Not to harp on it, but lessons unite musicians

The Orlando Sentinel
Melissa Patterson
February 04, 2007

With the church affiliation, you get a certain amount of commitment from people.

Kaley Michael wanted music in her life, but not the typical six-string variety.

'A lot of my friends play guitar or piano,' Kaley said. 'It seemed like everyone was doing it. I wanted something unique and interesting.'

So the 15-year-old home-schooled student from Longwood reached far outside the box in making her choice: She set her sights on the harp.

Different, for sure, but her decision also meant she would find limited outlets for an aspiring harpist. Few Seminole County schools teach even the most common string instruments, and youth orchestras require at least a basic understanding of music before a player can join.

After a year of private lessons with her neighbor, Kaley and her family found St. Andrew's Chapel, a nondenominational church in Sanford, and, in turn, St. Andrew's Conservatory of Music.

'We wanted her to grow not only in the learning music part of it,' said Mary Beth Michael, Kaley's mother. '[St. Andrew's] also incorporated worshipping God through music.'

The conservatory is a hybrid music program, teaching everything from music theory to private and group lessons to a small youth orchestra, and offering an array of instruments from the clarinet to the viola. Its students are as varied as its disciplines, ranging from youngsters pursuing a serious passion to retirees looking to enrich their golden years.

'There's a whole spectrum of people,' said Marcia Johnson, a 64-year-old harp student. 'A lot of programs don't open their arms to seniors who aren't in it for the push-and-go. I'm very comfortable where I am.'

The unifying factor in this mixed bag of students is an appreciation for the sense of community that comes from being associated with a local church, even for those who aren't members there. Siblings learn alongside their parents on pianos, violins and guitars. Singers practice toward a lifelong dream or just to sound better in the church choir.

'There's a feeling of a network of support,' said instructor Verlon Eason. 'With the church affiliation, you get a certain amount of commitment from people.'

The conservatory started five years ago on church grounds in a double-wide trailer with one piano instructor and two families of students. Since then, classes for almost 100 students have spilled into almost every room of the church to accommodate 10 instructors, who specialize in everything from percussion to voice.

Cynthia Berry, band director at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, concedes she has never heard of the fledgling music school but said that any program that offers access to more instruments is a plus for local children.

'I think there needs to be an avenue and outlet for kids that want to pursue this form of arts training,' Berry said. 'We don't have the instruments to offer them and, frankly, most of us aren't trained in teaching harp.'

The conservatory's director, Randall Van Meggelen, said the program still has a long way to go. He is looking ahead a year or two, when the church plans to move to a larger property, in his plans to create more ensembles and offer more instruments, such as trombone and tuba.

'We want anyone interested in music in the area to ask, 'Do you teach that?' And we can say, 'Yes,' ' he said.

No matter how unbridled the growth, Van Meggelen said, the conservatory has no plans to break from the church. Part of its purpose will always be to 'reflect the beauty and glory of God' through the arts.

Melissa Patterson can be reached at mpatterson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-322-7668.

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