By Michelle Love
Photos by Blair Ramsey
In its more than 30 years in operation, the Birmingham School of Music has treated every student who walks through the doors as if they’re going to become a professional musician. It’s an important part of the school’s approach to teaching and has led countless students to careers in music, though the ultimate goal, according to the school’s founder and director Russ Maddox, is to ensure a strong love of music in every student.
“For the most part, music contributes joy, and most people who are listening to music are listening to it for the joy that it brings them,” Russ says. “I try to ensure that, hopefully, all of my students will continue to have an appreciation for the positive complement that music makes to their life.”
Russ opened the school in 1996 in its original location in Hoover. He was working in advertising for a national magazine and was teaching music in private lessons a few days a week on the side. The next thing he knew, he had 40 students and a waiting list of another 40.
After realizing his true passion for teaching music, Russ decided in June 1996 to go off on his own and open a drum school. It was originally called Birmingham Percussion, but it grew from there over the years to include more teachers and include retail. He says at the time it was the third-largest drum shop in the Southeast. In the meantime he worked at Vestavia Hills High School (VHHS) as a drum instructor.
Russ decided to leave VHHS in 2005 to focus his sole energy on the teaching aspect of the school. In 2009 the school moved to its current location in Vestavia off of Highway 31. He then expanded the school portion of the business by teaching violin, voice, guitar and piano in addition to drums. Currently, the school has 350 students a week with 10 teachers total.
“I have a real passion for teaching kids, so while it gets a little frantic on occasion because of the sheer volume of students coming to this location, I like it,” he says. “I prefer it to be really busy. The students love coming here. This is their sanctuary.”
Students enrolled range in age from 5 years old to their oldest, which Russ says is almost 80. He says while they do cater to people of all ages and demographics, their main percentage of clientele is people ages 5 to 16 years old. He adds that everybody who has a passion for music and wants to learn is welcome to the school.”
Russ says the one thing that connects all of his students of any age is how music evokes emotion within them.
“Every single piece of music created has one common thread. That is it was created to evoke emotion,” he says. “We apply that to all art, and so when you hear a piece of music, it’s going to touch you in a way that most times if you’re not a musician, it’s unexplainable. When young kids are first being exposed to that, it attracts them to want to feel that emotion that is evoked more often. It’s all tied to emotion – no matter the style or genre, music will speak to you.”
Russ says he has found music is not as prominent a part of home life as it once was due to the influx of technology present in its place. As a result, some students aren’t able to express their musical identity, as Russ calls it, and they need more assistance in finding what music they enjoy and what speaks to them.
While he says the influx of technology taking over the car radio and stereo has impacted his business, it’s more seen as a challenge to expose his younger students to as much music as possible. Russ and his teachers are more than up to the challenge, however, as he says watching his students find their musical identity is a feeling that can’t be matched.
“It’s a really weird time for those of us who are trying to promote music as an integral part of someone’s life when there’s so many other things competing for our attention,” he says. “I’m always reminding my teachers to stay relevant, regardless of your influences through your life up until now. We have to stay focused on what is influencing the youth since it’s our primary client [and priority] to make sure we’re staying relevant to them and be able to relate to them and guide them to make sure music is an important part of their life forever.”
Russ placed an emphasis on the fact that when someone signs up for lessons at the Birmingham School of Music, they’re getting the most thorough music education possible. All of the school’s instructors have degrees in music and music education, which is something Russ says many other schools and learning outlets aren’t able to say.
“We have a standardized curriculum for everything we teach here,” he says. “We make sure that all the students that come here are getting a proper music education, as well as teaching them the fun stuff they were interested in in the first place.”
Learning music is not only beneficial to the soul, but also to how a student learns, he says. A proper music education is proven to increase a school-age student’s SAT scores in math by 30 percent and verbal by 40 percent.
“When you’re learning something like music, neuroscientists have proven that learning to play music with a proper education opens up a method of learning that otherwise would not be open with your standard academics,” he says. “Learning that standard is the reason why it makes things like math and verbal skills so much easier. It teaches you to communicate in a completely different way. The kid who stands in the corner quietly suddenly has a voice. The kid who feels like he’s an outcast suddenly has a group of peers. That’s invaluable to these kids.”
Some of the teachers on staff were once students of Russ’s, and even if his students don’t become professional musicians, he hopes their lessons stay with them.
When asked if he could describe the joy he feels from teaching music, Russ chuckled and shook his head.
“I can’t,” he says. “It’s one of those things that it really is unexplainable in the same way I can’t explain the joy or the feeling of performing in front of others. I could never explain that. I’ve thought about it. I’ve tried to explain it to others, but I really can’t. I can tell you that when I’m teaching, it is never a disappointing experience for me to watch them try to learn and [to] see them grasp something that earlier eluded them.”
The school stands apart from others in that there are no long-term contracts, and lessons are continued as long as the students want to continue. Russ says as a result of that, the school’s retention rate is four times the national average of other music schools.
The school operates with an emphasis on positive reinforcement and encouragement as opposed to admonishing a student for not excelling at a certain rate. Students’ progress is recorded through what Russ calls “The Path of Progress,” which is a visual path painted on the wall that records how they’re doing. When students first sign up for lessons, they start in the standard lesson program, and their picture goes on the wall as a “Future Performer.” After they’ve been at the school for three months, they are introduced to the “Performer Program.”
As students progress through the Path of Progress, they receive certificates and wristbands that acknowledge their accomplishment and eventually earn trophies, signaling their graduation to the next level on the Path.
“One of the most unique parts about our school is that we don’t believe in annual recitals,” Russ says. “It’s not the recital part we don’t believe in, it’s the once-a-year aspect. We’re teaching performance art, and the only way to get good at performing is to perform with regularity. That’s not going to happen with a once-a-year recital.”
They have student concerts every month to allow them the opportunity to perform more regularly, and it gives students the opportunity to attend and relieve their own performance anxiety. The monthly student showcases are held at a local coffee shop in Bluff Park, which Russ says provides a casual and comforting environment for the students to perform. It’s all part of the positive reinforcement Russ pushes at the school, giving students positive incentive to continue their education and to remind them they’re doing a great job.
“I’d love to have 600 students and hopefully, we will one day, but regardless of how many we have, I’m happy that the ones we do have are really interested in learning music,” he says. “They’re coming to get some of that musical joy I’ve been talking about, and that never gets old.”