Music To Our Ears -Winter 2015

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Cary Hazlegrove

On any given day, the sounds of a piano, violin, guitar or people signing can be heard inside 56 Centre St.

On the second floor, instructors teach lessons in private rooms, and in the basement, high-school students learn the basics of how to record their own music.

The building, which has been home to the Nantucket Community Music Center for the past year and a half, has become a place where all types of music can find a home under one roof.

Coming back to the island to teach at the NCMC has been a dream come true for Greta Feeney, a Nantucket High School graduate who teaches voice lessons, is a lyric soprano opera singer, music scholar and music educator. The organization has always been a big part of her life, she said.

“Teachers don’t have to work as hard on recruiting because the building has raised awareness in the community that private lessons happen and they happen in a way that works for parents. Before, it would be one lesson here, one lesson there, and it creates a level of disorganization that can be frustrating for parents. Here, we have a sense of flow,” she said.

For more than 20 years, the Nantucket Community Music Center was housed on the second floor of Sherburne Hall on Centre Street, across from the Methodist Church. The space was restrictive, provided little to no storage, rehearsal or recital opportunities, and was shared in the summer with Preservation Institute: Nantucket, the nation’s oldest field school for historic preservation.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to run full summer programs,” NCMC executive director Barbara Elder said about the organization’s past. “At Preservation Institute, we weren’t able to stay in that space throughout the summer months.”

When the opportunity arose to move into the space up the street at 56 Centre, it was essentially a dream come true for the organization, whose mission is “to enrich the cultural life of the island by fostering and supporting music education and performance opportunities for young people and adults.”

“Being in one location and having a central identity changed a lot of things,” Elder said. “People come here with ideas.”

Elder came to the island in 1981 with her husband Jim Sulzer and their family to serve as director of the Nantucket Community Music Center. In addition to being the music coordinator in the public-school system for 25 years, she serves as the conductor of the NCMC chorus and women’s chorus.

After handing the reins over to Nanci Walker, who began serving as executive director of the organization late last year and has since moved on, Elder returned to the position she knows so well.

“We didn’t lose our stride. We had to keep going, projects had to keep running,” Elder said. “I had been the transition liaison, which was trying to build the position up to an executive-director position. When Nanci left, I stepped back in. I was available, so I stepped back in.”

Currently, the NCMC consistently sees about 120 students who take lessons in varying capacities, and 125 other community members who are in the organization’s ensembles, including jazz band, the community chorus, women’s chorus, Nantucket philharmonic, the ukulele band, a new youth strings program and the youth chorus.

In the past, the 16 instructors – three of whom commute to the island – would have to travel to students’ homes for lessons, but now they have three sound-proof studios at 56 Centre in which to teach. The traveling teachers can stay in an apartment on the top floor of the building while on the island.

The studios have made an impact not only on the students who utilize them, but their parents and teachers, who now have a central location to congregate.

After graduating from Nantucket High School in 1993, Feeney studied voice at the Mannes School of Music in New York. She started singing professionally at 19, and made debuts with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Ohio Light Opera by her early 20s. She also filled in from time to time at the Juilliard Opera Center while attending the prestigious music school.

Feeney completed an Adler Fellowship with the San Francisco Opera, of which she was a soprano, and made her debut at the city’s esteemed opera house as Jano in Chekhov’s “Jenufa.”

Feeney discovered her love of voice while appearing in a Theatre Workshop of Nantucket production of “Amadeus,” Mozart’s life story.

Having a permanent home “is a dream for any organization,” but for the NCMC, it has opened up a whole new set of doors and opportunities not only for students, but for the teachers as well, said Mollie Glazer, artistic director of the organization.

Glazer has an extensive background in music, and studied cello and viola da gamba at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Royal Conservatory of the Netherlands. She also composed scores for ballets and the Emmy Awardwinning film “If These Walls Could Talk,” and has taught in New York City.

But she is also well-known on Nantucket. She moved to the island in 1992 to teach cello, ukulele and string ensembles at the NCMC. In 2007, she became its executive director, and later the artistic director.

She pointed out that teaching a lesson privately can be isolating, and at 56 Centre St., instructors have a chance to converse in the hallways, something they have never been able to do before. The group can now collaborate more, relax and share ideas.

“People come in to take lessons, and also just to practice,” Glazer said. “And then we also have people who come in to play or sing in ensembles.”

Andy Bullington, an island musician who plays in bands like Earth Got the Blues, has taught the ukulele band once a week at 56 Centre for the past three years. The group used to meet at Sherburne Hall in a room that would often times be dirty, cold, dark and cluttered.

“It seemed like every time we went in there, there would be no chairs, or there would be a bunch of tables or a bunch of chairs there but the set-up was never the same,” Bullington said. “We had to set up the whole room every time we went there.”

“It’s just a much nicer place to go,” Bullington said of 56 Centre. “All of the rooms are so nice, so there’s never a problem because at 6 p.m. on a Monday night, it’s not like the place is going to be full. There is always an equally nice room one or two doors down.”

Bullington’s group plays a variety of music, including selections from the 1930s and Beatles songs.

“It’s a great little group,” he said. “I try to have songs that have different parts so people can play different parts. You have people of varying skill levels, so we have parts for everyone to play. There’s a singing component too, because what’s a ukulele without singing?”

Feeney said the new building has allowed the NCMC staff to become more like friends instead of just acquaintances.

“One of the nice things that I’ve noticed is I’ve been able to meet other faculty members, and that never happened when we were all teaching at home or at church or at the Preservation Institute,” she said. “I have relationships with my colleagues now. I have new friends.”

Although programming has taken off by leaps and bounds, Glazer said NCMC leaders have been following a “learn as you go” format.

“It’s, of course, what we envisioned, but it’s been a ‘if you build it they will come’ situation, and we were not completely prepared for that, but we’re getting there,” she said.

This summer, students could be found sitting on the building’s steps, waiting for the doors to open. People from both on and off-island utilized the spaces available to either play, practice or take lessons.

“It’s been interesting with transitioning from summer to the fall,” Elder said. “I think in the fall, it’s a little quieter during the day and busier after school.”

The organization’s free lecture series was a hit over the summer, and its fundraising parlor concerts have become popular. In June, Feeney started a radio show, “Live at 56 Centre,” that airs on 89.5 WNCK, Nantucket’s NPR station. With this, Feeney and her guests have been able to utilize the recording studio in the basement that has provided brand-new opportunities that were never even a possibility before, Glazer said.

Elder said Feeney’s program has been a hit.

“She had all sorts of people in here doing shows,” Elder said. “That’s a different format than what we’re used to, and we’re going to experiment with that a little more, too.”

Glazer said she found the radio show fascinating, especially because Feeney was able to bring in talent who were visiting the island.

“That was true with musicians who were playing at local clubs,” she said. “She pulled them in and we learned a little bit more about their lives.”

Feeney, who has a doctorate in music, called the radio show “just about the most fun job I’ve ever had,” partly because she has been able to become more conversant in all things music, but also because she was able to create something that reflects the community as a whole.

“I have interviewed a lot of people who are just here visiting, but we always tie it into the impact that the island has on their creativity and the kinds of people that they meet when they’re here performing,” Feeney said. “So it’s been an incredible way to meet people and just really very inspiring for me to also give people an opportunity for their music to be heard by more people and to be associated with the NPR brand, which is very important to people. It’s been really an incredibly great job.”

Heading into the fall, Elder said the NCMC will be firming up its parlor-concert series, and Glazer is gearing up for a class for preschool students on the island. The idea is to introduce children to music at a young age while simultaneously familiarizing them with the building and all it has to offer.

“The purpose of it is to introduce young people to instruments, and we’ll be demonstrating instruments and bringing them to the building. We want them to become familiar with the offerings, and we’ll be singing songs with them in addition to that,” she said.

Feeney said she is excited to collaborate in the future with other arts organizations on the island, and bring them to 56 Centre for programming.

“We’ve had these parlor concerts and everything, but we have all this space here,” she said. “Space is always such an issue on Nantucket, but to get the Dreamland and Theatre Workshop and the Artists Association all together, and to have the music center be a way for that to happen and a way to get the community excited and engaged, is something I’m looking forward to.” ///

Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket's newspaper since 1821.

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