The Stax Music Academy isn’t participating in the debate about whether schools should open their classrooms and risk the further spreading of COVID-19. They’re going online, choosing to create solutions to the pandemic that broaden the Memphis academy’s offerings rather than curtail the usual curriculum.
When the doors open Aug. 17 at the music school, which quietly marked its 20th anniversary in June, the stay-at-home orders are leading to a new emphasis on recording and additional opportunities to teach songwriting.
“Ninety percent of our focus has been on performance,” says executive director Pat Mitchell-Worley, noting the academy’s ensembles deliver more than 50 performances each year. “In the past, we have not been able to focus as much as we want on a studio work, the recorded performance.”
In February, they plan to do an online variety show that that can be streamed at any time and comes with a lesson plan for other schools. For the first time in its history, the Academy will release a compilation of recordings of original material from students, selected by the students.
Taken collectively, Mitchell-Worley says, “I think it will offer us a chance to be more accessible to young people because teenagers really want to see teenagers.”
On the songwriting front, legendary Stax Records guitarist and composer Steve Cropper is putting up the prize money for a monthly citywide competition featuring professional musicians as judges; Maroon 5’s PJ Morton is the jurist on the next challenge. (Levi’s helped pushed the discipline last year by installing a song lab at the academy.)
“[Cropper] knows what music and songwriting is for his life and he wants to encourage the next generation,” Mitchell-Worley says. By starting during the lockdown, “it gives students the opportunity to get their creative juices going and express themselves about what they’re going through. We thought that that was an important outlet for them.”
Founded in a Memphis elementary school two decades ago by Stax Records legends Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas, the school guided 125 children through a six-week program that culminated in a performance. The curriculum, then as now, is the soul music that made Stax great from 1959 into the mid-1970s — the music of Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave and others. It’s not just covers of “Green Onions,” “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” and “Soul Man” coming out of the students. They’re playing and writing jazz, blues, gospel, hip-hop, even music for videogames — “though you do hear the influence [of Stax],” Mitchell-Worley allows.
The academy’s ensembles of teenage students have performed in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Europe, and on NBC’s “Today” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Students have collaborated with Justin Timberlake, Stax singer William Bell, Mavis Staples and others.
Each year’s class is around 115 students. Tuition is $1,000 — the cost is closer to $9,000 per musician, which donations and grants cover — and 80% of the students receive financial aid.
Stats regarding its graduates are astounding. Every graduate of the program since 2002 has been accepted to college. Of those, Mitchell-Worley reports, 65% plan careers in music and entertainment.
Last year they had a real eye-opener when one of their students, a valedictorian at his high school, couldn’t find a scholarship for music. “We got involved and he ended up having four different schools offer him four scholarships. We were just like, ‘what’s going on here?’ We recognize now that we have to have a more active role in helping them find scholarships, because depending on what school they go to, their guidance counselors just don’t know about the music scholarships.
“So we stepped up our efforts and then worked with the other students. This year is the first year that we actually have a person in a position — director of student success and alumni relations — to reach out, work with different universities, with music and education programs.”
With learning having moved online for the fall, the academy is working to ensure a healthy environment when students return. It’s far more complicated than the usual classroom set-up — think about all the spit that flies when trumpets, saxophones and trombones are being played, not to mention singers.
It’s more than masks and face shields. They’re ordering covers for the brass and woodwinds, creating new spaces in rehearsal spaces to keep the students safe and adding medical grade air filters to in the HVAC system. All of it is being done in consultation with doctors and health scientists.
Beyond physical health, the school has also begun addressing mental health through life skills classes they offer seniors and juniors, covering copping skills, mental wellness, relationships and contemporary issues — items that go beyond how to play and get a job.
“We don’t just care about them being great musicians,” she says. “We want them to be great people. We want them to give back to their community and see themselves as a part of a community and also happy, giving adults. That’s built into the program.
“Heaven knows a career in entertainment is hard on the mind. It is a life with a lot of rejection. And we want to make sure that they’ve got the coping skills, and if we can start the hard conversations now, then they’ll be better equipped to deal with the negative aspects and the struggles that they’re going to face as an artist.”