Since its founding 20 years ago, Americana Music Academy has survived personal losses, financial struggles and a global pandemic.
The public is invited to celebrate the school’s resilience at its 20th birthday party Thursday evening at Liberty Hall.
“If you were to ask folks who have been around Americana for years and years, probably the thing they would say that they are most proud of is the fact that they have stuck out all the obstacles,” says Christy Miller, Americana’s executive director.
“There have been personal tragedies that have threatened the future of Americana. COVID — you know, every music school had to shut down overnight,” Miller says. “… Figuring out how to continue and how to even thrive through that, the Americana has managed to keep its doors open, virtually or physically, no matter what. And I think that’s a huge accomplishment.”
Entry for the birthday event is free with a suggested $25 donation. All proceeds will go into Americana’s Home for the Future Fund, a savings that will be designated for a potential new venue for Americana, currently located at 1419 Massachusetts St.
“It has been the dream of a lot of people from both Americana past and present, for us to own our own property,” Miller says. “And at this point, we don’t have any designated money saved towards that.”
Thom and Gina Alexander launched Americana Music Academy two decades ago to provide affordable instruction on American roots instruments.
Shortly after they opened, Nancy Trober began taking lessons. She also started volunteering to help boost enrollment.
Trober used to heft Americana course catalogs in her purse wherever she went, slipping them onto waiting room coffee tables. She crafted emails, made phone calls and handed out flyers.
She and Gina would clean every “nook and cranny” of the school building together — until Gina, at age 50, was diagnosed with an invasive cancer.
Trober was helping tend to Gina’s health the day before she died in May 2005 — just a few years after the school had opened.
That day, Trober says, Gina asked if Trober would promise her something.
“I said, ‘Yes, anything,’ and she said, ‘If something happens to me, will you help Thom keep the academy open?’ And I said I will. And she died the next morning,” Trober says. “Thom was so devastated, and he really thought about closing down the academy. And I said ‘You will not. I made a promise to a dying woman. I’m not going back on that. I will do this without you.’”
But Thom stayed on during those years, and a “faithful few” volunteered to help.
“We just kept it together,” Trober says. “We wouldn’t let it die. And we were so poor. … At first we didn’t have grants that were given to us, but we did eventually. And we have donors now who are big donors. And it has helped us survive all these years. Small nonprofits don’t usually survive. They don’t for 20 years, anyway.”
117 students attend Americana; eight of them receive scholarships.
“That was the one thing that was so near and dear to Gina’s heart — she wanted people who couldn’t afford (lessons) or have an instrument to be able to play music and enjoy that,” Trober says.
Miller plans to offer more scholarships in 2023. Americana also has a lending library for students who can’t afford instruments, and it’s continuing to expand its community outreach efforts.
“One of the things that is happening starting this fall is we’ve started a program where we are offering quarterly recitals for local nursing homes, where our students get to go in and provide an hourlong concert for seniors, and that’s something that they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to,” Miller says.
Boosting access to music has invariably been one of Americana’s missions. And helping achieve that mission has brought Trober a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s one of the things in my life that I’m very proud of,” Trober says. “I’m very proud that I taught school for 33 years, and I’m very proud of this.”
Veterans and rising stars to take the stage
Americana’s 20th birthday party was an idea initiated by Max Paley, who served as executive director from 2020 through August of this year. He has taken a job at Kansas Public Radio.
Thursday’s event, set for 6:30 to 10 p.m. at Liberty Hall, will be a musical one, with two hours of live entertainment.
“A lot of (the) bands have some sort of affiliation with Americana, whether they are friends of Americana and just have always been good advocates and supporters,” Miller says. “But we also have other members of the teaching community who have careers of their own performing.”
Long-standing bands like Alferd Packer Memorial String Band will perform. Beginning musicians will also take the stage.
Matt Mulnix, instructor and director of youth ensembles, has planned a four-part segment featuring himself and his students.
“I have several students playing and I’m going to do a group song with all my students,” Mulnix says. “They’re going to sing and play ukulele on original songs that they wrote. I like it not being about me. … They completely made this up on their own and they have the skills to do that for the rest of their lives.”
Three of Mulnix’s students will perform solo on the Liberty Hall stage. Among them is 10-year-old Delaney MacFarland, who will play an original song called “Rapids.”
Delaney started taking lessons at Americana after the pandemic. She’d always loved music and would write fun, silly songs as a hobby. Taking Mulnix’s class pushed her into more poignant terrain. Her songs have explored her grandfather’s death and friendship losses.
“I’ve always thought it was amazing how people can just (write a song), and I never thought that I could actually achieve that,” Delaney says. “When I started with Matthew, and he helped me write these songs, and they just kept getting better and better, I started to love music more, and every day I would come home, and I would just be happy and then I’d grabbed my ukulele and I started singing songs. … I probably wouldn’t have leveled up in my singing and songwriting skills if it wasn’t for Matt and (Americana).”
Before finding Americana, Delaney’s mother, Amanda Jay, enrolled Delaney in piano without success. When that attempt flopped, she turned to guitar.
“She just really wasn’t getting engaged,” Jay says. “So the music and being able to write about things was therapeutic for her … and then that naturally led to her interest in instruments and now she plays our piano and … she just gravitates towards it.”
Thom Alexander will also host a jam session at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14 at Americana.
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