Community Music School of Raleigh welcomes all students into world of music

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Marcus Anderson and Alondra Azcona perform together on stage. Photo courtesy of Lanny Ealey.

Welcome to The Community Music School of Raleigh



Amazing,” says jazz artist Marcus Anderson, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist with 13 albums and shows across the world. Anderson isn’t referring to his performances with Stevie Wonder, CeeLo Green, or even his four-year stint with Prince. His “amazing” refers to performing with the Community Music School of Raleigh’s (CMS’s) Pop Band at Raleigh’s A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. 

If you haven’t heard of CMS, you’ve been missing out. The school’s head-turning young performers have wowed crowds at the Friends of the City of Raleigh Museum’s 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop Celebration and in performances at the North Carolina Museum of Art as well as the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. Across Wake County, CMS offers kids ages eight through 18 high-quality private music lessons for only one dollar an hour.

“Studies show that incorporating music lessons into a child’s education boosts confidence, improves study skills and encourages creativity and self-expression,” says CMS Director Melanie Doerner. Now, with public schools having to cut their arts budgets and a single private music lesson costing anywhere from 40 to 80 dollars per hour, many students never get the chance to try. 

This is where CMS comes in. Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, CMS offers lessons in everything from drums and electric guitar to oboe, harp and violin. If a student chooses trumpet, they will be given a trumpet to take home for practice. 

Piano? They take home a keyboard. There are no tryouts and no prerequisites, and CMS welcomes all levels and learning styles, though applicants must meet the income requirements of Wake County’s free and reduced price lunch program—and given the program’s popularity, there is often a waitlist. CMS also offers a weeklong summer camp at Longleaf School of the Arts. 

“Music is definitely where the cool kids are,” says Doerner with infectious enthusiasm. “And our faculty! We’ve got a Fulbright-winning classical pianist, a post-folk jazz musician, a percussionist trained in Venezuela’s El Sistema, adjuncts from local colleges, a gospel music maestro and more—all of them incredibly awe-inspiring and all beloved by our students.”

Yena Kim plays the violin. All photos courtesy of Lanny Ealey.

The faculty’s great talent allows CMS to offer conservatory-level training. The school has championed some amazing young musicians—kids who have gone on to study at Berklee College of Music or who have become professional musicians and teachers.

Sixteen-year-old Alondra Azcona is a CMS student.“Music is absolutely the biggest part of my life,” says Azcona, who has been accepted into the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts in Greensboro for her senior year of high school. “CMS has been really key for me. I’ve been supported and encouraged by all of my teachers through all of my years of crazy music explorations.” 

Azcona has tried nearly every instrument CMS offers, starting with saxophone and moving through ukulele, guitar, electric guitar, bass and drums. “They were all just amazing,” she says. Also a talented singer, she has been the vocalist for the CMS Pop Band since it started two years ago.“The Pop Band has been the highlight of my CMS experience,” she says. “We are all different ages. I’m the oldest, but I never think about that since we’re all at the same level musically. We’ve made our own little pack. We really listen to each other and have a terrific vibe when we’re playing together. Performing with this group is the best feeling ever.” 

Among Azcona’s many CMS teachers, jazz guitarist Mike Buckley (of River Otters and ¡Tumbao! fame) epitomizes the open-minded teaching style CMS promotes. Buckley started guitar lessons in fourth grade but didn’t connect with the strict teacher who insisted he start with “all the typical” classical pieces. It was a couple of years later, when a friend taught him to play a basic blues rhythm so the two could jam together, that he got hooked. “After that, I never thought about having to practice,” says Buckley. “I played every night because I was obsessed with it. I just wanted to make music.” 

CMS student Arturo Cerro Lopez plays the saxophone.

Now, Buckley encourages his students to develop their own connections with music. “My goal,” he explains, “and the goal at CMS is [having] these kids enjoy learning about music and their instruments.” That’s why CMS encourages students to pick instruments that interest them and to choose music they really want to play. Recently, Buckley arranged a collection of lullabies for one student and a version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ for another. 

Buckley loves working with all of his students, but notes that some have passion and talent that sets them apart. “You know it when you see it,” he says. “Music just lights them up.” He mentions several, including both Azcona and Caleb Wilkins, the youngest member of the pop band. “He’s got the natural talent, and 

the work ethic of a musician,” says Buckley. “But what really sets him apart is that even at his young age, everything he plays is intertwined with his very distinctive personality.”  

Zane Souvanlasy, a one-time student at CMS and now a piano teacher and member of the board of directors, admires CMS’s emphasis on music appreciation. “It’s unique that CMS provides students with access to musical performances outside of their own playing,” he says. “Lessons are short, so the majority of student development needs to happen outside that time. CMS hosts events and provides students with tickets to symphony performances or other shows so they get the opportunities to hear some great professional music. It’s important to be inspired.” 

Janet Imoh plays the acoustic guitar.

CMS certainly seems to be inspiring its students. Lucas Posada has been taking drum lessons at CMS for two years and is loving every moment of it. “Percussion was an amazing choice,” says the 12-year-old, “I’m not giving up any time soon.” 

Posada’s younger sister Leia chose the violin. “I didn’t want anything loud,” she says, with quiet confidence. “I like things really soft. Plus, the violin sounds good with a lot of different kinds of songs.” 

Anderson recognizes these students’ passion. “I remember the way I felt when I first saw a saxophone,” he says. “I just fell in love. With the look of it. With the sound of it. And now, seeing how enthusiastic these CMS students are about music, it’s just a thrill. They just need access, and CMS provides exactly that.”  

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