By ANDREA LANNOM ∙ email@example.com
Charles Hicks developed an ear for music at an early age, even though he didn't take his first formal lesson until he was 48.
When he was a kid, Hicks said, it was not uncommon for his sister's music to fill the rooms of his family's rural West Virginia home.
However, lessons were not a pleasant experience for his sister.
"She hated it," Hicks said. "She took piano and never touched it since then. She won't do it now."
Although music was not encouraged for young Hicks, he said he would "mock" his sister.
"Everything she played, I would mock her. I developed an ear for it and learned how to play that way. … I learned by listening to her. I would be at the piano until (dad) got home.
"I never would have developed that ear if it weren't for that," Hicks added. "It caused me to be disciplined where she could play anything and I could mock her. And that's how I play now. It still makes me struggle with reading music, so it's kind of tough."
His sister's bad experience with music lessons continued to change Hicks' life as he played more and more and later developed a music school that continues to expand.
Hicks' venture, the House of Harmony, began in October 2005 in a little house beside the neighborhood Butcher Block in Beaver.
The music school kept expanding, becoming a nonprofit organization. And three years later, it moved into the nearby empty Shady Spring Junior High School building.
"Through lots of volunteers, we were able to rescue the old school because it had been shut down for four years," Hicks said, noting crews had to clean up water damage and breathe new life into the 50,000-square foot building.
And volunteers worked, resurrecting the old school to something new and almost unrecognizable to former students who roamed the halls, grabbing books from the creaky blue lockers that once adorned that same building.
Old classrooms where teachers once spouted mathematical formulas and geography lessons were replaced with lesson rooms filled with the sounds of various musical instruments.
And the cafeteria, gym and other rooms were changed into a coffee shop, dance studios, conference rooms and a pre-school, all serving as a small facet of the School of Harmony community.
People from all over southern West Virginia come to the Raleigh County school, Hicks said.
"For people who wanted music lessons, until we opened this school, I can't believe how many parents drove their child to Charleston," he said. "That was our thing. We wanted to have teaching at all levels, beginner through advanced to be here, so that these kids did not have to travel.
With a much larger building, Hicks knew it was a massive undertaking, but he kept his original intention in mind — to make music lessons a positive experience.
"We wanted to create an environment that would give all students who love the arts a place to come and feel safe and be able to learn at their own speed," Hicks said.
"So many fall through the cracks because they're not athletic or don't fit into that world," he added. "I wanted a world where they can enter into and be as successful as anyone else, based on their uniqueness, based on them using their talents to the fullest. But I didn't want to compare them to another student, where they think they have to be better. I wanted to take that student and magnify them."
To magnify these students, Hicks says administrators match a student's personality with a teacher's.
"In public school, you have that teacher and you have them or else," Hicks said. "Some teachers are a little more strict than others. Some students thrive under that. Some don't. We interview these students and fit them in with the right teacher in order to have greater success."
"So many will say, ‘I took piano lessons when I was 8 and I hated it because all the teacher taught me was just classical, country or hymns. We weren't allowed to play anything else," Hicks added. "Our job is to figure out what instruments motivate them and what teacher motivates them."
Teachers also use technology to monitor students' progress. One computer program in particular will measure the rhythm, reading and left hand versus right hand on the piano.
"And what will happen is if they can't pass that course, we give them another one, giving them the same questions until they get it. It keeps us from spending time in class from holding up flash cards. They can do it at their own speed, but we are able to monitor their progress. That one-on-one attention combined with technology is a win-win, as long as you have respect for that child's uniqueness."
Music students come in once a week for a 30-minute lesson and 30-minute computer lab session. With dance, students will come in once a week. Parents or students will collaborate with staff to decide on the time that works best and the time they set is when they come in each week.
Hicks estimates about 300 students come through the halls each week. So, who typically takes lessons at the School of Harmony?
"Our youngest one is 4 and our oldest one is 74," Hicks said. "There is no age discrimination, period. You would be surprised how many like myself at 48 want to learn how to read music, and it's as important as it is to someone who is 8 years old."
Hicks said there are many things in the works, such as acting classes, but one thing is for sure.
"I want every child, every student who wants an education to be able to come here, achieve it and enjoy it while they're here," he said. "I want it to be good memories. … I want them to have this experience so when I meet these students 10 years from now, they will say, ‘I loved my time at the School of Harmony.'"