Asheville Music School emerges from pandemic stronger than ever

LONG-RANGE PLAN: Asheville Music School board members celebrate the start of renovations on the nonprofit's new West Asheville facility. Photo courtesy of AMS

Weathering the COVID-19 pandemic has proved arduous for practically everyone, but the folks at Asheville Music School deserve special commendations for their perseverance.

“Where to begin?” says Ryan Reardon, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Paying rent; trying to teach music via online platforms; being asked to move out of our downtown location before our new facility was ready; canceling concerts; fundraising. The list [of challenges] goes on.”

Despite those obstacles, Reardon, his colleagues and their students persist, and as life gradually returns to normal, Reardon says he feels that AMS will be even stronger going forward.


The AMS team realized early on in the pandemic that staying connected would be a huge challenge. Reardon explains that, especially when a student is learning an instrument, there’s a personal connection, both to the music and to one’s teacher. AMS faculty wanted to preserve that link as much as possible while still adhering to local and state indoor gathering restrictions, which pushed them and other music educators into the digital realm.

“It’s a living, breathing, rhythmic art form, and without your teacher in the room with you, it can be hard to keep progressing as a music student,” Reardon says. “It’s an art of time as well, so playing duets or accompanying a student is next to impossible. Even the split second of latency that happens online makes it a huge challenge.”

Whenever possible, AMS faculty avoided those technological hiccups by holding outdoor lessons, teaching from home or traveling to students’ homes. But they also developed a platform to help teachers instruct online that’s remained in use even as pandemic-related restrictions have lifted.

These efforts and the support of AMS staff, donors and its board of directors kept the school afloat, while the livestreamed Come Together Asheville and Home for the Holidays concerts in 2020 helped fill the in-person performance void.

“We rely on the stability of our donor support, fundraising events and tuition to keep going. All of this was disrupted, but particularly our special events like the Sound Effects benefit concert,” says Sally Sparks, AMS board chair. “So, we had to come up with other ways, such as live video concerts. We had zero experience with that but were able to launch a couple of successful events that helped us stay connected with the community and raise some support.”

Nomad life

Despite the financial backing, Reardon identifies a stable home as AMS’ biggest issue. The rent for its College Street facility had been steadily increasing with no end in sight, and when the pandemic hit, it became even harder to justify the high downtown rent.

“Our landlord did give us a bit of rent relief, but that was temporary,” Reardon says. “We had been looking for a new home for years, and the pandemic amplified the need. Luckily, we found an amazing building in West Asheville that will be our long-term, rent-controlled home, with the option to purchase in the future.”

Located at 10 Ridgelawn Road, just off Beacham’s Curve, the building is being leased to AMS by a generous supporter who wishes to remain anonymous. The school is in the midst of its Play It Forward capital campaign to renovate the space, and in March received a $124,000 grant from the Asheville-based Glass Foundation. Work on the building began April 1, and both Reardon and Sparks are confident the new home will help AMS bring music education into the modern era with a multiuse rehearsal studio, a sound lab to teach recording, engineering, composition, production techniques and more.

“West Asheville is perfect for accessibility and convenience for our students coming from all directions,” Sparks says. “The new building will serve our needs for many years and facilitate expanding our programs to include newer ways of engaging students with music tech.”

She adds that AMS leaders want to find fresh ways to engage with the community beyond instrument instruction, and that as they settle into the new space, they’ll be looking for intersections with schools and other organizations as part of their outreach efforts.

Moving in, however, can’t come soon enough. Just as coronavirus infection rates were declining and Asheville was starting to open up again last October, AMS was given a six-week notice to leave its downtown location — part of an agreement with its then-landlord — before its new facility was ready. While renovations are underway, faculty members are teaching at satellite locations around town, including SoundSpace@Rabbit’s, Experience Music, Citizen Vinyl and Trinity United Methodist Church.

“These local businesses [and churches] really stepped up and helped us through,” Reardon says. “In the end, it was really our community that helped us overcome these challenges, and staying connected helped us continue the work that we do.”

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

The Sound Effects benefit concert last occurred in 2019 when the Asheville Beatles Band — composed of AMS faculty and other talented local musicians — played Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Forgoing the annual fundraiser over the past two years has also proved extremely difficult for Reardon and his colleagues, many of whom also work as gigging musicians.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS: The last Sound Effects performance took place in 2019, spotlighting songs from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Photo by Michael Oppenheim

“Being a performing musician who can’t perform live in front of a crowd is like a chef who cooks a big feast but no one’s there to eat it. Or a painter who paints the most beautiful painting but no one can see it,” Reardon says. “The online shows we all did and watched were — OK. It got us through, and we all appreciated them. But there’s nothing like a live show.”

Much to the AMS community’s delight, Sound Effects returns for its eighth iteration on Thursday, May 19, at Salvage Station’s outdoor stage. AMS flagship student rock band, Minør, will open the show, along with fellow student groups Liminal Spaces and Dollars on Ice. Then the Asheville Beatles Band will take to the stage and perform The Beatles, aka The White Album.

This year’s ensemble is composed of Matt Williams (lead vocals/guitar/violin), Dulci Ellenberger (vocals), Jon Lauterer (drums/Ringo Starr vocals), Rich Brownstein (keyboards), Alec Fehl (lead guitar), Jason Moore (saxophone), Kylie Irvin (vocals) and Rachel Hansbury (vocals). Reardon plays bass in the band and notes that while rehearsals are going well, he and his fellow musicians feel humbled by the experience.

“Every time we learn a new one, it’s like. ‘Whoa! I never realized how unique this song is,’” Reardon says. “For me, ‘Dear Prudence’ is such a gorgeous, uplifting song — one of their best, as if ranking songs is even possible. And ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ has got to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time. I mean, it’s a rock song about a guitar!”

Reardon adds that The White Album’s handful of intimate, stripped-down acoustic songs (e.g., “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”) followed by “some seriously intense rockers” (namely “Helter Skelter”) make crafting a set list to enhance and showcase both elements a challenging yet rewarding undertaking.

WHAT: Sound Effects benefit concert
WHERE: Salvage Station, 468 Riverside Drive,
WHEN: Thursday, May 19, 6-10 p.m. $20 advance/$25 day of show/free for children under 10


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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