Sometimes the big moments for a musician happen nowhere near the recital hall or the practice room. Sometimes they happen on the other side of the world, in a classroom with a young student who can’t read sheet music, and who can barely speak your language.
That’s where the big moment happened for Patrick Sutton. The guitar performance grad (DMA ’14)—currently an adjunct at Naropa University and Community College of Denver—was in Afghanistan, at the National Institute of Music in Kabul. He and cellist Kimberly Patterson (DMA ‘12) were invited there for a two-week guest artist residency in January 2014.
“It was really meaningful teaching music there,” says Sutton. “Music was illegal in Afghanistan through the 90s. So now they’re trying to rebuild music in the younger generations and give kids a chance to play. To be a part of that was amazing.”
Now Sutton, who with Patterson performs and records music as the Patterson/Sutton Duo, says his life is no longer just about making music. It’s also about bringing music to people who don’t have the access he’s always had growing up in Colorado.
“That’s how you can make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time,” Sutton says. “In places like that, people are so desperate for proper music teachers. It’s so important to find a way to make music a part of their lives.”
After returning to Kabul for another two-week stint in March, Sutton established an ongoing relationship with the National Institute of Music, teaching classes over Skype and helping a local guitarist run the program. But he says the school’s biggest champion for classical guitar is a 21-year-old student. “He’s really self-directed because he’s had to go through so much. He’s raising nine brothers and sisters, so he’s a natural fit teaching the younger kids at school.”
The student, like so many Sutton has met, experienced heartbreaking violence in his young life. His father and best friend were killed by the Taliban, and his school was the scene of a suicide bombing during a concert last year. Sutton says it’s life-changing to hear these stories, and still be met with such joy for music. “Just being there for two weeks puts everything in perspective. They do this to escape the reality of what’s happening around them every day.”
Sutton’s musical mission has also taken him to Egypt via Cultures in Harmony. The cultural diplomacy organization, which does outreach with people who don’t have access to music education, brought Sutton to another realization about his craft: it crosses boundaries.
“I spent most of my time writing music with an Egyptian band. We played a mix of jazz, rock and traditional Egyptian music. And even though none of them could read music—and I rely so heavily on notation—we were able to play together and make a connection because that’s the nature of music. It helped us transcend those differences.”
This summer, Sutton did a tour of South Africa with flutist Cobus Du Toit (MM ’10, DMA ’14), playing concerts in every large city in the country and doing outreach with local schools. Sutton says students still contact him to express their gratitude. “We did master classes at the University of South Africa for kids near Pretoria. Just a few weeks ago, one of the students posted on Facebook that he could still remember what we taught him.”
Next up will be a trip with Du Toit to Indonesia, where the pair will present a two-day music camp for kids and perform at a music festival. It’s part of a journey that Sutton says he intends to continue. “I’ve seen what music can mean to people,” he says. “It’s not just a fun thing that you get to do if you’re lucky enough to be born with the opportunity. It saves lives.
“It’s the most important thing in the world to them. Sometimes, it’s the only thing they have.”
Sutton says he could have never traveled the world teaching music if it hadn’t been for the people he met at the College of Music. “I never stayed in my guitar box. There’s such a great atmosphere of collaboration and open-mindedness here,” he says. “You have to feed off the people around you to improve as a musician and as a person.
“And never say ‘no’ to someone who asks you to do something with music. Something else comes from it every time. It could snowball into the coolest thing you’ve ever done.”
Sutton is also a part of the quartet Throw Down or Shut Up! with Associate Professor of Music Theory and pianist Daphne Leong, Thompson Jazz Studies Program Director and saxophonist/flutist John Gunther, and Percussion Instructor Michael Tetreault. They perform as part of the Faculty Tuesday series on Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in Grusin Music Hall.