The Stax Music Academy has been teaching students musical and life lessons in a family atmosphere in the heart of the Soulsville USA neighborhood since its inception in 2000.
President’s Day typically means a day off for most school-aged children in Memphis.
But the day was not one of leisure for students at 926 E. McLemore Ave. in the Soulsville neighborhood this past holiday. In preparation for their annual Black History Month concert, groups of Stax Music Academy students spent the morning performing live at local television stations and the afternoon rehearsing for the big day.
The concert will be held 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, at Minglewood Hall. (Doors open at 6:30 p.m.) A dress rehearsal will be held the evening prior. Tickets to the main concert are $15 in advance, $20 at the door; the sneak peek tickets are $5.
The concert at the 1,600-seat venue is one of two major concerts for Stax Music Academy students. They will perform a free, finale concert during the last weekend in June at the Levitt Shell for a crowd of up to 5,000 people.
Developed in 2000 as a high quality, affordable music education resource the Stax Music Academy serves over 100 students during the school year via the SNAP! After School program from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and about 80 students during the four-week SNAP! Summer Music Experience from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The music academy is adjacent is to the original Stax Records, now home of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Stax Music Academy is housed under the umbrella of the Soulsville Foundation Inc. The other entities are the museum and The Soulsville Charter School, which sits adjacent to the music academy.
The charter school serves students from sixth through 12th grades and has become known for all of its seniors being accepted into colleges or universities for the past several years.
Stax Music Academy also serves students from sixth through 12th grades. Middle and high school students interested in becoming part of Stax Music Academy must audition. Those who do not play an instrument instead undergo an interview process. The next auditions will be held in March.
Students do not have to attend Soulsville Charter School to be accepted into Stax Music Academy; students from as far away as Mississippi participate in the program.
Students have traveled to places such as Berlin, Australia, Connecticut and Boston to perform. They have performed with artists such as Mavis Staples, Faith Hill and Branford Marsalis.
Ensembles include the Stax Music Academy Rhythm Section, Stax Music Academy Junior Rhythm Sections, Soulsville Jazz Ensemble, StreetCorner Harmonies, Premier Percussionists, Stax Vocal Jazz, Stax Vocal Classics and Audio Engineering and Production.
While in Stax Music Academy students learn things such as Stax history, music theory and songwriting. All students learn production and they compete against each other as groups. The building contains rooms where students can practice instruments, such as the piano or acoustic guitar one on one. The students actually provide the set up for their live performances.
“As far as music, they get to learn in a fun way,” said Adrianna Christmas, interim artistic director and vocal coach at Stax Music Academy. “Traditionally we use Stax music, classical music and pop hits to teach them music theory. We step to get rhythms. There’s choreography.”
With many schools lacking music education, the program fills that gap for students and enhances the education for students who do attend schools with such programs, Christmas said.
Since it began, Stax Music Academy has served over 2,500 students with many receiving four-year college scholarships after they graduate high school, several to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
Instruction is not limited to just music. Students interested in music careers as well as those who are not learn through teamwork, leadership training, personality tests, social media management and event planning.
Some of Stax Music Academy’s younger students cite the program as an outlet for the ups and downs of middle school and a place to learn musically and about life.
“(Stax Music Academy) teaches them to live authentically and be comfortable with themselves,” Christmas said. “They get that a bit earlier in life.”
The high school students talked about the program as a place to connect with peers who share their interest in music, to learn from staff and other students, and as a constructive way to spend time. Depending on which ensembles students are involved in, they may spend up to five days a week at the campus.
With students’ other commitments such as Advanced Placement courses, homework and music practice, some students also noted the program taught them how to budget their time and prioritize.
Those peer-to-peer and peer-to-staff relationships can span over years with students who start the program in middle school and stay involved until the conclusion of their high school years.
“In Memphis, it’s one of the best music programs here,” said 14-year-old Jadan Graves, a piano player with Stax Music Academy for the past three years. “It’s more of a family. We’re all spiritually connected. It’s not just a program.”