TAKING IT TO THE BRIDGE
Newly opened Columbia Academy of Music, venue fill gap between head knowledge, hands-on experience
Story by Jill Renae Hicks
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Doors line both sides of the hallway belonging to the newly opened Columbia Academy of Music. Each is labeled with a letter of the alphabet. “You know how guitar players will call every note a sharp when they’re playing scales?” director of operations Andrew Weir said, smiling, as he strolled past each small studio room. “We named one of the classrooms ‘B Sharp.’ ”
Charlie Bondurant, 12, right, plays “America the Beautiful” during a piano lesson with Andrew Weir, director of operations for the Columbia Academy of Music. The school and adjoining music venue are a joint venture between Casey Conway and Wes Wingate.
The classrooms are located in the west side of the symmetrical historic building, once the home of the nightclub Lou’s Palace. Each room contains an instrument or space for practice: piano, drum set, even a room with a set of computers and sound equipment. Glass soundproofing material lurks in the walls. The room of computers will be used for audio engineering lessons, Weir said, and as a bonus, it’s all connected to the sound board “on the other side.”
“The other side” quickly becomes apparent: Front and back walkways open into the east side of the building, which encompasses the rock venue The Bridge. The ceiling is airy and rustic, made of open rafters. Here and there, foam sound strips peek through the wood and stick to the undersides of the air ducts. The stage is dark, varnished wood, and so is the bar. Tables and chairs scattered throughout are movable in case the venue needs to be changed for a recital; the whole space can fit 200 people total. A door off the stage opens directly onto the loading dock, something the founders were insistent upon. The whole thing is “built by musicians, for musicians,” co-founder Wes Wingate said.
The mission statement of the Columbia Academy of Music reads, “Providing an outlet for musical education to all ages and integrating the learning process with hands-on application and experience.” The instructors offer opportunities for students to learn both rock and classical music; they align their teaching goals with the musical goals of their protégés without failing to help them build a solid musical foundation. Instructors teach a range of instruments: French horn, piano, guitar, percussion, violin, bass, trumpet, banjo, trombone … even the hammered dulcimer and the old-time fiddle. Voice, music notation and sound engineering also are study options.
A BUZZING, BUSTLING NEIGHBORHOOD
Wingate and co-founder Casey Conway “played together in a band” awhile ago “but have been friends ever since,” Conway said in a phone interview. Four years ago, Conway had set out a staged plan to get into the venue business, and when Wingate approached him with the idea for The Bridge last year, Conway knew the opportunity would be hard to pass up, he said. “The idea of a complex where there could be a performance space attached was something that I wanted to achieve,” Wingate summarized.
The two looked at several buildings before finding the space on East Walnut Street. The building they finally decided upon was owned by John Ott, who hoped to integrate the building into the North Village Arts District, the home of Artlandish Gallery, Orr Street Studios and the newly relocated PS: Gallery. The restoration completely transformed the building, Wingate and Weir said. Huebert Builders, who handled the renovation of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts and the building that houses Ragtag Cinema, also put its craft to the task of restoring the building on Walnut Street. “When they first gave me a blueprint,” Wingate said, “I went, ‘Yeah, exactly!’ … They do good work.”
Wingate is especially happy to be a part of the growing, buzzing North Village Arts District. He said, “it was amazing the things I didn’t even know were going on. ... I lived in Columbia for the last 15 years, and this part of town has always just been kind of the industrial wasteland. It’s very exciting for me.”
FILLING THE GAP
After music store Hennessy and Sons closed in the spring of 2010, Wingate and Weir, who each taught there for several years, moved their students to their houses to keep holding lessons. Building up from 30 students or so, they now have more than 50 students at CAM and are hoping to eventually teach 200. “People have been signing up pretty much every day,” Wingate said. Conway works between the school and the venue, handling most of the financial operations and whatever else might need to be done at a given moment. “I’m kind of playing ‘fill the gap,’ ” he explained.
Kevin Hennessy, who joined CAM from Hennessy and Sons, is the house bass instructor; Wingate and Weir also knew most of their other instructors personally before inviting them to join. “Hennessy closing was what prompted” him to move forward more quickly on CAM and The Bridge, Wingate said. The initial idea that percolated in Wingate’s brain was to have a place to take a more “scholarly approach to rock” and have a facility where kids could see, “ ‘Hey, this is what happens when you perform’ — and bridge that gap, if you will,” he said. In addition, “It’s the experience of seeing your instructor perform or seeing someone from the community or region.”
“You’re giving kids the opportunity — or adults,” Weir said.
Weir thought of the name “The Bridge” for the performance venue initially, and the others caught the vision. “You know how people always say, ‘Take it to the bridge’ in a song?” he said. “Then, as Wes thought about it more, he thought, yes, it is a bridge between the practicing — the ‘not-fun’ part of playing music — to the fun part of playing music.” After a pause, Weir added, “But I like practicing.”
Thursday nights already have become a regular space for Jazz Odyssey, a semiprofessional jazz “open mic” where students from MU Jazz Studies come to play and other community members can join in the jam. Phylshawn Johnson typically is the drummer for these collaborative sessions, but she also is CAM’s percussion instructor. CAM and The Bridge are planning to do more collaboration with the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series for next year’s season, and another plan in the works is to offer a summer rock camp, beginning in June, for students who are interested in learning some rock basics outside the school year.
CAM already has a few adult students; some of them are even the parents of younger students. Weir enjoys the camaraderie that comes with teaching adult students, saying they have a good idea of their musical goals. To help students improve, the recording studio on the school side of the building is wired to the soundboard inside the venue, so students can listen to their recitals or “record them to send to their grandparents,” Weir said. The Bridge can also record live albums for musicians who come in to perform. The hope is that The Bridge will become “a marquee stop for smaller-size acts” in the future, Conway said, noting the multi-track recording option is an attractive component of a musical venue.
“I think it was logical” to move toward CAM and The Bridge as the next step, Wingate said. “And I think that the town needed it.” Conway agreed, noting the new venue is both “musician- and patron-friendly. … People can come, enjoy music and talk about music.” The three were intent on creating a space that would work for customers and musicians alike; they all have had years of experience with bands of their own, including membership in the Stingrays (Wingate and Conway), Bockman (Weir) and a big hand in the Bluebird Music Festival, which Wingate spearheaded. But “this ties it together,” Wingate said of CAM and The Bridge. Their previous musical experience feeds into their new venture.
“I’ve said a lot of times, ‘It’s like we’re in a new band, here — being this,’ ” Weir said. The three still tour here and there, but “I don’t miss sleeping on strangers’ couches, eating McDonald’s and being in a van with stinky guys,” Wingate said.
“Or calling my wife and saying, ‘I miss you,’ ” Weir added.
“I’m all in on this,” Wingate finished.