Happiness and heart: Downtown Music Academy celebrates 5 years

Published 5:08 pm Wednesday, May 1, 2024

When Brookhaven Music closed in 2019, two of its employees walked out of its South Railroad Avenue storefront and trekked north for roughly 350 feet, where they turned the key on a new location and a new venture — Downtown Music Academy.

DMA partners Greg Smith and Tony Norton took the opportunity to open the business they wanted — a place to teach music lessons, provide repair and tech work, and lease band instruments to local student musicians.

“It was originally intended to be service, lessons and repairs,” said Smith. “We just wanted somewhere to continue to teach. Everything fell into place in a real natural way.”

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Smith said the local community “wants, supports, needs, demands lessons.”

Music store retail on a large level did not work well in Brookhaven, Norton said, but the demand for lessons and rent-to-own band instruments was growing. The Academy seemed the next logical step.

When Covid hit just a year later, the duo was concerned it would hit their business hard, like it wound up hitting so many. But students continued lessons via Facetime, and came back in person as they felt comfortable enough to do so.

“It has all felt very natural — a natural progression. It naturally unfolded the way it was meant to,” Smith said.

“Every time an instructor has to leave, we’ve had somebody come in to cover that spot,” Norton said.

A couple of former students are now teaching elsewhere, an accomplishment that “means a lot” to Smith.

DMA’s instructors are Smith, Norton and Jeb Robinson for guitars; Carrene Scafidel for piano; Vidalia Sanders for piano and voice; Lily Hodgson for drums; Rona Herring for violin; Drew Different on horns; and (according to a sign on the bulletin board) no one for banjo.

“Every day I get to turn the key on this place and open it up, I can’t believe I get to do this,” Norton said. “I’m the most blessed person in the world. It’s like home base. I would rather be here than just about anywhere. I love this place. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”

“For me, it’s energizing,” said Smith. “I started teaching at Bogue Chitto Attendance Center (social studies, geography) in 2019, also. When I come here — even when I feel horrible — by the time I get into it and then get out of here, I feel great. I’m in the zone when I’m teaching. There’s no other job that would do that.”

“It’s energizing and enlightening. I’ve always wanted to make a living making music and sharing it with people. If I’m anything, I’m a teacher. I get to talk about the world from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then I get to teach here, 4-7.”

“I’ve been teaching 23 years, since I was 18. I wouldn’t be able to do all this if I didn’t have Tony. He’s trustworthy, and also in love with what we’re doing. He’s essential. He’s been great at it and so willing to do it. That’s what’s great about it. It’s where I find my happiness.”

“I haven’t taught very long, and I was reticent to do so,” said Norton. “But I love it. And some people just want to talk.”

“It’s part therapy,” Smith said.

“Our mission is to give anyone in the community an opportunity to learn music, to express themselves through music, to perform music. We teach, rent, sell and repair — that’s the four legs to the table,” said Smith.

“The retail is really for the convenience of the students and local musicians,” Norton said. That part of the business — selling instruments, strings, straps and other accessories — was limited to what there was a demand for, not going “too in-depth.”
“We want to serve the new and learning community. We’ve done everything with a market in mind, with a very clear view of who we’re doing it for. That’s who we’re going to affect more — especially young people, and the older, retired person. That’s who we’re looking at,” Smith said.

Smith and Norton also want to encourage high school band students to take private lessons at DMA.

“If there’s someone who is really wanting to do their best and be better, they can do that through private lessons. The payoff is when they get to college, they’ll be in a better chair in band, or get a higher scholarship,” said Smith.

Instructors consistently get a lot of interest in guitar, piano and vocal lessons.

“We need more bass players and drummers,” Smith said.

“We’d also like to appeal to churches more,” said Norton. “We’re not just ‘rock-n-roll.’ We can teach hymns and help praise groups.”

“We’re looking into offering basic recording lessons, too,” said Smith. “The way music is made now, for many people, is a digital thing. They can use computer programs to do it at home, but knowing basic recording skills is something we can help with. Southwest Mississippi has come a long way with culture overall, but you can’t take it for granted. We’re just happy to be here and provide these things, and for the people who are supportive.”

Norton is the only person with a 60-mile drive in any direction who offers professional repair work on instruments.

“I work on electronic, structural, adjusts, setups, on all stringed instruments,” he said. “My greatest joy is to take an unplayable instrument and bring it back to something the person can use.”

Follow DMA online at https://www.dtmusicacademy.com/, on social media at https://www.facebook.com/dtmusicacademyMS/ and https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/475174943016354/downtown-music-academy/, and look for summer programs and other events. Visit the shop at 121 South Railroad Ave. Monday-Friday 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.

“We love it and we care about people,” said Smith. “I guess we have a big heart.”