Sedona Red Rock High School Music Director Courtney Yeates will admit to turning down the offer for her current position a number of times before finally accepting — before being, in her words, “kind of steamrolled” into taking on the task of turning a disorganized program into something truly noteworthy.
Yeates, a classically trained cellist and former studio musician, came to Sedona a half-decade ago with one mission in mind: To perform and to teach music privately. Having taught in a musical program at one of San Antonio’s largest high schools, she had zero intention of teaching at SRRHS.
However, after founding a Sedona Youth Orchestra through the Boys and Girls Club of Sedona, SRRHS Principal Darrin Karuzas began to court her for his own program. At first, she balked. Nonetheless, she helped Karuzas form a five-year plan for a musical program, telling him, “You might want to find someone to help you do this.”
Karuzas said he thought Yeates would be perfect for that task. Others soon joined the chorus, urging her to — pardon the joke — change her tune.
“Before I knew it, I’d accepted this job,” Yeates said, rolling her eyes.
From the get-go, she wanted to overhaul the current system at SRRHS. She hardly favored the steel drum program, explaining that the instrument is pedagogically a “nightmare.” Regardless, having been informed that it would take Sedona-Oak Creek School District Governing Board approval to alter the program, she struggled through her first semester.
By the end of it, though, she had had enough — board approval be damned.
“The next semester, I went rogue,” Yeates explained. She began incorporating new elements into her curriculum, maintaining the choir class and the rock band class while phasing out the steel drums. She brought in her own string instruments from the Sedona Youth Orchestra.
In its first year — Yeates’ second — the SRRHS orchestra had players place near the top at the All Region Music Festival.
“We came out of the gate pretty big, and we’ve continued that trend,” Yeates said. “We keep taking top places …. We’re very much a team.”
One of the most enduring facets of Yeates’ program is its emphasis on community service. For each of her classes, she requires 10 hours of arts-related service.
Initially, the students were uncertain, even intimidated, by the prospect of getting out into the community. Now, Yeates reported, it has become “just the culture of my class.” She provides the students ample opportunities to contribute locally. Now and then, she simply tells her students they must seek out opportunities on their own.
“They learn to make connections with adults they might not otherwise have,” Yeates said.
Such connections serve not only to advance the students’ own interests — many have come away with references, creative opportunities and even job offers — but to promote the school itself, helping to secure community partnerships and increase public participation.
“In our community, it’s important to showcase what we do successfully,” Yeates said, listing the musical events that SRRHS now hosts, both by itself and in collaboration with local and national entities. All of the advances, she insisted, are done in a difficult funding environment. Tax credits, donations and other sources of public funding are critical.
“For me, as a teacher, I think it’s important for Sedona residents to know what they’re getting for their investment,” she continued, adding that SOCSD has always prioritized the arts even when other local schools are gutting their programs. “The money we get is being used really wisely. Sure, we could use a whole lot more, but we get what we’re given.”
As a constant promoter of the arts, Yeates knows there is one more feature that cannot be overlooked when trying to increase enrollment at SRRHS: Reaching out to grade schools, even when they aren’t part of the district. Sedona Charter Schools strings program, the longest-running in Sedona, is a natural “feeder program” for Yeates.
“Those students used to consider other options for high school,” Yeates concluded. “Now they know they have a place to go.