(Samantha Ryan photo)

Music Academy in Rockford Celebrates 30 Years

Young musicians age preschool to adult attend the Music Academy in Rockford, traveling here from a 90-mile radius. Discover how this program helps students achieve their greatest musical and personal potential.

(Samantha Ryan photo)
(Samantha Ryan photo)

Shelby Harris began playing the violin at age 2, when she took lessons at the Music Academy in Rockford. Her mother was a violinist and believed it was important for her daughter to be in a nurturing musical environment. Harris stayed with the academy for 16 years, attending years of music lessons and camps and honing her craft, before heading off to college.
She went on to become a freelance violinist, teaching, soloing, recording and touring the U.S. and abroad. As a former second violinist of the Sphinx Quartet and a founding member of the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra in Detroit, Harris helped to raise  awareness about minority under-representation in the arts.
“Music instruction through the Music Academy instilled in me a sense of perseverance,” says Harris, who has passed along her love of music to her own children. “In music, you are never finished learning. There’s always more to be learned and more skill to acquire – more than one way to think of the same piece of music, no matter how many times you play it. I think that I approach life in that way. There’s so much to be done, but not in a daunting kind of way, more like in an exciting kind of way.”
Harris is one example of the good work taking place at The Music Academy in Rockford, a nonprofit community school of music that provides instruction and performance opportunities for students of any age or ability.
“The Music Academy has a great impact on the community through its students and concerts,” says board member Gerrie Gustafson. “Many of the students are leaders in their respective schools and in many community activities.”
Founded in 1985, the Music Academy is in the midst of a year-long 30th anniversary celebration. In that time, it has worked with more than 35,000 students, many of whom have gone on to pursue long and successful careers in music as well as many other professions.
Students come from a 90-mile radius, including Rockford, Oregon, DeKalb, Sycamore, Lena and southern Wisconsin. Located at 226 S. 2nd St. in downtown Rockford, the Music Academy is open year round. The faculty consists of 25 instructors, many with extensive solo and ensemble experience and Suzuki Talent Education training. The academic year runs September to May, with summer classes available.
“We have really high expectations of the children,” says executive director Marti Frantz.
“Our goal as a school is not only to help students achieve their musical potential but their greatest personal potential. It doesn’t matter if the student ever plays their musical instrument once he or she leaves here. It’s about character development. It easily transfers to anything else they decide to do in life.”
The late Eleanor Stanlis founded the Academy. She came here from Texas with her husband, Peter, a professor who taught at Rockford University. In the 1960s, Stanlis traveled to Japan, where she trained with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who created the Suzuki method of teaching. Suzuki philosophy holds that all people are capable of learning from their environment.
Stanlis became one of the first accredited Suzuki Method music teachers in the U.S. and started teaching music to 3-to-5-year-old children of a few close friends. Eventually, Stanlis and Frantz approached Rockford University, which agreed to sponsor and serve as the home of the new academy. Stanlis died in 2000.
“Eleanor was an amazing person who no one ever said no to,” said Frantz. “She was driven, thorough and very meticulous. I learned so much from her.”
The Music Academy outgrew its space at Rockford University after 24 years, and, in 2011, moved its operation to downtown Rockford, in a building owned by First Lutheran Church, which remodeled it to reflect a European-style choir school. The building features 20 teaching studios, an 80-seat choral rehearsal room and a 200-seat auditorium.
“It’s been really good for us and for the city to have our students downtown,” says Frantz.
The Academy offers programs for participants as young as pre-school to adult. Individual instruction ranges from piano to voice, as well as ensembles, group classes and summer camps. Many students stay with the Academy for 14 to 16 years before graduating.
“What I see are very strong students,” Frantz says. “Many of our students go on to become doctors, nurses or end up in some other science-based career, as well as musicians and teachers. They can do anything they set out to do.”
The Music Academy has several community partnerships such as City of Rockford Head Start, the Ryan Jury Learning Center at SwedishAmerican Health System, Lincolnshire Place, a memory care residence, and Montessori Private Academy.
The Music Academy belongs to the National Guild for Community Arts Education, an organization that provides networking, professional development, grants and advocacy opportunities for its member organizations. In addition, the Academy has a foundation, which serves as the fundraising arm of the school and raises about $15,000 a year to assist the financial needs of its students.
In addition to funding, the Music Academy holds many special events throughout the year. It sponsors events like Spooky Suzuki that offer the public an opportunity to see the students in their learning environment.
“The Music Academy, along with RSO, the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, Arts Council, and Art Museum is an important part of the cultural life of Rockford, which is an asset for attracting new residents and retaining those who lived in Rockford for many years,” says Gustafson.
The Academy started its 30th anniversary celebration in 2015 and will continue throughout the remainder of the school year.
In November, the Academy hosted its annual “Heartstrings” gala that featured performances by former Rockford residents Margaret Batjer and Ben Geller, along with Ben’s cousin Noah Geller; all perform in nationally recognized orchestras. Batjer is the daughter of the late Eleanor Stanlis and is now concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Ben Geller is principal violist with the Charlotte Symphony and Noah Geller is concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony. About 20 alumni from around the country, including Harris, Hiran Fernando, Jocelyn Hare and Jon Rozman, as well as current students, performed.
In January, the Music Academy hosted composer Catherine McMichael at a concert at First Lutheran Church, which featured performances by piano and string ensembles, including several of McMichael’s works. McMichael also commissioned a new piece called “Hot Strings” that the students first performed last November as the opening act for the Rockford Symphony Orchestra.
On April 16, more than 300 students will perform at CherryVale Mall throughout the day. On April 24, faculty members and friends will perform a free concert for the public at First Lutheran Church.
Faculty members will also perform some of those same pieces at Kishwaukee Elementary School for students, families and staff members. “It’s a neighborhood school, and we’re doing all we can to serve our community,” says Frantz.
The Music Academy also hosts Performing Cultural Tours, a program that’s given the students opportunities to visit places such as Japan and San Antonio, Texas. The academy will conclude its 30th anniversary celebration in June with a trip to Alaska for students, staff, board members, family and community members.
Gustafson was on the San Antonio trip in 2014. “The students who participated, from age 4 to 18, were incredible not only in talent, but also demeanor,” she says. “They were polite, helpful and were a joy to observe. I was so proud of them and the Music Academy. When we were held up at the Dallas airport for a lengthy delayed flight, they spontaneously took out their instruments and entertained those in the waiting room. You should have seen travelers take out their cameras to take pictures of the pop-up concert.”
The anniversary is special to Frantz, who’s seen the organization grow during the past three decades. “I really like what I do. It comes from such a place of passion and fire in me,” she says. “It’s something the community needs and the students need. We really believe what we’re doing is helping the children to develop their fullest musical and personal potential. I’m blessed to do what I get to do.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Her dedication and enthusiasm inspire all of us involved to be dedicated ambassadors for the institution,” says Gustafson. “She’s extremely creative and is always thinking of new ways to promote the Academy.
“She truly loves each and every one of her students, from the tiniest baby to the oldest student. Marti is the Music Academy.”