It’s late on a Friday spring afternoon in Overland Park. School is over for the week but inside the nearly empty 130-seat Music House South auditorium, plenty of hands-on teaching unfolds as the Rhythm Brigade intensifies its assault on five garbage can lids.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN |
Special to The Star
The high-voltage noise electrifies the space as observers tap fingers and toes.
Onstage three young musicians produce a heart-pounding narrative on the percussion instruments. Drumsticks are maneuvered, striking the metal in split-second precision.
“Pow! Pow! Pow!”
The trio’s faces contort with intense concentration, focusing on sheet music propped on stands. Each student steals glances at instructor Steve Thomas who keeps time with his own drumsticks.
“Keep it smooth, don’t play hard,” Thomas coaches over the breathtaking beats.
One of Rachel Kerr’s hickory drumsticks suddenly takes flight, flashing through the stage lights’ glare, silently plunking on the floor. Momentary panic registers on her face and ripples through the group.
Thomas quickly moves forward, thrusting a replacement stick into Kerr’s waiting hand.
Reunited in rhythm the kids finish with a flourish, grinning ear-to-ear as they jump down from the stage, slapping high fives.
Kerr and her drum companions — Garrett Greathouse and Hunter Lillian — huddle around Thomas for a debriefing, drumsticks twirling in their hands. They tap the slender sticks on chairs and the stage’s gleaming wood floor.
“A spare drumstick solves the problem,” Thomas suggests to the 11-year-olds, patting three stashed in his jeans’ back pocket. “Just in case. And it’s the transitions in the piece” — he points to the sheet of music in front of him—“you need to worry about. Good work up there.”
Thomas, a 2009 Kansas Music Hall of Fame inductee, confesses to pupils he’s had a drumstick malfunction or two during his career as a professional drummer. His Kansas City-based band Shooting Star has over the decades recorded in London, New York, Los Angeles and Nashville studios and toured with national acts like ZZ Top, John Mellencamp, Jefferson Starship, Kansas, REO Speedwagon and others.
“You gotta be prepared for anything,” he says as Rachel, Garrett and Hunter nod in solemn agreement.
Thomas packs up his music, glancing around the state-of-the-art auditorium.
“This dynamic environment is perfect for teaching and interacting,” he says, heading for the door. “Everything we strive for is realized through engagement, positivity and encouragement.”
Members of the Rhythm Brigade — one of 16 workshop bands at Music House — chat for a few more minutes, reviewing some tricky spots encountered during today’s practice.
Assistant program manager Brian Marston and two other employees enter the auditorium and start breaking down the stage, preparing for the monthly Music House Friday night concert, which this night features award-winning professional a cappella group Premium Blend along with Music House bands and singers.
As the concert nears, Music House South hums with pre-show activity. It’s difficult to avoid the community that’s gathered in every public space. Clusters of parents and siblings lounge in chairs outside the auditorium and in the front lobby. Engrossed in books or iPads, they wait for kids to finish practice, a private lesson or a workshop. Kids study notebooks, anticipating rehearsal for tonight’s performance. Battered instrument cases are strewn about.
A mash-up of music echoes throughout the building. A cacophony of drums, keyboards, horns and guitars floats from classrooms dubbed Hendrix, Mozart and Led Zeppelin.
Assistant officer manager Sarah Tisdale, the self-appointed house DJ who mixes the eclectic satellite radio channels, greets students and parents like old friends. She and a young musician talk about tonight’s show.
“Yeah, it’ll be great,” says Tisdale. “Good luck.”
Tonight’s performance is the brass ring every Music House student wants to grab: an opportunity to use what they’ve learned and translate it to the stage, in front of an audience.
It’s just another day of learning music, outside the box.
Welcome to the vision of professional musicians Aaron and Katrinka Sizemore. They opened Music House in 2007 with plans of creating a music culture based on the interconnectedness of community.
“Lessons are only the beginning” is a phrase the Sizemores and their employees often recite when discussing the school’s mission.
Aaron recalls the unexpected education he and then-girlfriend Katrinka received years ago during a visit to Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
The vibrant, diverse and sophisticated music program blew the couple away within minutes of stepping into the school’s historic urban building.
“Beatniks started Old Town in the 1950s, primarily as a folk music school,” says Aaron. “It now has 6,000 students, three locations and offers every imaginable genre of music. Students learn, absorb, perform.”
Mentally the couple filed knowledge gained on that field trip for future reference.
Today, years after that informal scouting expedition, Aaron and Katrinka — now married — sit in the front lobby of Music House South at 7465 W. 161st St. in Overland Park, snuggled on a leather sofa.
Activity swirls around them. Administrative staff members exchange ideas in an impromptu hallway meeting and music wafts around the 5,000-square-feet facility.
Six years later Music House has more than 500 students ranging from age 6 to 75. Faculty includes 11 administrators who run the South and the new West facility at 12715 W. 87th Street Parkway in Lenexa, which opened on Jan. 7.
Thirty-one teachers — including many professional musicians — instruct guitar, bass, piano, drums, voice and virtually all brass, woodwind and stringed instruments.
Band workshops, including rock bands, percussion ensembles like the Rhythm Brigade and jazz combos, allow students to apply knowledge in a performance setting.
Clubs — including vocal, Kidz Jam, songwriting, adult jam and Teen Studio — promote creativity and learning with peers.
“Music is a language and social art form, so it’s essential to connect students in many ways,” says Aaron, Music House executive director and a Kansas City jazz guitarist. “There must be a team of excellent teachers who work together and a solid foundation of their peers who they can inspire and be inspired by. And we have to connect students with professional performers — practitioners of the art form who represent their wildest dreams and most ambitious goals.”
Katrinka, a professional oboist and English horn player who crafts custom bamboo reeds at home for woodwind students, is assistant finance and office director. She explains that while developing their initial Music House business model they discovered that the age-old notion of music lessons hadn’t evolved much over the past century.
“We encountered the traditional student-teacher scenario both as students and teachers,” says Katrinka. “Learning in isolation. We knew there was a different way.”
The Sizemores are fledgling trendsetters. Their model of music instruction in a community environment — based on what they’ve observed in places like Chicago — is being replicated around town, as more private music programs start ensembles to allow their students to interrelate with other musicians and ultimately, an audience.
The Sizemores’ idea of learning and working in an environment fueled by a sense of community became even more important when the couple hit an unexpected sour note four years ago.
Music House had relocated from its original location in a small suburban house to its current digs, tucked into a nondescript south Johnson County office park.
The economy was in a downfall, causing Aaron and Katrinka to sometimes wonder what was in store for their school. But people kept coming through the front door.
“Despite the economic downturn, we kept growing,” says Aaron.
In the midst of the growth, the couple encountered a medical situation that would forever alter their lives. Katrinka was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2009 right after her 30th birthday.
The cancer had metastasized in her liver.
“A doctor broke into tears at MD Anderson in Houston, telling us Katrinka had two years to live,” says Aaron, his voice quivering. “That was four years ago. She’s happy, healthy, active.”
The cancer is still in Katrinka’s liver but hasn’t continued to grow.
Following the life-changing news, the Sizemores were spurred to move Music House in a direction they felt strongly about — to surround themselves with music and business professionals who shared their enthusiasm.
“We thrive on community.” Katrinka repeated the mantra that defines the Sizemores’ personal and business lives.
“Cancer changed us in fundamental ways,” says Aaron. “Katrinka is a successful entrepreneur, despite the disease. We’ve opened our second location. She volunteers for the American Cancer Society and is a coordinator for the Young Survivors Coalition, is a substitute oboist with the Kansas City Symphony, a budding yogi and a self-taught student of nutrition and Eastern medicine. She amazes me.”
The couple recently observed Katrinka’s fourth “cancerversary” — a poignant celebration marking not the ominous diagnosis date in 2009 but her life.
They attended a Yoga Gallery class in downtown Overland Park — something they do for health benefits and stress reduction — and later shared a quiet lunch.
Back at Music House South the couple checks out preparations for the monthly Friday night concert. Satisfied, they settle into one of the lobby’s sofas, leaning into one another.
George Harrison and the Beatles sing “Here Comes the Sun” on the Pandora station playing overhead.
Professional musician and popular Music House teacher Josh Johnson works with seven guitar students perched on chairs in the South location’s Led Zeppelin room. Red and blue stand-mounted stage lights blink and combined with fluorescent ceiling lights create a pleasant glow.
Looking every part the rock star, the gregarious Johnson circles the room with his guitar, pausing in front of kids and a few adults. His long, wavy hair flows with every move.
Johnson bends into students, demonstrating techniques, suggesting a different way to approach a difficult chord.
He dismisses the class but students don’t rush to exit. They linger, asking questions, getting pointers, exchanging licks on electric guitars.
Audra and Joe Foltz emerge from the Hendrix room where a Real Guitar Plus class just ended. The couple — each toting a guitar case — grew up learning instruments. She played piano, he played trumpet.
The couple didn’t like the lone-ranger approach to learning music and they weren’t motivated to continue beyond their initial experiences.
“These lessons enrich our relationship, help us grow as a couple,” says Joe, a pastor. “And I hope eventually it enhances my ministry. I want to help people access their faith through music.”
It’s a cold and rainy weekday night at Music House West. Staff bustles around, cleaning up after the ribbon cutting for the new Music House facility with the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce. A pungent whiff of fresh paint and new carpet circulates in the air.
Because Music House students aim to be in a rock or jazz band or sing onstage, applying what they’ve learned in lessons, there’s always something to work toward, a tangible purpose.
Tonight, four handpicked students who comprise the Vocal Ensemble — minus 11-year-old Mary Cate Hamele, who is recovering from oral surgery — are pursuing their aspiration to take a turn in the spotlight.
The quartet, plus instructor Hana Wishy Burrows, sits cross-legged on a petite stage, recreating the memorable cup-slap scene from “Pitch Perfect,” the movie about an all-girl a cappella singing group.
This practice is another step toward a Grand Showcase concert that was slated for last Friday at Music House South. There’s a measure of intensity in the air as Burrows tutors from her seated position.
The voices blend in a rendition of “Cups (You’re Gonna Miss Me),” made famous in the movie. Grace Davis, 11, Sadie MacLeod, 15, Carlie Johnson, 16, and the lone male — Owen Jones, 13 — move through the song, listening to one another and to Burrows’ suggestions.
The plastic cups create a perfectly clipped staccato rhythm.
“Look and listen,” encourages Burrows, not missing a beat. “We’re in this together.”
Music House South is deserted this Saturday afternoon except for a few students trickling in for makeup lessons. The Songwriting Club is in full swing in the Led Zeppelin room.
“The art of the song,” says Music House guitar and bass instructor Andy Launder, “is to match the tone of the music with what you want to say.”
The sound of pencil lead is discernible over the chords Launder plays as six students eagerly scribble lyrics on blank sheets of white paper. It’s free-form writing, and Launder assures students they won’t turn in their work today.
“No grades,” says Launder, strumming a reggae bit on his acoustic guitar. “This kinda makes you think of a beach and the surf, eh?”
Nita Norris, a Music House regular for seven years, shares her lyrics at the end of the exercise. She works at KCP&L and enjoys the creative outlet here.
“I turned this one into rap,” laughs the 46-year-old. Students around the room listen to Norris’ song. Inspired by their classmate’s sharing, some kids erase and rewrite.
Skankin’ to the backbeat
Shaking to the groove, tapping my feet
Skankin’ to the backbeat
Get on up, get on up
Get up out of my seat
Island living is where it’s at
Drinking margaritas, don’t forget your hat
Smear a little sunscreen on your nose
SPF 500 is how it goes
Dip your toes in the water
Feeling so fine
And when the sun goes down, join the conga line
Norris wraps up and the room falls silent for a moment.
“Yeah,” grinned Launder. “That’s cool.”
Aaron and Katrinka sit in Music House South’s darkened auditorium, soaking in the talent performing onstage for the Friday night concert. The Real Band jazz combo, vocalist Hannah Flack, the Real Guitar Plus quintet playing “Smoke on the Water” and rock band Wayne Brady debuting an original song — all embody the Sizemores’ musical version of “it takes a village.”
A preschooler with blond curls gets out of her front-row seat and starts dancing. Audience members tap their feet and quietly slap their knees, closing their eyes while listening.
Enthusiastic applause is offered after each act, prompting Aaron and Katrinka to look at each other with smiles of satisfaction.
“This,” says Aaron, surveying the crowd spilling from the venue into the lobby after the final encore, “is our community.”