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In second grade, I was given a class assignment to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My classmates wrote things like astronaut, police officer and doctor. I wrote that I wanted to be on stage and perform.

How did I know this would happen years later? I was a shy kid, born and raised on a reservation, and I grew up not within but near the largest city on the Navajo Nation, which some may consider a small town. My parents gifted me my first electric guitar on my 11th birthday after years of playing on a plastic one. Every day after school I’d come home, do homework and spend hours in my room practicing and finding the right distortion effect for my guitar by stomping on my FX pedal. I wanted to be a lead guitarist for a thrash metal band. I also started to sing.

Growling and yelling my guts out in my room, I can’t imagine what the neighbors thought was going on in our house. It hurt my throat, but I felt accomplished with what I had taught myself so far. I listened to metal music religiously. A few years later, I finally picked up the clean singing and started to go to karaoke with my mom. One of those nights, a country band member noticed and asked me to sing at one of their shows. I brought my guitar out there with me, pretending I knew what a C chord was, watching for the changes in their hands. I wasn’t even plugged into an amplifier.

Meanwhile, at school, I signed up for my first guitar class ever, only to be sent out within the first few minutes because I showed the teacher my favorite metal riff. It was the first music-related course I’d ever seen or heard of at my school. I continued in the country band and a few others, finally gaining that stage experience I predicted in the second grade.

It wouldn't be until my senior year in high school that I would see a music-related program called the Native American Composer’s Apprenticeship Project (NACAP). I joined in a heartbeat, eager to create. I already had about three original songs under my belt ready to be released on an album. I sat down with the instructor, played a few riffs, then he broke out the staff paper. My brain didn’t know anything about “the staff.” How do I approach it? What do the dots and lines mean? The intimidation set in and immediately dispersed all over my self-taught theories. But NACAP didn’t expect me to know these things right off the bat and gave me extreme encouragement to write what I knew and felt.

I felt so small. A half Navajo and half Apache girl writing “fancy” music for a quartet — something I had never dreamed of or even crossed my mind. My music education came from the local music scene, mentors who had the patience to sit and play guitar with me, singing with my mother and practicing in my room until I fell asleep with my guitar on my lap. I grew out of my old mindset of “maybe I can do it” to “I can do it, and I’m going to do my best.” A whole new world opened to me and I didn’t feel so small anymore.

After attending school in the same small town from preschool to community college, I set a goal to pursue a degree in music education. NACAP had a great deal of influence on my career choice. When signing up to audition at the Northern Arizona University School of Music, there were fields like “high school choir director,” “music teacher'' and “where did I have my voice lessons?” These were fields I could not fill out. I spent the few months prior to audition day working on my best impression of an opera singer. I had no technique, but I had a good ear. 

Alas, I had been taken under the wing of my very first vocal instructor who appreciated my background in metal and supported my singer-songwriter career. She defined me as her “special” student, being the self-taught music major scary metal singer. I had struggled to adjust to college life — driving back and forth from home to school, which was a four-hour round-trip. It sounds brutally draining to do this every day, but it is also dedication. Through these struggles, a kind family let me stay on their couch throughout the semester and my voice instructor also provided a room for me to stay in once a week. Out of the goodness of their hearts, it was the most encouragement for my education, next to the support from my family.

If music had been offered more during my secondary education, if there had been a permanent music program for all genres available in my small town, and several other towns like it on the Navajo Nation, maybe I would’ve been more prepared and confident? I may not have been the self-taught music BA and maybe I wouldn’t be one of the two Navajo students in the music program at my university? Maybe there would be more Navajo students?

But I can’t dwell on the past. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today if I had not had my experiences. There are many students like me, working hard on their craft with a lack of resources on the reservation, determined and delving into the next unknown chapter (probably unprepared like me). Although being self-taught is an amazing skill and an admirable feat, continuing education in this way is not what I want for future generations. No matter where you’re from — especially in underserved areas like mine — everyone deserves access to music education programs.


Sage Bond is a singer and heavy metal artist who is affiliated with one of The Lewis Prize for Music's awardee organizations, Grand Canyon Music Festival.