Photo courtesy of Highland North Music | Students of Highland North Music are often ready to perform in front of an audience within little more than a year of beginning lessons, says Vance Archer, a retired Bell Laboratories engineer who teaches stringed instruments at the academy.
Photo by Patti Stokes/NWO | Highland North Music, which opened in 2007, is located off Battleground Avenue/U.S. 220, near its intersection with Horse Pen Creek Road.
by MEREDITH BARKLEY
Natalia Kelly tried to learn guitar at age 9. But the strings hurt her fingers and the lessons didn't grab her.
It was "by the book," she recalls of those earlier lessons.
Now 41 years old, a photographer and the mother of three, she's giving it another try. This time she's using a guitar her late mother gave Kelly's son, and she's at a school near her Summerfield home that emphasizes learning music by playing music, rather than by practicing techniques.
Her first weekly lesson was mid-February. She came away enthused.
"I learned to play a couple chords and by the time I left I was playing 'Tennessee Whiskey' by Chris Stapleton," she said of the basic chords for the song. "I can't wait until next week."
That's music to Donnie Wright's ears. He's founder of Highland North Music at 4057 Battleground Avenue in northwest Greensboro where Kelly attends. It's a sentiment he hears a lot.
Take Terri Dippel of Pleasant Garden, for example. Her daughter Ella, 10, is a violin student.
"It's about learning music and loving it," she said of Highland's teaching style. "Anyone can learn to play music with the way they teach it. We love it."
Wright's instructional philosophy is simple. He aims to teach music as a language. As a baby, then a toddler, he reasons, you learn to speak by listening to those around you, then joining in. No one, he said, insists you read before you can speak. To him, it should be the same with music.
And like toddlers, who make a slew of mistakes en route to perfecting language skills, beginning musicians should be allowed mistakes too, said Wright, 49, a Greensboro native.
"If music is a language, we should be rejoicing (when they) hit a note, even if it's the wrong note," he said. "In traditional (teaching) programs, you have to play well before you can go on."
Said Vance Archer, a retired Bell Laboratories engineer who teaches stringed instruments: "From very early we try to get them practicing and playing with other students so they learn by doing."
At Highland North, students learn techniques and music theory, too. But they pick that up as they play, Wright said.
"Our mentality is not practicing. Our mentality is playing," he said.
Once students are good enough, they can join ensembles at Highland North and perform for audiences. The academy has lined up about a dozen public performances through the rest of 2019. The next: a Beatles showcase 4 p.m. March 30 on the front lawn of the academy's Battleground Avenue headquarters.
They also perform in coffee houses, churches, at parades and community events like Fun Fourth in Greensboro and the Summerfield Founders' Day parade.
"Usually in a year or so they're ready to go," Archer said of the school's students.
Wright honed his music instruction philosophy during the early 2000s while teaching at Greensboro Performing Arts.
"It occurred to me over 15 years that there's a better way" to teach, he said. With no formal instruction, he learned from his dad, a blue grass musician, by playing along.
"I learned theory on my own," he said.
Wright left Greensboro Performing Arts in the mid-2000s, opened Highland North in 2007 and reorganized it as a nonprofit in 2016. The name is a nod to his Scottish Highland heritage.
As for Kelly, she was quickly hooked on Wright's method.
"He was so nice and kind," she said of Wright. "He makes it more fun."
Kelly, who operates a photography business, saw lessons with her son's guitar as a way to both honor her mom and follow her passion for music.
"My husband and I go to Nashville" for the music, she said. "That's one of our favorite cities to visit."
Her husband wondered how she could fit lessons into her busy life.
He "was like: 'Have you lost your mind signing up for something else?'" Kelly said. "But this is for me. It was so different, but so fun. It was kind of neat."
To learn more about Highland North Music, visit www.highlandnorth.net.