Rural Soul Studio, a music studio in Greenwich, NY, is not a not-for-profit. But it certainly feels that way. The studio’s philosophy is to make music accessible to all ages in the region. Their mission statement echoes this idea: “Encouraging the musical soul of our rural haven.”
The studio began its life as an idea in the mind of Chelsie Henderson, a music teacher who grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Easton.
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Vermont, and a short teaching stint in the small community of Fairfax, Vermont, Henderson felt an inexplicable need to partake of other cultural perspectives before becoming rooted.
“Having grown up in this area [Greenwich] I felt very sheltered,” Henderson said. “I grew up on a dairy farm in Easton, so it was me and the cows for a good part of my life. But I always felt, in my heart, there were bigger things out there.”
After hearing music, seeing life, and learning about farming through the cultural ears, eyes and hands of places from India to Ireland, Henderson found herself back drawn back home.
“I had zero intention of coming back to Greenwich.”
And once back, she found herself uncertain as to why she had returned. And what she would do next.
TeachForAmerica, a member of AmeriCorps national service network, seemed one route to continue learning by serving a community. Henderson applied, got accepted – and then declined, in favor of a personal artistic mission.
“I had this call to do something rootsy, [a]grassroots movement in the arts,” she explained. “I just feel like every community should have a small arts program. It’s nice that we have cities near us that have great cultural programs, but I feel like every village should have a music center – or an ‘any- arts’ center for that matter.”
Henderson found herself reaching out to other “twenty-somethings” in the area who were searching for direction. Soon, Rural Soul Productions was born, an improvised organization that connected musicians with community. Burton Hall, in Easton, NY, often served as a venue for productions that ran the gamut from hootenannies and band concerts to an original theatrical performance of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
But there was a snag. Henderson knew that volunteering to enrich the community was emotionally fulfilling – but financially unsustainable. Then, an epiphany:
“I realized I could make it into a business,” noted Henderson. “I realized I had to do something to sustain my life, to stabilize. I would [have done]this for free all the time, but it was becoming pretty difficult, and I was still living at my parents house at this point. So then I made Rural Soul Studio.”
That was spring 2012.
A little music school at 70 Main…
How does one go from an all-volunteer organization to a for-profit music school – on a shoestring?
“It was as simple as [finding]a place,” Henderson explained. “At that point we were just happy to be in Greenwich. Having connections here, it was easy to find a space. We’re underneath the yoga studio at 70 Main. Katy [Svatek, co-founder] and I were cheerleading each other on the whole time. But we didn’t have to do anything [momentous]. We just started paying rent, brought in a piano, and then we had a music studio. That’s how we started.”
Rural Soul Studio currently offers a weekly musical playgroup for pre-schoolers; beginner group guitar lessons for all ages; group violin lessons for elementary students; world music workshops and private lessons.
For anyone who has ever studied music conventionally, most of the lesson offerings will not raise an eyebrow. Piano. Voice. Woodwinds, brass instruments. Strings: violin, viola, cello, double bass and guitar.
But ukulele? Banjo? Djembe and Doundoun (West African drums)?
“I have one banjo student, myself,” Henderson admitted. “Ukulele – I’ve had three students so far. And I do a Ukulele program through the L.I.F.T.S. summer program [a Greenwich Central School summer program]. We did that this past year, it was really fun. Ukulele for children is a great way to start [exploring music]– it’s a very accessible instrument.”
What about the djembe?
“[Rural Soul Studio is] becoming more and more involved with world music,” Henderson noted, “And we want that to be become a big part of what we’re doing: offering workshops in world music. In this past year we’ve had some great programs with African drumming, with [Wayne White], who’s actually studied drumming in Africa.”
White, who has been perfecting his drumming skills since 1995, has studied with the likes of djembe greats M’bemba Bangoura and Michael Markus. In addition to teaching at Rural Soul, he works to bring authentic African rhythms to the greater Capital Region through the group Doundounba.
But can the greater Greenwich-area support a music center? Washington County already boasts the educational and performing arts center, Hubbard Hall, in neighboring Cambridge – and artist and music colonies in nearby Salem.
The Rural Soul instructors understand that they share the underlying motivations of these organizations. The idea is not to create divisive rivalries, but to make music accessible to people in their own communities as part of a network of arts organizations and educators.
“We have wonderful music teachers in this area – like Bob Warren, and Mary and Matt Edwards – all these people who are doing wonderful, wonderful things,” Henderson said. “But I thought we needed a center for that . . . just a [musical]meeting place for the community.”
Feeling the music…
Rural Soul does make efforts to create community – at all levels. In December, a troop of parents and children sang carols up and down Main Street.
In late January, a djembe lesson at the Schuylerville location invited two students into a narrow but creative space, just off Broad Street.
The lesson was preluded by a crash-course explanation of djembe care and tuning. White – who also works for New York State (in a non-musical field) – repairs drums on the side. He can re-work the djembe’s complex knotting to tune the instrument, and replace the skin heads, the membrane of which can become stretched and unevenly worn.
A lesson soon commenced, and became a rhythmic dialogue between White and his students, as he conveyed the subtle patterns and overall shape of the piece.
The sharp cadence of winter outside the window was overcome by the ancient language of the rhythms being exchanged. The djembe vibrations passed through the drum and across the floor with every beat.
“Music is very powerful,” White acknowledged.
One early afternoon in February, Rural Soul’s main studio in Greenwich echoed with the sounds of a few younger musicians.
In the spacious, barn-beam style back room (which also serves as a performance venue), guitar instructor Peter Bailey guided a student through the coordinated complexity of forming a clean chord. Loaning his guitar pick to the student, Bailey dug another out of his jean pocket for himself.
“Fifth pocket in jeans,” he told the student, “is for guitar picks. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
The student accepted this bit of sage wisdom and the lesson continued.
In a front room, Henderson listened to a young girl work through her piano song, accompanied the first few times through by a young djembe-player. Both girls tried to tune in to each other’s sense of beat and tempo, practicing the type of musical communication so essential to a good musical ear.
“Listen to [the djembe player],” Henderson suggested with a smile. “She’s your metronome.”
At the heart of it, Henderson, White, Bailey and the other instructors all teach with a respect for the student, and the holistic sense of community in its many forms.
Banjos and guitars and pianos, oh my!
Henderson’s musical vocabulary is versatile enough to encompass everything from banjo to ukulele, and her primary instrument, defined by her UVM studies, is voice. But piano is what she truly loves teaching.
“I love singing, and my piano students all sing with me,” Henderson noted. “But with the piano, it’s just – I keep using the word ‘accessible’ – but I think it’s so important with music.”
Voice, piano, and guitar are the music studio’s most popular offerings, but Henderson noted that sustained pursuit of these instruments vary. Since she’s begun teaching, Henderson has not had a single piano student quit on her. Guitar, on the other hand . . .
“[It is] such a popular instrument,” she said. “It’s also a popular instrument for people to drop.”
Henderson feels the success of Rural Soul’s piano lessons has a great deal to do with how inherently reliable the instrument is. Depressing the middle C key will always yield middle C, as long as the instrument is in tune. Another is accessibility. One has to develop both the skills to play guitar, and the physical strength. Inconsistency in practicing piano may result in a slight backsliding of skills, while inconsistency in guitar practice results in a loss of skills, dexterity and strength.
If piano, guitar and voice are most popular, why doesn’t Rural Soul focus primarily on those instruments? Why even bother offering, say, banjo?
That’s one of the threads that weave into the basis of Rural Soul’s philosophies.
“The ranges of instruments that we cover?” Henderson repeated with a smile. “That was one of my motivators for doing this . . . to have one place where people could get access to all the instruments. And there’s always room for growth there. There are certain instruments that we’re missing right now. But if someone comes to me and says, “Oh, I teach the zither – do you need a zither teacher?” I can just say, “Yeah, okay, come on in – that’s great!”
Unlike a typical profit-driven model, Rural Soul is ultimately trying to serve both facets of the community: those who are looking to have music in their lives, and those who have music to offer.
“We meet monthly or bi-monthly, the music instructors and I, and every time we get together it’s this explosion of ideas,” Henderson said.” ‘Well, let’s try this! And let’s try this!’ The energy is always there. Sometimes we [decide to]do everything that we want to do.”
Tangible good vibrations…
Rural Soul Studio is not quite two years old. But, for an arts organization in a tenuous economy, that’s a significant milestone. Although it has a rhythmic ebb and flow in business, it’s managed to keep on its feet, and even open a second studio in Schuylerville. Yet it’s the studio’s commitment to a sense of community that has and always will sustain it, not excessive competition.
Henderson says she never wants people to feel as though she’s insisting that Rural Soul is their only option.
“I feel like we’re a cog in this whole bigger picture,” Henderson reflected. “A lot of times I am referring people to other music teachers or referring them to other programs.”
Asked where she sees Rural Soul heading in the future, Henderson was introspective for a moment. Then she smiled.
“I really like where it’s at right now,” she admitted. “But I think just being even more of a community partner . . . And we’re working on those things. We talk about them all the time. Even having even more instructors – I would love to see the roster grow, have more offerings, a place where people could feel like it’s their teaching home. Yeah.”
Rural Soul Studio’s main location is at: 70 Main Street, Greenwich. Their second studio is at 90 Broad Street, Schuylerville. To learn more about music lessons and events, visit ruralsoul.com or call 531.8828.