A DIFFERENT TUNE
ARTICLE BY VANELIS RIVERA & PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW BAILEY
Offering private instruction by qualified, university-trained personnel, GRACE NOTE ACADEMY is taking classic teaching styles and making them accessible to students of all ages and abilities.
A grace note is a music notation usually printed smaller to indicate it is not essential to a melody or harmony. In a way, it is an embellishment to a music score, one that a musician can play if they choose. Just as when you look at a map and see there are many roads to get to any one destination, so also is the case with music. No two musicians are alike, everyone finding their own style, their own enhancements, whether they are playing a song or teaching how to play an instrument. Such creative autonomy is what John Farmer sought to implement when he opened Grace Note Music Academy last year. Offering private instruction by qualified, university-trained personnel, this Northeast Louisiana music school is taking classic teaching styles and making them accessible to students of all ages and abilities.
“I always loved music,” says Farmer, who recalls his first foray into the art was really just the result of a whim. “I attempted learning to play guitar several times again.” Every year, he would give it a “crack,” but it didn’t quite stick until he was 14. His persistence led him to pursue a degree in classical jazz guitar and music education at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM). In his freshman year of college, he got hired at a music store as a guitar instructor where he had a consistent influx of students. “I figured out really quickly that I enjoyed doing that job,” he says. In about six months, he was teaching seven days a week and dealing with a substantial client list. When the store closed, he moved his one-man operation to Matt’s Music. Though appreciative of the space, Farmer longed for a facility that solely focused on private music lessons. “You know, just teachers having a place to teach where they needed to, however they wanted to, with all the tools that they need.”
It was easy for Farmer to find teachers. He contacted classmates from ULM who had also gone through the same music program. “I knew I had good teachers from the beginning,” he emphasizes. Using some basic marketing and the position he had at Matt’s allowed him to facilitate placing students with the best teacher for their desired instrument and learning style. Each Grace Note teacher has a degree in their instrument and a depth of experience in that instrument. Not having a set curriculum allows teachers to reach students where they are and customize lessons based on learning styles and ability. “I hire teachers purposely. I let them teach what they want to teach because I know how good they are.” Currently, Farmer has nine teachers for a range of instruments including guitar, bass, percussion, piano, ukulele, violin, and voice.
Naomi Naquin, Choir Director at Caldwell Parish Junior High, was one of the first instructors and fellow ULM alum that Farmer contacted to be part of the Grace Note team. Though she has a knack for classroom instruction, Naquin favors the individual teaching allotted at Grace Note. “It’s easier for the teacher to diagnose what’s going on, like what the individual student needs to work on. There’s this level of comfort with the student,” she says, adding that students tend to progress much quicker with an instrument with one-on-one sessions, even if they are part of a school music program. Austin George, professional guitarist and another by-product of the ULM music program, had an early start to teaching guitar. Beginning at merely 16, he was an obvious choice for Farmer, particularly because George was one of his former students. George’s sunny disposition, an important commodity for any music instructor, also helps put students at ease. “My whole thing is, I just want you to play and enjoy it,” says George.
At Grace Note, the student experience is prioritized. Four offices serve as lesson rooms, allowing uninterrupted lessons fostering optimal focus in the learning process. If a parent has one child wanting to learn piano and the other favoring the drum kit, they can schedule lessons at the same time. A lobby area is designed for parents or guardians to lounge comfortably as they wait for lessons to conclude. And as stated before, since, teachers are not inhibited from teaching the way they want to teach, it’s not always Beethoven or Baroque-style music emanating from the lesson rooms. “We are able to reach a wide audience by catering to what a student wants,” says Farmer, whose teachers will frequently ask students what music they want to learn. Farmer has passed a vocal room and heard the voice teacher coaching a kid how to sing a song from the Moana soundtrack. Sometimes, Imagine Dragons songs ripple out of a piano room and Nirvana blares from a drum session. “So, we’re teaching the students things that are relevant to them,” says Farmer. Though students stay motivated by learning what they want to know, Grace Note instructors still hold them to high standards regarding technique and presentation. Whether a student is learning a Garth Brooks song or Mozart’s “Requiem,” Farmer makes sure they stay true to the original sound of the song or piece they are learning.
“I’ve got a couple of kids that are already writing music, and they’re like 12 and 13,” says George, excited about the improvement his students have been making. He adds, “It’s kind of like a create-your-0wn adventure story. I’m not going to force feed you Beethoven or Bach Cello Suite. If you don’t want to do that, we’ll learn Nirvana.” George considers his lessons quite memorable, especially when he teaches pairs. He has a brother and sister combo, as well as a father and son that enjoy taking lessons together. “Those are pretty special lessons,” he says. Some of his students are reaching a point where they are ready to become teachers, and George hopes to instill in his advanced students the love of teaching to the same degree that he has already gifted them the love of learning an instrument.
It’s no secret learning a musical instrument can aid a student’s progression in other academic subjects, as well as cultivating confidence and discipline, but developing the skill of music isn’t just reserved for the young. Farmer believes that once you start playing music you’re a musician for the rest of your life whether you are 6 years old, the age of their youngest student, or the age of their oldest student, 88. Adult clients are harder on themselves than young students because they have had a longer lifetime of listening to their favorite music, but a rule of thumb when learning anything new is to be patient with yourself, particularly because music is meant to be healing. “I think that music is a really amazing way to process our emotions,” notes Naquin, finishing with “I think it just creates a culture of more emotionally intelligent people.” Playing for the joy of it will always show, and it is Farmer’s wish that his students get confident enough to share their craft with others: “Whenever you’re playing an instrument, and you’re playing it for people that don’t know how to play an instrument, you’re giving them something they can’t get any other way.”
It’s a testament to Grace Note that local musicians have been sending their kids to learn from Farmer’s team. “His warmth, compassion, and patience guide the youngsters and adults towards achieving their guitar goals,” reads one stellar Facebook review from a fellow musician whose son surpassed his own knowledge. Already enrolled into Louisiana Tech’s music program, the budding musician was easily playing classical pieces on his acoustic guitar, as much as he was flowing through AC/DC and Led Zeppelin on his electric guitar, all thanks to Farmer’s keen instruction. Another local musician raves about Farmer’s percussion instructor Tyler Schweinefus (who is also Percussion and Jazz Band Director at Neville High School): “Tyler has been teaching my 8 year old daughter how to play the drums for a few months now and she’s gotten good enough to jam with! He’s teaching her how to have fun with the drums while throwing in little techniques here and there. It’s more fun than work.” Browsing through the detailed reviews left on Grace Note’s Facebook page, it’s clear that Farmer has established a level of trust with his clients that merits their patronage.
“The main thing I would love for people to know is that Grace Note is a tightly knit team,” says Farmer, referring to his teachers as close friends and some even bandmates. Naquin seconds this sentiment saying, “We’re all friends, and we all support each other. There’s no trying to be better than each other, even with the other teachers that teach the same thing.” It’s difficult for Farmer to look back and pick the exact moment that motivated him to open Grace Note. There wasn’t any such moment for him, as much as the calling was a natural next step: “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Regardless of the impetus for establishing the academy, Farmer’s current motivation is his students, making sure they are not only enjoying their instruments, but also building an appreciation for music that we all know will last a lifetime.
Grace Note Music Academy is located at 3101 Armand St #7, Monroe, LA 71201. Call them at (318) 732-4338 to schedule a lesson and follow them on Facebook to become acquainted with their instructors and students.