The gift of a piano that was purchased for $50 several decades ago for a young Napa boy has served as the seed for crops of future local youth musicians and arts enthusiasts.

Dave Ruane, Napa High School Vocal Music Workshop director, remembers that piano he received from his grandmother at the age of 8, and his personal immersion in music that followed, as the gift that changed the course of his life.

Ruane, now also a professional pianist and music educator, takes seriously his role of teaching, leading and bringing along the next generations of both musicians and arts enthusiasts.

Six years ago, when he began directing Vocal Music Workshop (referred by choir students simply as “Vocal”) at Napa High, he was told that if he could not make the program financially self-sustainable, it would be dropped.

The Napa High Vocal Music Workshop had already begun to produce an annual a cappella event called A Cappella Extravaganza at Napa’s 600-seat District Auditorium. Ruane saw the potential of that sell-out event and made a calculated, yet risky, choice to move the show to the 1,200-seat Lincoln Theater in Yountville.

“Support for art and music education is needed more than ever in our community,” said Ruane, who added that it is a difficult task, and a lot of work, yet they sold out all 1,200 seats that first year they moved to Yountville and have every year since.

A Cappella Extravaganza takes place again at Lincoln Theater on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 20, and ticket sales are already brisk, officials say.

The Vocal Music Workshop is a select group of 12 students, Ruane explained. They audition and are among the most talented students in the Napa High Choir Program. The commitment to Vocal is demanding. It is an independent study course, which means that the students meet outside of school hours. Usually the group meets in the evenings, on breaks during the day, and at lunch time.

Vocal Music Workshop also visits eight local elementary schools annually. “Part of Vocal’s mission is to inspire and encourage elementary school age children to become part of music and to become part of art, and to experience art,” Ruane said at a recent, local public performance at Oxbow Market. “Many of the kids that are in vocal now, and that have been in vocal since I have been teaching it the past six years, first saw the group perform at their elementary school.”

He added, “Tonight we had a little guy tonight come up that saw our group perform at Browns Valley Elementary school this year and he wanted to take his picture with Vocal Music Workshop, so that’s really achieving our goal, that we are inspiring kids to want to be in music and want to be in art.”

Ruane, who was involved in the Vintage High Vocal Music program in the early 1980s, said that he wasn’t even supposed to go to Vintage. “I was supposed to go to Napa High School, but I petitioned to go there because I played violin, and all of my Redwood Junior High School friends were going there. I ended up dropping out of orchestra, and ended up being caught by the choir teacher in the choir room playing the piano.”

Recognizing his talent, that discovery by the choir teacher led to Ruane’s participation in every high school choir, as pianist for the program at Vintage as a sophomore. He then sang with the group for the next two years.

The program became his family, Ruane said. “I really didn’t know a lot of people in high school; everyone came from everywhere not just Redwood, so choir, like it is now at Napa High is a family unit, and everyone has a place in choir. Everyone has a sense of belonging and family, regardless of their social status. It all becomes a big melting pot in the music program.”

“We offer so many ways for kids to express themselves, from very classically trained music, from the very beginning stages of music, to Vocal, which explores modern music, pop music, jazz, so we are really able to hit everything, but we really need the funding to do it.”

The 13th annual A Cappella Extravaganza remains a critical fundraiser. What began as a small a cappella gathering is now a complete concert that includes a lineup of local high school (Vintage High School and American Canyon High School also participate), collegiate and professional groups.

A highlight and tradition of the A Cappella Extravaganza each year is the return of recent Napa High graduates, now attending college, who “come home” to perform with their collegiate groups. Some of the schools represented by Napa High Vocal Workshop Alumni in the past include UCLA, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, University of Redlands, UC Berkeley and Stanford.

The professional headliner for Extravaganza this year is The Filharmonic, a group that became widely known on NBC’s the Sing-Off and also appeared in the film “Pitch Perfect 2.” Based in Los Angeles, this five-member, Filipino-American group placed in the semi-finals, which landed a spot in the national live tour of the show.

In 2016, The Filharmonic brought their distinctive blend of hip hop, pop and ‘90s music to more than 150 stages nationwide and was named the number one college- booked entertainment group of the year. Members include VJ Rosales, Joe Caigoy, Trace Gaynor, Jules Cruz and Niko Del Rey.

Ruane enjoys knowing that the arts reach people. “It is fun to watch people listen to my students and to watch people be moved by their music. We all need a place in our crazy day-to-day lives to escape. Music is an escape, music is a refuge for people. If you go back to the World War II days, music is what saved people. They needed the music. Today, we need it now more than ever. You can’t watch the news and not feel stressed out. We need that outlet and we need our kids to feel like they belong to something. Even if they never are involved in music after high school, they will have an amazing appreciation for art, and they will teach their kids to be appreciative and involved in music as well.”

A Cappella Extravaganza has grown exponentially over the years, Ruane said, and he is grateful to the sponsors and families that make it possible. “These high school students, and college students are given the opportunity to perform at a world-class venue on a huge stage. The house is packed with 1,200 people, there are bright stage lights, it is a student-run show, with professional sound checks,” said Ruane, “Everything about it is not just about putting on a show and raising money. It is also about giving those kids the experience. Some of them may go on and pursue music in college, and maybe after that. They may even inspire other kids attending, to get involved with vocal music.”

Music is an escape. Music is a refuge for people. If you go back to the World War II days, music is what saved people. They needed the music. Today, we need it now more than ever. Dave Ruane, Napa High School
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