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Building community through music

The Daily Reflector - 11/3/2017

At tonight’s anniversary celebration for Music Academy of Eastern Carolina, Desta Tillery will take the stage to share what the music school has brought to his life’s journey.

But Tillery won’t give a speech to those gathered for the occasion. He will simply take a seat at the piano and let the music speak for itself.

A decade ago, Tillery had never played a note. Diagnosed with autism before his first birthday, he was an adult before he had his first piano lesson. The 33-year-old does not speak in complete sentences, but music has given him a way to communicate.

And Music Academy has given him a community.

“This program has done so much for my grandson,” Tillery’s grandmother, Eleanor Corbin, said. “It involves everyone no matter what ages and ability. … I really think it’s a great asset to the community.”

Tillery is among students, faculty and other musical guests who will pay tribute at tonight’s “Roaring ‘20s” event, which will celebrate 20 years of the Music Academy of Eastern Carolina.

Building community through music was what Cheryl and Michael Stephenson had in mind when they founded the nonprofit community music school two decades ago. The husband and wife musicians, who had moved to Greenville seven years earlier, thought the city had a lot to offer those whose aim was to perform music professionally but had fewer opportunities for those who simply wanted to pursue it as a passion.

“(Greenville) did not have a central location for community services for music,” Cheryl, who serves as MAEC executive director, recalled. “You had professional training with the university but did not have a community-based, amateur-centered place.

“There were things for people that already knew how to play,” she said. “There’s the Community Band and the Choral Society for people who are already skilled. But as far as a community program for teaching them, there was nothing.”

With funding from the National Guild for Community Arts Education, the Stephensons opened Music Academy in the spring of 1997 with one music therapist, two teachers and three families. Today, MAEC serves more than 100 students of all ages through music therapy, private and group lessons, instrumental and voice ensembles, orchsestras and bands.

Among them are Sing for Joy, a choir and rhythm ensemble for young adults with disabilities, and New Horizons Band, a group designed for senior adults who want to learn to play an instrument or learn to play again.

Diane Larson joined about six years ago. She had played flute in junior high and high school but had not picked up an instrument in 40 years before joining MAEC’s New Horizons Band.

“There is a social aspect to it because I enjoy the company of the people I meet with when we’re rehearsing,” Larson said. “It’s a great place to go and learn music.”

For Marcus Coward, MAEC was a musical home for the better part of a decade. He started vocal lessons there his freshman year in high school.

“The Music Academy was where I started to take vocal lessons for the first time,” Coward recalled. “Before then I never sang in front of other people, which is something I really wanted to do.

“It has kind of an at-home atmosphere,” he said. “When you walked through the door, they knew your name. They knew about your family. You just felt at home. That was the thing I appreciated the most. … it just felt like home.”

Coward, a graduate of D.H. Conley High School and ECU, recalls that after he had begun lessons, his family experienced some financial setbacks that meant he could no longer afford to pay for instruction. Music Academy provided temporary scholarship funds so that his studies would not have to be interrupted.

Now living in New York and working in marketing for Sony Music, Coward credits Music Academy with helping him to achieve his goals.

“I think just being a young person and having dreams of wanting to be in music, it seemed so far fetched, especially being in a really small town,” Coward said. “I think having this kind of background, having people pushing me to pursue music even more was helpful in terms of me figuring out what I wanted to do as an adult.

“If it wasn’t for the Music Academy, honestly I probably never would have assumed that I could work in the music industry, that I could actually make a career out of it,” he said. “Really, the Music Academy kind started everything for me, in terms of dreaming bigger.”

In recent years, Music Academy has worked to enlarge its vision as well. It now offers programming outside the four walls of its Evans Street building, the organization’s third location in 20 years.

MAEC has launched classes at the nearby Boys & Girls Club at Jarvis Memorial United Methodist Church, working to develop programs in choir, band and orchestra. Students’ parents are asked to pay what they can afford for instruction, and MAEC provides donated instruments for students to use.

Music Academy also has begun offering musical instruction to preschoolers at local Children’s World locations.

“Really we work from birth to death age-wise,” Cheryl said. “My oldest student has been 97 years old.”

In between are children and teens, young adults and octogenarians, all with the common goal of learning music.

“That’s the beauty of it is being able to have people at all ages learning really the same materials,” Cheryl said. “When you’re learning music, you learn the same way.

“If somebody wants to be a professional in training, we’ll help them get to that goal,” she said. “But most people want it for their own enjoyment. They’re seeking music simply to have fun in life.”

She recalls a teenager who wanted to learn music but had failed with several teachers.

“She wanted so badly to make music, but it just wasn’t her natural gift,” Cheryl said. “She persevered and ended up minoring in music in college.”

Another student waited until her children were out of college to take piano lessons for herself.

“She said, ‘It’s my turn. Now I can do what I’ve always wanted to do,” Cheryl recalled.

Then there was the 97-year-old man who called from a retirement home to ask about getting started with music. He had wanted to play the snare drum for as long as he could remember, but he had grown up on a farm and his family could not afford the instrument or the lessons.

He started with the New Horizons band and practiced regularly until he was able to perform in one of the recitals. His children and grandchildren came to watch.

“He told me later, ‘You fulfilled my dream of life,’” Cheryl recalled. “I just love stories like that because it’s really all about people fulfilling dreams. It’s about being a part of their journey of life.”


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