San Francisco performer Sam Faustine has made a name for himself in Sitka as a sellout tribute performer, singing the works of Queen, Van Halen and, most recently, David Bowie. He’s also taught at Sitka Fine Arts Camp and performed in a handful of musicals here – including the 2021 production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Last month, he added “middle school music teacher” to his resume.
From watching him strut the stage of Sitka’s Performing Arts Center as Freddie Mercury or Eddie Van Halen, you wouldn’t guess that Sam Faustine spends most of his days singing classical music with the San Francisco Symphony. You also probably wouldn’t guess that he’d be teaching David Bowie harmonies to middle-schoolers, but Faustine thrives on variety.
At 8:30am on a chilly morning in late February, Faustine stood in front of about 20 middle schoolers in the Blatchley music room. The students were still a little bleary-eyed, but Faustine was energized.
For Faustine, singing has been a lifeline since he was younger than the students he’s working with now.
“As a choir boy, I was bullied quite a bit,” Faustine said. “And I found my own. I became the head boy of the choir, and I had a presence in that community and some amount of respect from my peers, but within my own grade, I was, you know, a bit of an outcast.”
Faustine took on his new role of teacher and vocal coach for two weeks through the Artists in the Schools program, which is funded collaboratively by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Sitka School District, and Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The Sitka Fine Arts Camp has been supporting a version of the program since 2005. In its current form, the grant pairs professional artists with school districts and provides funding for the artist to work for two weeks. The first week of Faustine’s residency lined up with Blatchley Middle School’s Discover Your Potential week, where students not enrolled in choir could sign up for a week-long vocal workshop.
The students learned David Bowie’s “Changes,” one of Faustine’s favorites. He spent much of the workshop encouraging the students to use their voices, literally and figuratively.
“Singing is such a personal reflection of one’s artistic voice,” Faustine said. “In fact, we use the word ‘voice’ to describe our ability to represent ourselves. And I think COVID has an effect, especially on kids who are in middle school these days, of really kind of subduing their identity and just making them more tentative about self- expression in general. And I think singing is a way to really unlock some of those hesitations.”
Getting the students to feel comfortable singing was his top priority.
“I gotta get them pumped, and I gotta get them comfortable,” Faustine said. “And so I have to be pretty careful about how I lead the classes in terms of like, it’s really important not to put students on the spot and feel like they have to sing in front of lots of people. That’s an easy way to kill any sort of interest, by potentially embarrassing somebody. But at the same time, you want to encourage people to, when they’re ready, open up and be able to be brave and make that step forward.”
For Faustine, playing a variety of roles has helped him to maintain balance.
“I have relatively serious ADHD and my ability – I don’t want to say ability, but my privilege of being able to do lots of kinds of things really enables my ability to be a professional performer,” Faustine said. “So if I was only doing Freddie Mercury, I think I would, I don’t want to say lose interest, but I think I would lose focus. So it’s really special to me to be able to tell lots of different stories from lots of different perspectives.”
Faustine picked “Changes” because the themes of confronting a changing world head-on seemed especially relevant for middle-schoolers discovering their potential. He pointed to a few lyrics in particular from the second verse where Bowie sings, “And these children that you spit on / as they try to change their worlds / are immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”
“That is the message that I wanted,” Faustine said. “It coupled so nicely with the mission of DYP and of my residency, so I couldn’t resist working on that song with the DYP kids, and oh, my goodness, what a joy it’s been to watch them get passionate about David Bowie.”
Faustine hopes to return to Sitka for more musical endeavors.
“Sitka has kind of become — and Juneau — my rock and roll outlet, which I just can’t articulate how special that is,” Faustine said. “To me. I just love doing this.”