A bustle of 20 people fills the waiting area of a two-story house on a dark corner of Beauregard Town this weekday night. Adults are headed downstairs, while children are shuffling upstairs amid a profusion of violins and cellos. Owner Genny Denton Nelson is thrilled.
When Nelson finished her master’s in music education at LSU in 2008, there were no teaching jobs available in Baton Rouge. “I had to find a way to make a living,” Nelson says. “I was already teaching a number of students. Opening a studio seemed like a natural transition.”
Nearly four years and several site upgrades later, this one-woman operation teaching private violin lessons in a rented room of a church has evolved into Grace Notes Music Studio. Now it employs on average 12 staff members who offer instruction to about 150 students each week in string and wind instruments, piano, voice, as well as music composition and theory lessons. Both private lessons and group classes for children and adults are available.
“Your rhythm is better, but what do we think about our pitch? Let’s try perfect pitch, please,” Nelson calls out to the 20 or so violin students in the Children’s String Ensemble class on Thursday nights. These students range from second to fifth grade, and it’s a requirement that they take private lessons to participate in this class. There’s a whole lot of stopping and starting as they try to master “Into The Sky.” After almost 45 minutes, they manage to get through the entire piece beautifully.
“My favorite thing about playing in the group is all the sound around you. Sometimes I get lost in the way things sound,” says 9-year-old Anna Kate Holmes. Her father, Ken Holmes, played music growing up. He plays bluegrass on the fiddle and started entering into fiddle contests with Anna Kate to get her into music.
“I got my mom into playing,” says 6-year-old Ava Dunn, who also participates in the children’s ensemble. Her mother, Daisy Dunn, plays violin in the adult string class and also takes private lessons at the studio. “Whenever my mom feels scared, she thinks about me,” Ava says. “Because you’re never nervous, that’s why!” says Daisy.
Nelson encourages this sort of family learning and maintains that prejudices about adult learning should be banished. The idea that good musicians only learn music when they are young is wrong. “And adults are not necessarily slow learners,” she says. “Daisy is proof of that: She very quickly moved up to an advanced class, and she had no musical background at all. It just depends on how dedicated you can be to it, and Daisy is very dedicated.”
Nelson says when adults come to her and want to learn to play music, she encourages them to approach learning with unlimited expectations of achievement. “It’s really neat to see them get a second chance to learn,” she says. “Can you imagine how much courage it must take to wake up and decide to do something new?”
“I always wanted to learn, then Ava started, and now Catherine,” Daisy says, referring to her other daughter, a 4-year-old. “I want to play with them. As Ava gets better, we can practice together.” When Grace Notes students perform in a spring concert on May 17, Daisy will play alongside her two girls.
The Dunns are just one example of families from whom multiple members and generations take lessons at the studio. Other duos include a mother and son, a grandmother and granddaughter who take lessons together, and even a married couple in their 90s who are learning to play the piano. To add to this scene of family participation, the company recently became a family business.
“We’ve been married almost two months,” says Neil Nelson, a clarinet and saxophone player. He joined the staff last August after completing his master’s in music education at LSU. He also serves as conductor of the studio’s youth and children’s string orchestras classes, and co-teaches the more advanced adult string classes with his wife.
“We’re very similar in terms of our background. We studied under the same faculty at LSU and have a similar perspective with the way we should, and do, teach,” she says. “I’ve always felt that we fill in the gaps with our knowledge.”
Nelson says that with her husband’s help, she has been able to achieve a lot of the professional goals she’d set for herself. She always wanted to do a summer music camp, and last year that goal became a reality. “It’s a lot of work for not a lot of pay, and it’s really hard to get someone on board who doesn’t love you!”
Although camp is still months away, the students are already talking about it. “They say, ‘We’re in pre-camp mode,’ ” Nelson says with a smile. “Camp is from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day for a week. It’s a lot of hard work, and they play their instruments most of the day. We have group ensemble, sectionals, playing in a string quartet, and we study music theory and music composition,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure their favorite activity is snack time,” she adds.
Nelson never anticipated Grace Notes Music Studio would grow so large, and she never intended to be a businesswoman. She believes the studio has been successful, in part, because it has no business plan.
“Since we don’t have a structured end-goal plan, we haven’t placed limits on what we can do. Leaving that part of the vision open has been exciting and left a lot of room for growth,” she says. “That isn’t to say that I haven’t had specific goals along the way, because you have to have them to be successful. But as for the future of Grace Notes, as long as my staff and I are contributing successfully to the field of music education, I will be satisfied.”