Princeton’s own “School of Rock”June 29, 2016
When it comes to sharing the joys of music and life, Stages Music School deserves an encore.
There’s power behind harmony, melody and chords. In southern West Virginia, 1 school changes communities, lives and outlooks through music.
“Music— I love the way it brings people together,” said Melissa McKinney, the owner of Stages Music School.
Since 2008, the school in Princeton has helped revitalize not only the town, but also people’s lives. By pouring their hearts into music, students share the gifts of perseverance and hope with others.
Welcome to class
Stages Music School isn’t your typical learning academy. Sitting amidst the murals of Princeton, its bright yellow foyer and brick exterior entices aspiring musicians. You get the impression it’s a friendly place where creativity really happens.
“I asked myself, ‘What kind of music school would have helped me as a kid?’” Melissa said.
During childhood, she— like so many hopeful musicians— played one genre, and one genre only: classical. Melissa appreciated its complexity, but yearned for other types of expression. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an alternative for blues, rock or jazz lovers.
“Keeping kids excited really helps them learn how to play music,” Melissa said. “They come in here and they’re familiar with pieces from mainstream radio. But then they see what other kids are playing and they say, ‘I want to do that, too!’ ”
Stages asks, “Why not?”
At Stages, students get professional skills that would make most colleges envious.
With the heartening notion that everyone has music inside them, Stages entices musicians with an array of piano, guitar, bass, percussion, fiddle and vocal lessons. There’s also the Rock Band program, which teaches students how to play familiar cover songs and even write their own pieces.
As beginners advance, they have chances to jam at gigs, recitals and charity events.
“I always tell my kids that the only difference between someone who knows how to play an instrument and someone who doesn’t is someone who persevered.”
“We have a reputation for being contemporary, but we have classical and jazz lessons, too,” Melissa said. “Lots of our kids specialize in Christian, rock, blues, punk and bluegrass.”
She favors blues and jazz herself. She teaches guitar, vocal and piano lessons. Other teachers help out with fiddle and percussion.
But Melissa is the driving force at Stages. Insightful and imaginative, she knows what really inspires people. Her classes are all about discovering the joys of creation, from planning a band name to completing a promo package. Advanced, driven pupils even learn about social media marketing, public speaking, booking, video production and more.
“I’m always thinking and always have ideas in my head!” Melissa said, laughing.
The heart of the matter
One venture that’s especially dear to Melissa’s heart is The One Voice Project. Her advanced students— the ones who really want to become professionals— perform inspiring acts for charitable causes year round.
“Just watching them exceed expectations… it’s magical,” she said.
The One Voice generally focuses on anti-bullying and other causes specific to children, although these bands are up for anything. Stages’ students have traveled to schools and venues up and down the East Coast.
Melissa said her mom’s active involvement with charities helped inspire the project. But as a kid, she used her talents as a church choir singer for worthy causes, too.
With the help of her daughter, Melissa put The One Voice into action. Students take weekly lessons and workshops filled with subjects like songwriting, recording, video editing and stage presence. Guest artists and producers sometimes come, too.
“Students get valuable performance time,” Melissa said. “That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”
It’s a priceless opportunity for any aspiring musician. Come show time, bands get professional lights, sounds and gigs. Their travels, which include visits to the Carolinas, the Chuck Mathena Center and the Appalachian Folklife Center, helped students raise funds for The Make a Wish Foundation, The Simon Youth Foundation, the Sevier County Food Ministry and more.
The One Voice crew also gives inspiring presentations to schools.
“They get to tell kids how to be empowered, that it’s OK to be an individual,” Melissa said. No wonder so many of Melissa’s students accomplish so much. At Stages, they get real-world skills that deliver real results.
Some of Stage’s advanced musicians have even landed paid performances and won awards. Students have won the Deep South Open Mic Night competition, Clayton’s Got Talent 2016, Clayton’s Teen Idol and West Virginia’s Got Talent.
An encore performance
Melissa never gets jaded by music’s ability to transform anyone.
“I always tell my kids that the only difference between someone who knows how to play an instrument and someone who doesn’t is someone who persevered,” she said.
"Heart allows kids to reach the same level as those with natural ability.”
Melissa never gets tired of watching students gain confidence and achieve something they thought was impossible. Whether someone triumphs over stage fright or figures out a complicated arpeggio, little victories are the sweetest at Stages.
“Some people have lots of obvious talent, some have less,” she said. “In the end it doesn’t matter because heart allows those kids to reach the same level as those with natural ability.”
But maybe Southern West Virginia is pretty special, too. Melissa is awed by the kids who walk through her doors.
“Maybe there’s something in the drinking water,” she said. “Who knows? But there’s a load of talent here. In fact, a lot of kids get better than me— quickly!”
Most of her 150 students are from Princeton, although dedicated folks travel more than an hour to reach Stages. Such commitment speaks volumes about Stages.
On the other hand, there’s something remarkable about a music school owner who believes in all of her students.
By Katie Lindsey