‘The Voice’ winner performs at Sunderland’s North Star

  • Musician Sawyer Fredericks performs at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland on Dec. 15. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Musician Sawyer Fredericks performs at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Musician Sawyer Fredericks performs at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Sunderland Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Jon Lackman, right, greets musician Sawyer Fredericks, left, at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Musician Sawyer Fredericks performing in Northampton. Holly Tutor—

  • Musician Sawyer Fredericks performing in Northampton. Holly Tutor

For the Bulletin
Thursday, December 28, 2017

SUNDERLAND — “Un-schooled” students at North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens were privy to a special musical performance from one of their own: home-schooled singer-songwriter Sawyer Fredericks, 18, who placed first in “The Voice,” a nationally televised talent show, a few years ago.

During an hour-long performance in a music room at the Route 116 facility last week, Fredericks played a few songs including “Not My Girl,” a folksy and rhythmic ballad punctuated by powerful vocals.

“It’s weird performing acoustic, because I normally play with a band, now,” Fredericks said, while the song’s final chord still hung in the air. Seated in a semi-circle around him, a group of about 40 home-schooled and ‘un-schooled’ students and a few parents let out a collective sigh.

According to Executive Director Ken Danford, who co-founded North Star in 1996 with fellow middle school teacher Joshua Hornick, the nonprofit supports self-directed learning for teens through tutoring, optional classes, and advisory support, with a heavy emphasis on music education. Josh Wachtel, a staff member at North Star, said “un-schoolers” are self-directed home schoolers, many of whom transition from more structured education.

“North Star has really changed my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have met a lot of my close friends, or got into music,” said Fares Croteau, a self-directed 17-year-old who has been going to North Star for six years. Croteau, who plays a few instruments and enjoys music, said the performance was encouraging because of how personal it was.

While growing up on an 88-acre farm in New York, Fredericks was home-schooled from kindergarten through high school. After learning guitar at 11, he began performing at farmers’ markets a few years later. During his first open mic, “I sang and then ran out the door, and felt like I was going to throw up. But then I got over it,” Fredericks told students.

Music scouts from “The Voice” saw a few videos of Fredericks and invited him onto the show in 2015. He became the show’s youngest winner at age 16. A year later, he signed a recording contract with Republic Records and has since released a few albums.

“When I saw there was an ‘un-schooler’ on ‘The Voice,’ I was so excited,” said Jon Lackman, a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors who invited Fredericks to speak with students. “A lot of kids are home-schooled or unschooled, and they love it, but they have so many messages coming at them saying they can’t do it.”

Fredericks detoured to Sunderland from Northampton before playing at the Iron Horse, one of many stops on tour through the Northeast this December. Lackman, who home-schools his own two children, told Fredericks he’s “an inspiration” for self-directed students like those at North Star. Many in the audience last week expressed the same sentiment.

“I had two weeks of kindergarten and then I was unschooled,” Fredericks said. His parents removed him from traditional school because his two brothers weren’t doing well in a structured environment, and feared he wouldn’t either.

Home schooling “allowed me to really focus on my interests,” he continued. “A lot of my friends never figured out what their passions are. I always had something I wanted to do — creating something and being myself.”

Fredericks’ educational experiences and his musical success casts a positive light on home schooling and “un-schooling,” said Ben Betts, a Hampshire College student and music teacher at North Star.

“It’s very inspiring, and a good connection,” Betts said. “It’s nice to see someone who was also ‘un-schooled’ be successful. I find it super great that (North Star students) can connect to someone on the other side of success.”