New music academy seeks to fill void in community

Thom Alexander says a new era is about to begin in the Lawrence music scene.

Next month, his nonprofit Americana Music Academy will offer its first courses in everything from harmonica and fiddle playing to the music of the Eagles and Led Zeppelin.

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Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

The Americana Music Academy is starting up in Lawrence with its first classes in group and individual instruction being formed in January. Earlier this week at the academy's studio, 745 N.H., students Matt Herbert, 18, left, and Stacy Donly, 17, met with the academy's founder, Thom Alexander, right.

The academy uses group lessons to teach musicians to play in ensembles in all forms of "American" music, including folk, bluegrass, rock, country and jazz.

"We're on the cusp of something big � if I don't go bankrupt in the first year," Alexander said. "I think it's something that will be as big as the arts center."

Alexander, a local guitar teacher, moved in 1993 to Lawrence from California. His r�sum� includes gigs with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Beach Boys, John Lee Hooker and The Police, among others.

Alexander says the Lawrence music scene is strong, but he'd like to see more interaction among musicians.

"Music is something that should be learned in a community setting," he said. "It makes you a better musician."



Registration for Americana Music Academy's classes, which begin Jan. 13, runs until Jan. 5.Catalogs can be picked up at the academy, 745 N.H., or call 830-9640 to have one mailed to you.

The academy is modeled after the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, which was founded in 1957 and now has 6,000 students a month and an annual operating budget of $6 million.

The Americana Music Academy is starting much smaller. It is offering 34 eight-week classes beginning Jan. 13, and Alexander expects a few hundred students under 15 instructors. It is renting space at 745 N.H.

Alexander figures he'll need about $40,000 the first year to break even. Funding will come from memberships ($50 for an individual), tuition ($125 for group classes, $150 for individual lessons) and business donations.

Eventually, he said the nonprofit status would allow the academy to receive grants to fund the administration and student scholarships.

Alexander said he hoped to lure big-name instrumentalists to the academy for workshops when they came to Lawrence or Kansas City for shows.

"One of the most validating things a musician can do is pass it on to people," he said.

The academy also will offer music therapy, which uses music to improve communication and physical skills for people with disabilities or substance-abuse problems.

Tommy Johnson, a longtime Lawrence trumpet player who will teach at the academy, said the school will be a good place for interaction between different generations of musicians.

"I think it's an incredible opportunity for everyone involved � for the instructors, for the students, for the city of Lawrence," Johnson said. "Thom's concept is something new that excites me."

He said the quality of instructors should make the academy a success. They include Bob Faris, former fiddle player for Reba McEntire, and Stan Sheldon, former bassist for Peter Frampton.

Johnson said the biggest challenge will be establishing the academy. Then, he said, it will take on a life of its own.

"It will become a support for other things going on in the community," he said. "It's not replacing traditional music education or education in public schools. I see it complementing those."

Ann Evans, director of the Lawrence Arts Center, was skeptical of the academy until she met with Alexander to discuss it.

And an endorsement from Jim Baggett, owner of Mass. Street Music, helped, too, Evans said. The music store will provide discounts to academy members.

Evans said the school would fit a niche not being filled in Lawrence now.

"I think there's really a need for it," she said. "This isn't in competition with anything, and especially the young guys like to play guitar. So why not?"

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