This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Music Resource Center, the music education community for youth located in downtown Charlottesville. But rather than the customary anniversary gift of china, you can show your support for the MRC this week at the Blues, Beats & BBQ benefit event on August 15 at the Ix Art Park.
As part of a new push to raise public awareness of the local nonprofit’s work, the event will showcase some of the talented students and instructors who are involved with the MRC while raising funds to support ongoing programs. “We have this beautiful foundation of people knowing about us and what we do, but a lot of other people don’t really understand what happens in this church with the guitar in front of it,” says Executive Director Pia Donovan. “We’re trying to not just stick to the people that know us, but to branch out.”
Since joining the staff in January, Donovan has focused her efforts on solidifying the organization’s sustainable infrastructure and raising its public profile through community performances as well as partnerships with Mudhouse Coffee and Albemarle Baking Company, among other local businesses. And it seems to be working. “We’ve seen a huge spike in membership,” says Donovan. “I’d like to think part of that is a factor of us being more out there.” In 2014, the Music Resource Center served more than 525 kids. “I think we’ll see a much bigger number [for 2015],” she says.
The sometimes overlooked center is, in many ways, a cultural hub for local youth. On any given afternoon, students stream in through the former church’s side door, entering a zone that’s equal parts club house, green room and recording studio. Some make a beeline for the rehearsal rooms or recording studios; others observe the choreographed chaos from one of the overstuffed couches in the lobby. Music echoes through the halls, beats and riffs filling every corner of the building.
“Sometimes people think of us as a music school for singer-songwriters but it’s so much more than that,” says Donovan. “We have kids that start taking guitar lessons or come in and want to learn how to make beats. By the time they’re done, they’ve recorded an album, played out a bunch of times and they have this whole marketing machine behind them.”
Working with a members council made up of older and more involved students, Donovan led the creation of MRC Management to expand these offerings even further. This program incentivizes youth leadership through a points system that revolves around engagement in the organization itself. When members volunteer to help with events or other tasks, they earn points that can be traded in for professional artist management services such as head shots, web marketing or press kits. “You’re not a kid here,” says Donovan. “You are a fellow artist.”
This hints at the fact that the MRC increasingly provides a non-traditional form of vocational training, instilling job readiness and leadership skills in participants. Donovan says that, after working with MRC artistic director Damani Harrison, “we help them get hired for jobs as audio engineers.” But the basics are never far away, and staff and volunteer instructors still teach everything from beginner instrument skills to booking, management and promotion. The volunteers range from MRC alumni who return after graduation to professional musicians who live locally and offer diverse and experienced perspectives to their students.
Jon Spear is one of these volunteers, bringing with him the knowledge that comes from a career in music as well as leadership in the Central Virginia Blues Society. “I got involved with MRC a couple of years ago at the suggestion of a friend [who] told me MRC is the type of place we would have loved to have had when we were kids,” says Spear. “That struck a chord with me because I remember the friendships and mentoring I found as a teenager at a music store in Port Chester, New York. I know how much good it can do for kids to be involved in something that they relate to and can give them positive feedback.”
Spear will perform at the Blues, Beats & BBQ event along with MRC alumni Willie de, YKG, Eli Cook and JWillz, showcasing a variety of hip-hop, rap and blues throughout the afternoon. “Pia saw the Blues, Beats & BBQ event as a great opportunity to showcase blues music for a younger audience along with the other genres that are popular today,” says Spear. “Blues is at the root of many modern music forms—even metal and rap—and we hope more young people will see and feel that connection, and fall in love with the blues as much as we have.”
Blues rock musician Cook felt a natural connection to the fundraiser. “Rarely has such an event fit so well with both my personal interests and style of music, so I jumped at the opportunity,” he says. The event will have free samples of local BBQ, as well as larger portions available for purchase. “Everyone knows that blues and BBQ go perfectly together,” says Spear.
Blues, Beats & BBQ is an all-ages event and admission is $5. Details can be found at musicresourcecenter.org.
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