A2 Music Center finds a new home.
by Sheila Beachum Bilby
Published in November, 2019
As of the first of November, a well-established music school officially will leave Ann Arbor for a sprawling former office building and warehouse complex on a quiet side street just north of downtown Saline.
"We love it here," says Alex Johnson, founder of the Ann Arbor Music Center, now known as the Ann Arbor Saline Music Center, or just the A2 Music Center, at 135 E. Bennett St.
With space at a premium in his Ann Arbor studios on S. Ashley St. and parking a perpetual headache, it wasn't a tough decision for Johnson to join an exodus of downtown businesses fleeing rising rents when a new out-of-town landlord doubled his rent in one day.
Johnson and his partner, Karen King, are converting what was once a drab, utilitarian office building in Saline into a thriving center for music education, with twenty practice rooms, a performance space that will accommodate 120 people, a large glass-fronted band practice room, a workshop for repairs and custom guitars, a pro shop, and several lounges with Wi-Fi for waiting parents. Now landlords themselves, they have thirty tenants in the 47,000-square-foot building, formerly owned by Johnson Controls.
They expect that most of their 500 students will follow them and their staff of fifteen music instructors to Saline. In addition to free street parking, there is a seventy-car parking lot on the building's east side, near the main entrance to the music center. Next year, Johnson and King plan to have a huge, colorful mural painted on the exterior wall to welcome students and visitors.
Johnson started playing guitar at age nine and was soon trying to forge a band with a few other neighborhood boys. They never played a gig, but it was a formative experience. "Therein lies the beginnings of all of this," Johnson says of the music center, which he started in 1998. "We didn't know how to put a rock band together, nor was there anywhere to go to learn how."
spent his teen years and twenties playing in local bands, writing songs, performing different styles of music, and learning other instruments, then began working in a recording studio helping make demos for bands and teaching guitar.
"That's when the light went on," he says, and "it clicked in my head, 'Oh, I could teach the whole thing.'"
A2 offers private lessons in guitar, piano, saxophone, drums, violin, cello, clarinet, banjo, ukulele, flute, trombone, trumpet, euphonium, and voice. If a student wants a performance experience, there are twenty-six different bands to rock with as well as music summer camps. Prices are $41 for a thirty-minute private lesson, $99 a month to participate in a weekly hour-long band rehearsal, and $499 for a weeklong summer camp.
"Our student bands play all over the place," says Johnson, including recently in Saline's Oktoberfest Festival. "They're not just learning how to play songs. They're learning how to put on a show, how to set up a stage, how to use the equipment. They're learning how songs are arranged, they're learning how songs are written, and they're learning music theory, which is something that differentiates us from the others."
"That's the goal," says King, who learned how to play the drums from Johnson and manages the center, "having everything to put on their own show. When they learn to do that, we will have done our job."
Over the past decade, Johnson says he has seen a change in the demographic makeup of his students. Once about 90 percent boys, it is closer to 75 percent now as more girls, often motivated by the rise of female artists like Taylor Swift, are showing up for vocal and instrument lessons and even pursuing careers in music. A new student typically once would have been a teen boy; now, he says, it's more likely to be a preteen or a middle-aged adult.
One of those young students, eight-year-old Gav-in Lemm, a third-grader in Saline, was at A2 one fall afternoon. He has been taking drum lessons for a year, learning "beats and songs," and says his goal is "to learn how to be a drummer."
"I was thrilled when they made the move to Saline," says his mother, Bethany Lemm, because A2 is close to their house, and parking is free.
Saline mayor Brian Marl also is thrilled. Marl, who attended A2's September grand opening, says Johnson and King has taken a facility that's been underutilized for more than two decades and have brought "a really exciting, burgeoning enterprise to Saline."
Johnson is proud of former students who now have careers in music and are playing on stages worldwide from Nashville to New York to London. But he especially appreciates letters and emails from his earlier students who still play guitar just for the love of it.
Those connections he makes are evident in online reviews. One parent writes: "Our son is no longer a student. He is a musician, an artist-there's a difference."
"As I've gotten older with this," Johnson says, "I've come to realize that the role of a mentor in a young person's life may have everything to do with how the rest of their life goes. And that is an incredibly serious responsibility."
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