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November 9th, 2011 12:01 am WW Editorial Staff | Cover Story

A City’s Riches

Introducing four Portlanders who do fabulous work for local nonprofits.

Ian Mouser

Executive Director of My Voice Music
BY ANNIE ZAK azak@wweek.com
MUSIC MAN: Ian Mouser (right) provides fun in the midst of a “lame-ass time in your life.”
IMAGE: Roman Nachtigal, focusonyouth.org

You’d have a difficult time imagining Ian Mouser shaving crosses into his hair in high school. Especially today, as the 32-year-old, now with shoulder-length locks, gathers a small group of preteens in a circle at the Vintage Ballroom in North Portland. He’s prepping them for a rendition of The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” complete with bucket drums and acoustic guitars—one of many roles Mouser’s nonprofit, My Voice Music, has come to fill since its founding in 2008.

A self-described “scrapper from a poor family in Southern Oregon,” Mouser calls his mother the same. During his childhood, he found music by way of her encouragement.

“She was always like, ‘Go take your trumpet up onto a mountaintop and just play from the heart.’ I mean, it was crazy,” he says. From third grade until about his sophomore year in high school, Mouser was somewhat content playing his music in the woods, where he lived with his mother, stepfather and three sisters. “No electricity, no generator—it was pretty sweet.” 

While he enjoyed being in the woods in Williams, other parts of his environment were less desirable. After his mother divorced his father, whom he describes as a “druggie,” she got remarried—to an ultra-conservative Christian. Mouser’s grades suffered, and at school he was viewed as a troubled kid.

Between flunking out of classes, being in anger-management groups and getting into fights at school, he discovered Wilderness Trails, a faith-based camping group run out of Medford, when he was 12.

“It was like the first time I was able to be seen for being a good kid,” he says. Faith became a part of his life, but he describes it more as simply finding love “without any of the other stuff around it.”

At 17, Mouser picked up the guitar. What he had previously found in faith, he discovered again in instruments. But music wasn’t the only thing that led Mouser away from faith. When he had the choice to go to either Hidden Valley High School or Rogue River High School, he figured Rogue River sounded like a place that needed saving. “I thought I’d be a missionary,” he says, laughing.

Once he started volunteering and getting involved in his new community, however, Mouser says he saw for the first time a group of non-Christians serving others. “I was like, ‘Oh, I thought only Christians could be good Christians,’” he says. By the time he was 19, after talking to more classmates, he decided he “wanted nothing to do with God…so, it was kind of a choice.”

Between high school and college—originally at Western Oregon University and then a year at Lane Community College—Mouser found work, first at a slaughterhouse, then a rock quarry. 

“My first day on the [slaughterhouse] job, this guy comes up and has a cow eye in his hand and says, ‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,’” he recalls. “I knew it was not my cup of tea.”

After a bad breakup with a girlfriend and finding another guy who had experienced a bad breakup, Mouser decided the logical thing to do was to form a band. Calling themselves American Hit List, Mouser and his bandmate moved to Portland, got a record contract and toured the Pacific Northwest from 2006 to 2009.

While in the band, he kept working—holding down three jobs at one point. That’s when another friend, who worked with kids in a mental health center, suggested Mouser do the same.

“I’d worked with kids forever...so it just seemed like a really good fit,” he says. He began working at Albertina Kerr in 2003, and had jobs across the board, from treatment counselor to psychiatric technician to music teacher.

Mouser enjoyed the work but didn’t enjoy being in charge of kids. One day, he decided to bring his guitar. He says mornings were the hardest, trying to get 10- to 12-year-old boys out of bed, but when they heard him playing music, they slowly came out of their rooms and sat, fascinated, watching him play.

“They were just boys, without their guards up, and that was the first time I’d seen them like that,” he says. “Music does that. It transforms just any weird-ass space into magic.”

After a lack of funding prevented him from continuing his music program at Albertina Kerr, he began teaching private music lessons, which led to him teaching a different kind of student.

“My heart is for disadvantaged youth that would never really get this opportunity,” he says, “and I was working with rich kids.”

Ironically, it was a private-school student who led to the founding of his organization. In 2008, her parents donated an SUV to Mouser and said, “Form a nonprofit, and give us the tax receipt.” 

My Voice Music worked with about 90 kids that year; this year, it’s working with 500. 

Since 2008, Mouser has accumulated a wide variety of instruments, which he keeps in his basement studio and garage. Keyboards, guitars, a mandolin and a variety of computers have all been donated to him help provide resources for the kids.

The two most important tenets of My Voice Music, he says, are to “provide fun in the midst of a challenging, lame-ass time in your life,” and also to give kids a place where they can develop personally through music. 

My Voice Music recently released its first compilation album. In addition to 27 tracks of material written and performed by students, it features introductions to each song by the likes of local mystery writer Chelsea Cain and Portland Mayor Sam Adams.

Mouser plans to give his Skidmore Prize check to My Voice Music with hopes that other organizations will match his donation. His biggest goal is to acquire a permanent space for rehearsal and meetings.

“We have a motto, which is: Believe. Create. Give,” Mouser says. “Believe in yourself enough to create something that means enough to give back.”

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