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Wandering Billy

A Building for a Song

Ivan Battle’s dream of musical education plays on

By Billy Ingram

“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.”
— Maya Angelou

There’s plenty of activity surrounding what’s become known as Midtown, where flashy attractions like Mac’s Speed Shop, RED Cinemas, Scratch and Doggos Dog Park & Pub are the obvious lures. Just behind those establishments, along a shady lane named Beaman Place, there’s a newly minted coffee klatch on the corner followed by two enchanting gift boutiques you really should check out.

Near the top of the crest on Beaman Place, Midtown is anchored by what has been one of this city’s creative bedrocks for more than four decades: The Music Academy of North Carolina. Serene on the outside, this two-story ensemble of studios, rehearsal and performance spaces is harmonically sonorous as you step inside. “Cool place!” is how seasoned musician Zac Richey described his experience, having won a guitar competition there when he was 15 years old. That mirrors others with similarly gratifying stories about fine tuning their skills in pursuit of dreams both large and small under the academy’s expert tutorage.

Armed with a UNCG degree in musicology and a doctorate from the University of Kansas, Ivan Battle — a musician, performer, composer and recording artist — was 25 in 1982 when he kicked off the first term at what was then called Greensboro Music Academy. With just two teachers and fewer than a couple dozen students, the organization operated out of his small home on Pisgah Church Road.   

As a teenager growing up in Greensboro in the early-1970s, Battle recognized that our fair city was, to a great extent, a virtual musical desert. He felt budding musicians, no matter their age or experience, would benefit from an academic environment employing a collaborative approach in addition to one-on-one instruction.

With the help of co-founder Rev. Joe Flora, former associate minister at First Presbyterian Church, where Battle played the organ as a youngster, Greensboro Music Academy grew exponentially over the years. Its success led it first into a two-story house on Bessemer, then, in 1988, to its decade-long headquarters on Westover Terrace, where Chipotle is today.

Described by those who knew him as “informal and playful,” Ivan Battle passed away in 1995, but not before witnessing enrollment top some 700 attendees. Still, that was a few short years before the academy moved into its current digs on Beaman Place, where Battle’s vision — that one day his nascent organization would occupy a suitably sized space dedicated entirely to musical education — began inching toward reality.

A quarter-century later, Music Academy of North Carolina remains a vibrant community asset for those with a song in their hearts

“The benefits of music-making are far reaching,” says executive director Kellie Burgess. “It makes us smarter, gives us more confidence, teaches us discipline and gives us an opportunity to express ourselves, to work with others.” In a recent partnership with Lindley Elementary School, MANC instructors discovered that non-English speaking kids learned the language much more quickly by singing words set to melodies.

Referencing our public school music teachers, Burgess insists, “I think they’re doing a great job. They just have a lot on them.” One of MANC’s major outreach efforts is providing sectionals to school choirs, orchestras and bands. For instance, Burgess mentions a recent trip to Ragsdale High to work with violin students. “We will do whatever we can do to build their confidence and help them hone their skills so that they can have a stronger collaborative group.”

Chris Rachal, director of student relations, touts the “top tier, well-educated in music teachers” on deck as one reason this nonprofit’s methodology is so effective. “I teach recording at the Music Academy,” Rachal says, noting he has both older and younger students. “I love both. I enjoy the younger students’ enthusiasm for learning and the older students’ willingness to learn something new.”

“We have the whole broad spectrum,” says Burgess. “Some younger students may not want to be here. You can tell because mom is making them play.” Others, though, are very ambitious and look forward to every visit, committing for semester-long courses.

“We meet students where they are, then just guide them on their own journey,” Burgess says. And the instructors each offer a unique curriculum and style. “We give them a good bit of guidance because sometimes students don’t want to play scales or don’t want to learn this or that, but we know it’s important that they do.”

The centerpiece of the first floor is a large recital hall, where Sunday recitals are often held. “We can also do workshops and group classes in here,” says Burgess. “We actually have a monthly jazz workshop. It’s free and open to the public and this is a perfect space for it.” (See for schedule.)

Participants in the jazz workshop have an opportunity to perform in a manner similar to a jam session. “It’s basically for students of any age who have an interest in jazz,” Burgess points out, “to learn more about the language of jazz, learn more about the history.” Unlike standard jams where the group plays one song after another, with individuals standing to solo, this program tends to be more free flowing. “We have so many young students and adult students that come not knowing anything about jazz. So we want to make sure they’ve got the right tools to navigate the sessions.”

It was relatively quiet when I toured the Beaman Place facility on a recent afternoon, most kids still in school. “We do have adult students and homeschool families that’ll come during the day,” Burgess explains. “Most of our students start trickling in around 2, 2:30, and hang around until about 7 or 8. Our core is private lessons — that’s what we’re probably most known for.”

Ivan Battle’s dream for a stable future of Music Academy of North Carolina became even more solidified just last year. “The Murphy family, Pam Murphy and her husband, Don, enabled us to buy our building in October,” Burgess says. (Pam Murphy is the owner of Greensboro’s flavor-maker, Mother Murphy’s.) “It was a huge donation and we’re very grateful for their commitment to music education and to the Music Academy and the community.” Being spared that monthly rental expense allows additional resources for extended outreach.

This summer, MANC will conduct its annual symphonic summer camp in harmony with Eastern Music Festival, held on the Guilford College campus. “We’ve been doing this one for, gosh, probably close to 20 years,” Burgess tells me. “Students get to visit the orchestra each day, sit and watch a rehearsal, and sometimes actually get up on stage with the musicians.”

Dreams do come true, it could happen to you . . . but it does take practice.  OH

An internet pioneer, Billy Ingram’s TVparty! was the first to combine text, pictures and embedded media via a web page, the experience we’ve now come to expect online, and the first to broadcast television clips over the net.