers decided to raise funds to purchase one as a way to support local talent and to bring in professional performers for what they planned to become a regular concert series.
It sounds simple enough, but it took four years to raise the $46,000 to buy that piano — a Yamaha C7 grand piano, to be exact. That instrument has remained a staple of the Howe Sound Performing Arts Association (HSPAA) ever since and, according to founding president Joanna Schwarz, that piano, not to mention the association as a whole, has been instrumental in developing Sea to Sky's homegrown talent.
"It's a way to harness the energies, ideas and talents of people," Schwarz says. "There's a vehicle for people to perform, which has been very important, not just for international artists but for local performers who are writing their own music. We give them a stage."
That piano, in fact, helped lay the foundation for the development of Squamish culture. Before the HSPAA, there were very few cultural groups active in Squamish. The Brackendale Art Gallery held some concerts. There was the Howe Sound Players theatre group. A dance company was active at the time, along with the quilters.
"It was a bit quiet," Schwartz says. "There weren't all the pub performances and other people putting on events like there are now."
Aaron Purdy, current president, says the HSPAA laid the foundation, and whetted the local appetite, for all the music festivals that were to come.
"I certainly think we set a precedent because we've brought some spectacular performers to town," Purdy says.
"There was a time when it was our role to bring an element of culture and the arts to Squamish. Now there are other groups doing that on a much grander scale. We have Squamish Equinox Rock Festival (SERF), we have LIVE at Squamish, we have the Brackendale Art Gallery and all these other groups."
Today, the HSPAA's primary goal is to promote, assist and develop local musical talent, as well as to bring performers to Squamish that will never appear on the bill at LIVE at Squamish — virtuoso pianists, one-man shows and other grassroots performances.
The HSPAA offers the Access Music Education (AME) program, which gives out between $2,000-$5,000 per year to assist families and children with performing arts education of any kind, who may not otherwise be able to otherwise afford it.
They also offer annual bursaries to Howe Sound Secondary students, the amount of which has recently been raised to $500 per student.
Purdy, who has spent most of his 26 years in Squamish, says the HSPAA has been instrumental in his own personal development both as a performer and as a contributing member of the community. Five years ago, he says he was "roped in" to help out with the HSPAA's public relations. Two years ago, he was named president. He received one of the bursaries when he was in high school, which he says helped him financially while he was earning his bachelor's degree in music.
"Our funding programs are incredibly vital," Purdy says. "We see a large amount of applications coming in every year and people are really taking advantage of this program. If they can't afford music lessons — which most people can't, because it is an extravagance — they can now access assistance for their kids to get music lessons for cheaper."
Its influence extends well beyond Squamish's borders. The Howe Sound Music Festival, the HSPAA's adjudicated festival, has helped launch the careers of several musicians and performers including Whistler-raised Ali Milner, who says her experiences with the HSPAA — some of her first public performances ever — helped to build her confidence and to pave the way for what has now become an impressive start to a music career, including last year's spot on CBC's televised Cover Me Canada competition, and her current involvement in the Peak Performance Project this year.
"What they do, especially for young people, is really inspiring," Milner says. It really inspired me." She still has the ribbons from her adjudicated performances on display in her home.
To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the HSPAA is collaborating with the Squamish Valley Photo Club for Sarah Hagen and Pro'ject Sound, where the pianist will perform pieces from French composer Claude Debussy accompanied by the photography of 10 local photographers. The event will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.
Tickets are available at the door.
And what will Hagen be playing on? You guessed it. That influential grand piano.