Teachers, students, and parents sing praises for this unique community
Alexandria, VA – Opal Music Studio opened quietly in 2008. Founders and owners Hannah Williams and Molly Orlando first met when Williams was searching for piano lessons for her three young children. “I wanted them to take the lessons, but not in my tiny Old Town house with the other kids running around,” she explained.
Unable to find what she was looking for, Williams realized this was something desperately needed in Old Town. Luckily, she met pianist Orlando, an accomplished performer and teacher, who shared her energy and enthusiasm for this venture. Together, the women decided to open a music studio where students would do more than take lessons. They would become part of a musical community. And thus, Opal Music Studio was born.
Thirteen years later, the women’s combined vision has been realized. Opal Music Studio is a thriving community where professional musicians teach and share their passion for the art and craft of music with students young and old.
Any teacher, student, or parent will tell you the same thing: Opal is a gem. “Opal is the gift that keeps on giving in our lives,” said Dale, parent of an Opal student and also a student himself. “The teachers are brilliant, and the environment is totally oriented to learning and fun.”
“Opal is a warm environment where each student is pushed for greatness in their musical abilities. I really enjoy working with Allysa (teacher), and I feel like I’ve thrived and improved under her instruction,” said Caroline, a voice student.
Williams and Orlando shaped their studio thoughtfully, following a shared objective of providing comprehensive music education. They knew their students would be busy with soccer and dance and sports and other activities in addition to music lessons. And they knew that learning an instrument takes practice, practice, practice. So they infused fun into the serious instruction.
In addition to many recitals and performances each semester, Orlando and Williams have designed art projects to track their students’ progress. It’s a studio-wide endeavor. In one project, when students learned a specific scale or technique, they placed a pre-cut piece of colored paper on the bulletin board.
Week after week, pieces of paper began to take shape. By the end of the semester, the students had created a preening theory peacock.
Game Nights are on Fridays, when parents drop the younger students off for an hour or two and steal away for a glass of wine while the students play games with their teachers. (Note, COVID has not deterred these efforts – Game Nights are now held virtually on Fridays.)
In place of recitals, adult students gather for Wine and Keys and play the pieces they’ve been working on. One very popular event they host is the Faculty Showcase, when the staff is in the spotlight for a change, performing for parents and students.
Piano teacher Julia Aguayo remarked, “My experience teaching at Opal has been most rewarding. I love being part of such a fun, creative team! They really care about providing the students with plenty of useful music-related activities throughout the year in a way that provides a good balance between challenging activities and fun. I strongly feel this is the key to successfully introducing music to the students, for them to develop enjoyment and interest.”
The theory behind teaching music theory
“Our core philosophy is serious instruction that’s not always presented in a serious way,” said Orlando. “We get to know each student individually and tailor the instruction to their style and pace. We want the student to feel comfortable and supported at every turn, so they can experiment and try new things. We find we get better results that way than with the ruler across the knuckles.”
College student Claire Pierce concurred. Now a senior at Virginia Tech, Pierce began taking piano lessons at another music studio when she was seven, with a teacher who did employ that knuckle-smacking method. “I learned close to nothing except how to memorize whatever piece I was working on. I never learned how to read the music,” she lamented. Claire stepped away from piano after a few frustrating years but realized she still wanted to learn to play. She found Opal and started taking piano lessons with Orlando as a high school freshman.
“It was such a different experience with Molly,” said Claire. “She never scolded me or got upset if I hadn’t practiced or made progress. She was kind and asked me about my life and how things were going.” At Opal, the instructors are professional musicians who also happen to teach. They strive to share their craft by instilling an appreciation for and love of learning music. “That approach, in a beautiful way, complements their teaching,” Claire said.
Claire’s experience was so transformative that her father started taking guitar lessons at Opal. Chuck Pierce dabbled with the guitar in his younger days and wanted to pick it up again after his early retirement. “I tried to teach myself,” Chuck laughed, “but student and teacher both needed help.” He found a tremendous match with instructor Ben Altman and has now been taking guitar lessons for a few years. He’s learning so much more than only how to play the guitar.
“Ben’s teaching style is such that he wants you to be interested and passionate in what you’re learning,” Chuck said. “He took this rusty old brain and wrapped it around music theory. Of course, all the instructors are talented musicians, but it’s the enthusiasm that sets them apart.”
Teachers are the key to success
The faculty at Opal is indeed a talented and fun-loving bunch. When the studio opened in 2008, Orlando was the lone instructor. Three years and a very long waitlist later, they hired six new teachers, five of whom are still with them today. How do they find the right fit? It often comes down to one question.
“We ask candidates how they handled their most challenging student,” Orlando explained. “The ones who say they tapped all of their resources, who tried many different things to connect with the student, who continued to come up with ideas, who looked for every possible way to help the student… that’s the teacher we want to hire.” Williams agreed and added, “We want the teachers to meet the students where they are and find ways to get them to the next level.”
The teachers’ collaborative environment is an impressive development and a huge part of the studio’s success. Resourcefulness is their guiding light, from adapting to COVID-induced online lessons to taking an individual approach for each student. Never resting or sitting back, they are always trying new things, innovating, reinventing, reaching out, connecting, and not letting things get stale.
In-person lessons have reduced dramatically this year, but Opal still held an outdoor Field Day last fall. Children joined their teachers, everyone masked and distanced, to play games like Beat Ten and Alphabet Race, with winners selecting bags of goodies from the Mystery Prize Garden.
The teachers are thankful to work at Opal. Violin and viola instructor Audrey Alessi said, “Opal is such a unique community. I am constantly inspired by the new ideas my fellow teachers are coming up with. Moving online didn’t slow us down. Hannah and Molly immediately set to work getting every event online and making changes so that we could have just as much fun as in person. They even made take-home bags for game nights, so everyone was playing with the same games. Seeing my students each week, seeing how hard they are working and how much they are continuing to learn, has been one of the best parts of this year.”
Piano teacher Aleks Izotov said, “Opal is an exciting place for music because all of the faculty are high-caliber performers and teachers who bring years of insight to their lessons, as well as great energy to the atmosphere at Opal. I really appreciate how community-based Opal is and how it functions as much more than just a place to take music lessons.”
Woodwinds and piano teacher Katie Ravenwood said, “Opal is a wonderful place to teach. The network of families reaches outside each teacher’s studio to form a real community through so many of the fun events we have for everyone. My students are so much more motivated to learn and improve by their connections with everyone.”
Opal’s magic spell is perhaps best described by Scarlett: “As an adult student, returning to lessons after a 35-year hiatus, Opal reawakened my music-making soul. I was a student at Opal for about 18 months before COVID shut everything down, and I have been so happy with the way we segued right into virtual lessons. I look forward to the day we can meet again in person for both lessons and Wine and Keys.”
At home in Old Town
Williams and Orlando are happy to be running their business in the heart of Old Town. “We love the community of small businesses here,” said Williams. “We’ve collaborated with Hooray for Books to combine love for reading with love for music. We’ve worked with ArtSpireVA to offer scholarships, cross-promote events, and share our talented students for various events. And we’ve hosted audition workshops for the Mt. Vernon Community Children’s Theater.”
Opal students have performed in recitals at the Lyceum and the Meeting House. These beautiful Old Town spaces are historic and interesting and students have a distinct advantage in learning about and experiencing different acoustics.
Especially now, Williams and Orlando are grateful and remain optimistic for the future. “Everyone props each other up through collaboration and community,” Williams said. “It’s been such a bright spot in the darkness of the pandemic. Molly and I are so proud of the extraordinary community of teachers and students that is unique to Opal.”
Opal Music Studio, located at 803 Cameron Street in Old Town Alexandria, offers private lessons for piano, strings, guitar, woodwinds, and voice. Visit opalmusicstudio.com for more details.