‘People hang on to the music forever’

SNC professor Axton brings passion to the classroom


Photo credit: Emily Tessner

Chair of music department, Donna Axton and her dog enjoying the snow.

Composer, conductor, choir director, mathematician, musician, mother, psychologist and program chair of the music department at Sierra Nevada College for 20 years, Donna Axton continues to evolve.

Her piercing blue eyes give way to her gentle, soft-spoken voice.

“Music is my first language,” Axton said.

Having lived in Tahoe since 1972, she has cultivated choirs, written prolific pieces of music, taught many students in music and psychology classes and continues to find solace and joy in the music she makes and shares with her community.

“I’ve been playing music since I was a little girl,” Axton said. “My grandmother was a piano teacher. When we would go visit, I would find the piano books and the piano. I was always drawn to the music.”

Hailing from upstate New York, Axton’s professional journey began with an undergraduate degree in math and music from Alleghany College in Pennsylvania. She acquired her master’s in piano at the University of Nevada, Reno, and continued on to broaden her horizons, studying psychology, and earning her MFT from Pacifica Graduate Institute.

In addition to her formal training, Axton also toured for 14 years in a rock band with her husband and legendary songwriter Hoyt Axton, who was responsible for writing timeless classic standards such as “Joy to The World,” and “Green Back Dollar.”

“Hoyt was a musician’s musician,” Axton said. “He was never a household name, but the musicians certainly knew who he was.”

Whether it was Seattle, Portland, Oklahoma, Canada, or the United Kingdom, the most important lesson Axton feels she learned from this time was how to cultivate a great experience for everyone involved, no matter the size of the crowd.

“We would have audiences of 25,000 and then we would play little gigs with 50 people,” Axton said. “Hoyt always said ‘Go out there, give it your all and make it magic. It’s up to you.’”

Currently, Axton directs two choirs and spends her Sundays providing musical direction at Saint Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Incline Village. She also leads the SNC community choir. Both choirs have many devoted members.

“The oldest choir member at Saint Patrick’s is 94,” Axton said. “He brings his oxygen tank with him on Sundays.”

One of her original pieces of music will be featured by the SNC choir at its Spring concert at Saint Patrick’s in Incline, on April 4 and 6. The composition, “Paradise Lost,” is an oratorio she wrote with Chip Morales based on John Milton’s novel about the struggle between good and evil.

Her program at SNC has many different facets, including instrumental and vocal training, traditional counseling classes, and even touches on the cutting edge fields of art and music therapy.

Craig Canedy, an alumni of SNC and certified music therapist, will be teaching an upcoming workshop with Axton on the therapeutic aspects of art and music for her students. It is a well-attended class.

is still in love with music as she moves through the seasons of her life and finds herself once again drawn to the piano.

“I couldn’t sleep the other night so I woke up and played some Joni Mitchell, Carol King, and Donovan just to feel the music,” Axton said. “People hang on to the music forever.”