ALEXANDRIA, VA -While “Mango” Mike Anderson was growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, his father, uncle, grandfathers, and just about everybody worked for automobile manufacturers. Mike worked for Ford Motor Company during summers and assumed that he would go back there when he graduated from Eastern Michigan University.
Under the pen name “Action Andy,” Mike wrote a customer help column for the Eastern Echo (college newspaper); his friend John Horshok wrote a sports column as “The Golden Kazoo”. When they graduated in 1971, Action Andy and The Golden Kazoo decided to go somewhere interesting for one year before starting their life journeys working for Ford.
They chose DC because the Nation’s Capital was exciting, had the lowest unemployment rate, and wasn’t too far from the ocean or Michigan. “But,” says Mike, “the killer was we’d heard there were seven girls for every guy in DC.”
On arrival, they drove around the Beltway looking for a place to stay, saw the Holiday Inn on Eisenhower Avenue, and took the Telegraph Road exit.
Over 600 concerned citizens and campaign volunteers piled into the auditorium at Mount Vernon Community School to watch a live debate between incumbent Mayor Allison Silberberg and her challenger in the upcoming June 12 Democratic primary, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
NBC4’s Julie Carey brilliantly moderated the back-and-forth exchange and kept a steady pace of provocative questions fired at both candidates for the full 90 minutes.
Filmed by a three-camera crew from Audio Visual Actions in Alexandria, the video was live streamed for the community by The Zebra Press, and in archived in perpetuity on their website.
Jeffrey Lee Yates, prominent businessman in Alexandria, VA, passed away peacefully on February 22, 2018 in his Alexandria home, surrounded by family, after a courageous battle with cancer.
Jeff was born on November 2, 1954 at Maxwell Airforce Base in Montogomery, AL to parents, Naval Officer John Godfrey and Lena Mary Yates. Jeff graduated from Oxon Hill High School in 1972 and continued his education at the University of Maryland where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1976.
He went on to work for Seagram’s Distillery in Baltimore, MD and then became an internal combustion engine patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City, VA.
While growing up, Jeff was always involved in his family’s automotive business and worked many hours at Yates Gulf Service at 834 N. Washington Street in Alexandria, VA. His love for the family business and the automotive industry eventually inspired him to start his own business, Yates Auto Parts and Hardware, in 1977.
Jeff shared his love for the auto parts industry with his brother Jim, and eventually they grew Yates Auto Parts into a regional conglomerate. Having achieved this success, Jeff changed his course, leaving the auto parts business to pursue his passion for real estate.
Jeff embraced the real estate market and acquired many successful properties as owner-operator in the Alexandria area. He always had time for a friendly chat with customers and friends while working at some of his favorite businesses, especially Yates Car Wash and Detail Center on Henry Street and Table Talk Restaurant on Duke Street.
He made it his goal to both preserve iconic Alexandria properties and mentor dozens of decades-long employees to pursue their own successes.
Jeff will be missed by his many friends and employees, but especially by his family. Jeff is survived by his beloved fiancée, Connie Sofia, who was his partner in both life and business. He is also survived by his three children, Jacquelyn Marie Nevin of Darien, CT, Jeffrey Lee Yates, Jr. of Alexandria, VA, and Jessica Nicolina Yates of Delray Beach, FL; their mother, Mary Vanderberry Yates also of Delray Beach, FL; and his three beautiful grandchildren, Grace, William, and Olivia.
He is also survived by brothers John Godfrey Yates, Jr. of Waterford, VA, James Nicholas Yates of Occoquan, VA, Jason Allan Yates of Fairfax Station, VA; sister-in-law Virginia White Yates of Potomac Falls, VA; and many loving nephews and nieces. He is preceded in death by his brother Joseph Harding Yates and his parents John Godfrey and Lena Mary Yates.
Relatives and friends may call at Everly Wheatley Funeral Home, 1500 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, VA 22302 on Friday, March 2, 2018 from 2:00 PM until 4:00 PM and from 6:00 PM until 8:00 PM. Funeral services will be held at the same location on Saturday, March 3, 2018 at 11:00 AM. The interment will be held at Ivy Hill Cemetery at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to support the Bladder Cancer Research Fund at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. For more information please visit Everly Wheatley funeral home.
[Editor’s Note: This obituary is reprinted with permission from the Everly Wheatley funeral home website.]
NBC4’s Northern Virginia bureau chief Julie Carey will emcee the Meet the Legends Reception on Thursday, March 15 at 6:00 pm.
Sponsored by Living Legends of Alexandria, the event introduces the 2018 Living Legend honorees and will be held at the Center for Design, Media and the Arts on the NOVA Community College Alexandria Campus.
Help Raise Funds for Del Ray Gateway and Park Honoring Nancy Dunning
ALEXANDRIA, VA—The Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia cries out for its own defining entry, and the community leaders have put their heads together, canvassed the neighbors, and made a proposal to City Council to create what will be called the Del Ray Gateway.
The major improvement project, in PARKnership with the City, will transform the corner at Mt. Vernon and Commonwealth Avenues into a beautiful new Gateway, which will include the Nancy Dunning Memorial Garden and a community Spray Park. Right now the Colasanto pool and a corner pocket park occupy the space.
To be in business for over 60 years in the same location, you must be doing something right. To hear Norman “Brad” Bradford tell the story, he makes it sound easy but, if you think about it, jewelry is not required for sustenance (well maybe for some!). In other words, customers are probably not shopping there as frequently as they might at a grocery store for example. So how has Brad been able to do it? By insisting on attentive customer service.
Alexandria, VA – Mayor Silberberg proclaimed Alexandria a Stroke Smart City, the first of its kind in America. Today, Alan Stillman, CEO of Kwikpoint and founder of the Stroke Smart campaign, is furthering that initiative throughout Virginia.
It all started on a bike in 1986. While taking a worldwide bike trip through 28 countries, traveling over 15,000 miles, Alan found inspiration for Kwikpoint, a visual language publishing company.
Kwikpoint visual language tools were designed to help travelers conquer language barriers. Posters and cards with images allow people to point to pictures to communicate instantly. After 9/11, Kwikpoint created a US military communication tool to identify Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What I learned is that pictures are a powerful aid for recognition and memory,” Alan explains. When Alan was 12, his grandmother, Rose, passed away from stroke complications.
Impassioned by this memory, Alan created a visual language tool for identifying stroke symptoms and has been giving it out for free in our city. Alan calls his campaign Stroke Smart Alexandria. In his 2017 TED Talk, Alan presented some scary statistics: strokes kill 6 million people a year and are the number two cause of death globally.
Why is stroke so deadly? Most people suffer significant consequences from stroke due to a delay in getting to the hospital, thus missing the window for potentially life-saving treatments. Pre-hospital delay occurs because a stroke’s signs are subtle and often mistaken for other seemingly harmless conditions, such as intoxication.
The symptoms of stroke you should look for are: Is the person’s smile uneven or lopsided? Is one arm weak or drifting downward? Is the person experiencing slurred speech, numbness on one side of the body, loss of balance or impaired vision, and sudden onset of severe headache?
“Here’s the good news: if you spot a stroke in time, you can stop a stroke,” Alan says. The purpose of Stroke Smart Alexandria is to help everyone in the city learn to spot and stop a stroke. You will find Stroke Smart materials in hospitals, libraries, retail shops, restaurants, and coffee shops across Alexandria.
These materials are designed to raise public awareness and encourage long-term retention of important stroke information. The content—stroke symptoms, facts, and statistics—is presented in visual language. The physical forms of the materials—posters, wallet cards, and fridge magnets—ensure maximum and sustained public exposure.
Alan has partnered with organizations across the city, including Alexandria Police and Sheriff Departments, the VA Department of Health, and Alexandria City Public Schools, to spread knowledge of how to spot and stop a stroke. “There has been a lot of appreciation in response to Stroke Smart,” explains Alan. “The police force is excited, and students are going home and teaching their families all they have learned.”
In three years, Stroke Smart Alexandria has achieved several significant milestones. The success has encouraged Alan to expand the campaign, turning Stroke Smart Alexandria into Stroke Smart Virginia. Alan is partnering with the Virginia Stroke System Task Force to work with hospital stroke coordinators and primary care physicians to educate the public in Virginia counties and cities.
He is also looking for opportunities to collaborate with public health researchers to publish on the Stroke Smart initiative and gain visibility for the campaign.
It is often said that if you want to enact change, you should think globally, act locally. Alan embodies that. Born from pure intentions, Stroke Smart started here and is spreading outward to other locations. “If America would get this,” says Alan, “think of the lives we could save, and have already saved. This small act can make a big difference.” If you want to help make that difference, contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about becoming a champion of the Stroke Smart campaign. And look for Stroke Smart materials on all the red Zebra newspaper boxes in Old Town Alexandria.
Alexandria, VA – Coletta Collections, an artisan program for people with disabilities, helps Alexandrians celebrate the holidays safely and sincerely. An employment derivative of St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Coletta Collections provides a creative outlet for its members and a legitimate opportunity to gain real work experience. The day program, located between Duke and Prince streets, hosts around 100 artisans who produce original designs with genuine meaning.
St. Coletta started as a private Catholic school in 1959 in Arlington. In 1993, Sharon Raimo, current CEO, took over and moved it to Alexandria. In 2004, St. Coletta started branching out with the programs it offers. Their “Fun With Glass” program, a fused glass art class, became popular among its students. So much so that in 2011, St. Coletta started a program called Coletta Collections, in which members of St. Coletta could become artisans, creating artwork of all kinds, from fused glass to knit scarves and crocheted pumpkin sets for the holidays.
“This art program teaches them life skills, things you need to succeed,” says Rebecca Hill, Chief Development Officer at St. Coletta of Greater Washington. “Everybody wants them to work, but no one wants to hire them. This is a real job. They get paid, and we adjust it to their needs. It is all about what they can do.”
Coletta Collections is a program oriented to the individual, accommodating each artisan’s wants and needs. Some might prefer quiet and calming weaving while some enjoy fused glass or prefer one color over another.
“We try to make it a large part for them because we don’t want to do pretend work,” states Rebecca. “What we’re trying to find are things that sell and things that they can make. This is real-world work with real meaning.”
That meaning is not lost on Coletta Collections’ customers. One customer writes, “These earrings were so much more impactful and meaningful than jewelry from a mainstream chain store.” (https://www.colettacollections.com/)
Some of Coletta Collections’ most popular products include their holiday items, like fall crocheted pumpkin sets and fused glass holiday plates, and accessories like hand-woven scarves and hand-crafted jewelry. As spring approaches, Rebecca and the artisans plan to make products for outdoor living and activities.
Coletta Collections’ mission is about accommodation and collaboration. Rebecca says they stand for “seeing possibilities beyond disabilities and meeting the disabled where they are.” Coletta Collections has had to be exceptionally accommodating this year. After sending everyone in the program home due to the pandemic, Rebecca and other administrators began brainstorming, “How can we make this work?”
They have made it work in a few ways. First, they changed their approach to teaching and supervising. No more hands-on teaching or in-person classes. Instead, Rebecca and colleagues created kits providing the artisans with all the materials they would need to continue working from home. Prioritizing holiday products, Rebecca found they could keep going. “We had to change some things, but we adjusted. We’re good at adjusting.”
Currently selling products online, Coletta Collections is powering through the pandemic. Rebecca says, “Normally, we are out and about in Alexandria. We have very loyal customers in Alexandria, but we sell online all across the U.S.”
In normal times, the artisans attend local craft fairs, where they sell their designs and also socialize. “They want to go out and keep up with their friends,” says Rebecca. “They miss their community. Everyone wants to keep learning, so we help them remain involved with the community any way we can right now.”
Gradually, St. Coletta is welcoming its artisans back through its doors while strictly abiding by social-distancing guidelines. “It is all about who wants to come back and who feels comfortable coming back,” Rebecca says. “We’re trying to prepare for all eventualities. We think we will be fine. We’re determined. It serves a need that’s unmet in the community, so we’ve got to keep this going.”
All Coletta Collections members have to get creative, but they know their customers will always show support and that the studio will be there when they return.
“We don’t want our gifts to be just stuff,” Rebecca says. “We want to provide gifts that have meaning.” Regardless of where these gifts are made, the love and effort the artisans put into them are impossible to ignore. Shop their holiday designs at https://www.colettacollections.com.
ALEXANDRIA, VA-On Jan. 23, the Alexandria City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to acknowledge racial inequity in the past and present, and commit to adopting practices and policies that promote racial and social equity. The resolution advances “ALL Alexandria,” the City of Alexandria’s commitment to pursue equitable outcomes for everyone in the community.
“This resolution is an important step in our efforts to acknowledge historic injustices and create a path to social and racial equity,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “With the help of the community, we are renewing our pledge to advance policies that will create a future that is more inclusive, fair, and equitable for all of Alexandria’s residents.”
The resolution highlights the importance of collaboration between city government, community members and other stakeholders as the city establishes goals and equity action plans for city departments, and conducts race and social equity training.
The city’s Race and Social Equity Officer Jacqueline Tucker organized public engagement sessions in Nov. 2020 to receive community input on key values and actions to be included. More than 150 people participated in the virtual engagement sessions.
The “ALL Alexandria” commitment centers on race and how it intersects with other areas of inequity. This includes all races, religions, countries of origin, sexual orientations, ages, genders and abilities. The goal is to reduce and eliminate disparities and inequities experienced by all people, especially those in communities of color and other groups who have been historically and systemically marginalized.
Good News outlet to broadcast from ALX Community studio
Alexandria, VA – Z-TV, the video division of Alexandria’s largest media source, The Zebra Press, is excited to announce a new partnership with ALX Community. Both companies will alternately host and broadcast shows live from the studio at ALX Community to air on the Z-TV network.
The Zebra Press Publisher Mary Wadland said, “We’re thrilled to work with the entire team at ALX. We admire their commitment to community and feel our resources are aligned beautifully to share the news and events that matter to Alexandrians.”
ALX Community Partner and COO Kelly Grant concurred. “We love partnering with The Zebra to celebrate the amazing people and small businesses in our beloved city. Z-TV provides a unique distribution channel that can offer our friends and neighbors a fantastic opportunity to learn, engage, and connect with each other.”
The two companies first collaborated in September for the RBG Vigil at Market Square. They worked together again in early January when Z-TV broadcast, live from ALX Community, Alexandria author Martha Carucci’s virtual book launch for Sobrietease 2 on the We Should Talk About That podcast (WeSTAT).
In fact, the co-hosts of Alexandria’s popular WeSTAT podcast, Jessica Buchanan and Jessica Kidwell, will begin to broadcast regularly on Z-TV LIVE from ALX Community. Their first episode will air Wednesday, February 2, at 7 pm.
Z-TV is looking to expand its offerings while covering Alexandria’s hot topics, events, restaurants and retail news, and DIY segments. ALX Community is known for its outreach efforts and events that connect and educate. While much of this is taking place virtually now, everyone involved is looking forward to meeting in person as soon as it is safe to do so. Be sure to stay tuned to the Facebook pages of The Zebra Press and ALX Community for all upcoming shows, events, and opportunities to get involved.
Deadline to apply for the Peter Williams Memorial Scholarship is March 31
ALEXANDRIA, VA-Old Town Alexandria Connections (OTAC), a local business networking resource, is offering a scholarship opportunity to high school students in Alexandria. Applications are now being accepted for the Peter Williams Memorial Scholarship. The deadline to apply is March 31.
Application paperwork lists the following requirements:
1) This scholarship application is open to high school seniors currently enrolled in public or private schools located in Alexandria City or Fairfax County with an Alexandria address.
2) A complete application consists of:
Typewritten answers to all questions.
A letter of recommendation from someone that is knowledgeable about you, your leadership and/or your community service activities, printed on their letterhead (with their contact information on it);
A copy of your most recent high school transcript (student-provided, unofficial transcript is acceptable);
Your signature and date at the end of this application (signature can be electronic).
The application is considered timely if received by midnight of the application deadline.
OTAC has presented the Peter Williams Memorial Scholarship since 2015. The winner will be announced mid-April. OTAC expects the presentation ceremony to be virtual.
For complete details, view the scholarship’s template HERE. The PDF document includes information about an essay question applicants must answer to be considered.
Who Was Peter Williams?
Prior to his 2014 death, Williams was a longtime business attorney, practicing for two decades in Old Town. He served as co-president of OTAC and believed strongly in giving back to the community. He was a volunteer with various business and civic organizations throughout Alexandria, including leadership positions with the Chamber of Commerce and his church.
Fellow co-president and attorney, Debbie Farson, conceived of the award to recognize high school students who carry on Williams’ way of giving.
OTAC instructs applicants to upload their applications and all related materials in PDF format by midnight on March 31. Find the upload link HERE.
Grad student Brendan Harper knew it was a perfect match
Alexandria, VA – The tinkling of piano strings graces the air as I walk through Old Town Music School’s doors on S Royal Street. Brendan Harper, a Catholic University of America (CUA) graduate student and part-time piano teacher at the studio, greets me. Pursuing dual master’s degrees in piano and conducting, Brendan loves to learn. Recently, he has found a similar passion for teaching.
Julie Zupan, Owner and Instructor at Old Town Music School, sent an email to CUA requesting music teachers. After a phone interview, Brendan knew this studio was a perfect match for him. “She sounded lovely, really welcoming,” Brendan says of Julie. “The whole studio just feels like a nurturing and vibrant community.”
The lack of personal interaction in his virtual classes left Brendan feeling something was missing from his musical studies. This opportunity will help expand his resume, further his dream of earning a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) to become a professor, and allow him the personal interaction we have all been deprived of for the last nine months.
“Music lessons have become a touchpoint for what life is supposed to be like or was like pre-Covid,” says Julie. Pre-pandemic, students at the studio played for each other and attended seasonal recitals for Halloween, Christmas, and spring. Those recitals were canceled in March. “It is really important that we get those back,” says Brendan. “Recitals help kids get over the fear of performing.”
The ability to conquer fear is not the only benefit of practicing music. The discipline of music also teaches confidence. “Bringing happiness and confidence drives me,” says Brendan. “It is a teacher’s job to see the potential in their students, but also to encourage them to be the best where they are now.”
Being a good teacher means being a role model. Brendan’s students range in age from teens to retirees, and he has found that he can relate very well with the teens. As a recent undergrad, he is close to them in age and experience.
Being a good teacher also means being a good student. Brendan says of his students, “I learn from them as much as they do from me.” He remains confident, yet humble as he learns from his students every day.
Old Town Music School employs teachers for a range of disciplines, including guitar, strings, voice, and piano. Anyone of any age can take lessons. The studio is taking proper precautions to ensure current and future students’ and staff’s health and safety. Equipment and learning areas are cleaned between lessons, and teachers have adjusted their teaching methods to refrain from contact with each other and students.
These protocols impose limitations on the studio, but Julie is keeping spirits and motivations high. “I find students are more engaged in their lessons than ever before,” says Julie, “and sounding better sooner. There is nothing to compete with their attention or time right now.”
Julie motivates younger students with prizes. For example, when the students successfully learn and perform a Christmas carol, they get to craft a paper ornament to hang on the Christmas tree design on the wall at the front of the studio. The Christmas tree got so full, Julie had to craft an entire Christmas tree farm!
Brendan motivates older students by always encouraging their dreams and aspirations. He knows how important passion is to work ethic. “It is hard to find gratification in practicing, but you change your thought process, set a goal, and stay on track,” he explains.
Brenden never lets his students forget the necessity of work in achieving their dreams. Seeing that he is pursuing his musical ambitions and learning alongside his students proves that fantasy can become reality.
Brendan’s advice for current and potential students is this: “Enjoy it for as long as you can. You don’t have to go professional. You do it because you love music and want to learn how to play. It can’t hurt, so give it a shot.”
Alexandria, VA – The Beverly Hills Church Preschool has existed for 81 years. This year, it underwent a major curriculum overhaul. The school has its roots in progressive educational philosophy and practices, and in 2020, it was not in short supply of progress.
Transitioning to a hybrid model of remote/in-person learning due to the pandemic, Beverly Hills Church Preschool has faced challenges and achieved success. Challenges have included finding cleaning supplies and providing learning, project, and art materials for families to have at home so that there are no discrepancies among the students’ abilities to participate. Other challenges were less pragmatic, such as figuring out which ages could handle an online curriculum.
The school’s hybrid model follows a class structure based on age. The oldest classes are for five- and four-year-olds who learn three days in person and one day online. The three-year-olds learn two days in person and one day online; the youngest children, about two-and-a-half, learn two days in person only, with no virtual learning for them.
“We are going with the flow; kids are adaptable,” says Bethany LaMois, office manager. The students at Beverly Hills Church Preschool are adapting beautifully to the new normal.
Using an outdoor playground and pergola on church property, the students and teachers have focused outside the classroom, working closely with their natural environment. “Sometimes we set up easels with Elmer’s Glue and food dye to let the kids create art from nature,” Bethany says. “We almost don’t remember what it’s like not to be outdoors…I don’t think [the kids] know any different.”
Watching the students embrace such changes has put the pandemic into perspective at the preschool. Of course, even outdoors, the Beverly Hills Church Preschool follows every protocol and safety measures, including masks worn by everyone and an outdoor bathroom sanitized between each use.
The school requires Covid-19 testing or quarantining for two weeks from parents who must travel for work. The board maintains communication and provides support for parents, assuring that their child(ren) can continue to participate in school functions. “The [school] health committee has been very involved, and the parents have helped a lot,” says Bethany.
The Beverly Hills Church Preschool is a cooperative. Each day a parent is present to supervise, learn, and engage alongside teachers and students. “We rely on our community to keep the kids involved,” says Bethany.
Each year the school presents a common project theme for the older students. Last year the four-year-olds created skeletons out of sticks. This year, students are learning principles of paleontology, chipping away at ice blocks in their kitchens.
“Remote learning doesn’t have to be boring,” Bethany says. “It takes patience, but you must communicate with your colleagues. None of us has ever done this before.
“It’s stressful moving to a new environment,” she adds. “Now that we’ve put this in action, [the teachers] love it!”
Bethan says that Beverly Hills Church Preschool has allowed her to interact with the students in a new way and has even made her a better parent. With such community orientation, she has reevaluated her priorities and gained a new appreciation for children’s resilience. She reminds us not to be afraid to look to those younger than us for encouragement.
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria’s 2020 Adoption Numbers
Alexandria, VA – Twenty-twenty was easy for no one, human and animal alike. But this is a new year, and the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is taking a moment to reflect on all the good that came out of 2020 for all of its animals, employees, and volunteers.
AWL’s 2020 statistics show impressive numbers for animal adoption, volunteer hours, pet supplies donations, and overall success in a year riddled with adversity.
AWL ended 2020 with a 96% pet placement rate, securing adoptions for 1,291 animals. Also, 507 animals were fostered by 210 foster volunteers, and 622 animals were transferred in. AWL helped animals far and wide. Some 2,216 calls were placed to animal services and 268 animals received significant medical treatment.
During 2020, 42 AWL staff members earned Fear Free certification, volunteers logged 22,977 hours, and 186 pet vaccinations were administered during drive-up clinics. AWL counted over 800 attendees at its in-person and virtual events.
Statistics for pet supplies received are most impressive. The Pet Pantry provided 13,978 pounds of pet supplies and the community donated more than $35,000 worth of pet supplies online.
“We are very proud of our 2020 numbers, which were successful for any year, let alone the past year,” says Gina Hardter, AWL’s Director of Marketing and Communications. During a year of turbulence and unpredictability, AWL kept as many animals, and humans, as possible happy and healthy.
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.
Alexandria, VA – Paul Arneson reaffirms his true sense of family in this recent work. I Could Not Milk Another Goat captures the fantastic true-life story of his courageous grandmother Carrie Kirkeeide Thorson, who left Norway not knowing if she would ever see her family again.
The impetus for this book came when she went to Arneson for help to write her story. “Why,” Paul asked her, “did you leave your beautiful village on a Norwegian fjord?” Carrie responded without hesitation, “Da truth is, I just couldn’t milk another goat.”
Her story is not too dissimilar to the many other immigrants entering the United States in the early 1900s. Through Carrie’s stories, Paul shares her enormous energy and even larger loving heart. Using poetic license, he spiced up the tales to capture Carrie’s charming and gregarious nature.
Imagine the strength it took for the 24-year-old Carrie, with full responsibility for an 18-year-old brother, to step onto the S.S. Invernia and head to America. This was a time when the world began to change radically. In America, she experienced the birth of air flight, women’s suffrage, an influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Paul provides links for readers to connect with other significant events and locations in Carrie’s journey.
I asked Paul why he writes family story-centric books? Without hesitation he said, “All families should have a documentarian. Someone who can talk to grandparents, uncles, and aunts before it is too late. I am that person for my family.”
Paul is a retired U.S. Air Force Colone whose military career included postings in seven U.S. states and several overseas locations. He served as a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., ending his military service as the Transportation Director for Strategic Airlift on the Air Staff at the Pentagon. Paul was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN, where he married his sweetheart Betty in 1968.
“I Couldn’t Milk Another Goat” is a good read for well-bonded families and for those that need a little nudge to rekindle their unity. Zebra rating 5 stars