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Petaluma Profile: Sadie Sonntag creates musical alchemy

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Singer Sadie Sonntag of Petaluma has performed in concert halls, theaters, bars, churches, coffee-shops, and fairgrounds. She’s sung the Shubert Mass with the Sonoma State Symphonic Chorus. She’s conducted the Dona Nobis Pacem from J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass. But her favorite gig ever, she allows with a happy laugh, was singing the National Anthem before the Petaluma fireworks show at the fairgrounds on Independence Day.

She did that for four years straight, until last year, when she had to bow out after becoming too busy with teaching and conducting.

“But it was so special to me,” she says. “There’s nothing more magical than singing the Star Spangled Banner at a fireworks show on the 4th of July.”

Born in North Carolina, Sonntag’s family settled in Santa Rosa when she was 10. She attended Alfred F. Biella Elementary, Hillard Comstock Middle School, and Piner High School, from which she tested out early. She immediately enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, while simultaneously gigging as a performer all around the county.

“I started performing my own music when I was 17,” she says, “hitting open mics, coffee houses and bars, wherever I could get a chance to sing.” Early on, Sonntag had learned to play the flute, but says her primary instrument has always been her voice.

And the voice is an instrument, thank you very much.

“That’s an important thing among singers, that our voices be treated as important as any other instrument,” she says. “Sometime you’ll hear people say that there are musicians, and then there are singers, as if the voice is somehow less important than a violin or a trombone or a guitar. We singers find that a little irritating.”

Eventually, after taking every music class available at the JC, she enrolled at Sonoma State. Given that she played multiple instruments by then, and that her professional goals were to sing, teach and conduct orchestras and choruses, it was recommended that she pursue a degree in Music Education.

It was, she recalls, an extremely intense training program.

“You basically have to learn to play every instrument in the orchestra,” she says. One semester was devoted to learning all of the brass instruments, another to learning the woodwinds, then the strings, and finally the percussion instruments. “If you are going to be teaching in classrooms,” she says, “you have to be able to play everything, so you’ll know how to teach the kids.”

Since earning her degree, Sonntag has taught at schools all over the area, and has started several music programs and choruses for schools and non-profits.

Currently, Sonntag works as a band and choir teacher for the West Sonoma County High School District, teaching at a number of schools. She says that enrollment in the school band at El Molino High has doubled since she took over directing it a few years ago.

“I think there were 18 players in the band at first,” she says, “and now there are 42.”

Sonntag still performs as a singer when possible, and also serves as Choir Director of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa, where she directs a 25-voice choir. Several years ago, with her husband Jesus, she founded the Vespertine Orchestra, which she describes as playing “Avant circus rock,” adding, “It’s kind of punk, kind of electronic, and kind of classical. It’s hard to explain — but it’s super cool.”

After living most of her life in Santa Rosa, Sonntag and Jesus moved to Petaluma seven years ago, a decision she feels was clearly meant to be, since she found herself rescuing a runaway chicken shortly after she and Jesus moved in.

“It was a fancy black hen,” she remembers. “I’ve always loved chickens, and knew that Petaluma was the chicken capitol, so it was pretty exciting that one of the first things I did when we moved in, was to take this chicken around from door to door, to try and figure out whose chicken it was.” She did eventually locate the chicken’s owner. “The woman was grateful, saying, ‘Oh. Yeah. She’s always getting out.’ It wasn’t the last time we took that particular chicken back home, either.”

Asked what the major challenges are in starting a new musical program, or breathing life into an existing one, Sonntag says it has to do with making room for all kinds of musicians, who usually represent a wide range of experience and skill.

“How can I be as inclusive as possible and still create a good project? That’s the question,” she says. “A lot of it, it turns out, is in the arrangement of the music itself, and the choosing of the music to begin with. To work well with a varied ensemble, you need music that supports the players, and showcases whatever it is they are good at.”

That, she says, is where the magic happens.

“Someone once called me a ‘musical alchemist,’ which was so gratifying, because that’s kind of how I feel about music,” Sonntag says. “It’s taking one thing and transforming it into another. What my job is, I believe, is to pull people up and out of themselves, then to channel that to a central point — everyone focused on the same goal together — and then redirect it out to the world. When that magic happens, everyone leaves feeling better than when they came in - both the musicians and the audience.”