Greensburg-based music studio Practice Makes Perfect offers a range of lessons, from piano and strings to reeds and brass, voice and percussion, including the boomwhacker, a hollow plastic tube tuned to a specific musical pitch by its length.
“The only thing we don’t have — and we’re currently looking for a teacher to fill that void — is the banjo,” said co-owner Aaron Gray, 31, of Greensburg. “We really, really want a banjo teacher, and we haven’t been able to find one.”
It’s a bit of a problem.
“We had about seven people this summer for banjo lessons,” said co-owner Sam Specht-Burns, 26, also from Greensburg.
Aside from musical instruction, the owners say the studio offers another much-needed element to the community.
“The studio is LGBTQIA+, female and black owned,” Specht-Burns said. “We want to provide a safe and welcoming space for everyone to come and learn music and be themselves.”
Both lifelong musicians, Gray and Specht-Burns each dreamed of opening a music studio long before they met. Their personal experiences led them to envision a space that would appeal and empower people of all ages, backgrounds, and orientations.
“I identify as a lesbian woman, and where I grew up and moved into this community, I’ve seen a lot of backlash about who I am,” said Specht-Burns, who grew up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh and said her gender orientation alienated her from her father. “I wasn’t teased to my face or bullied, but I saw other people who were, and I was definitely talked about behind my back.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable with myself until my freshman and sophomore year in college. In high school, I hid a lot. I was in the closet,” she said. “Music was the only safe space I had.”
“I’m multiracial and I couldn’t hide it,” said Gray, who grew up in Latrobe. “I got spat on at the bus stop so many times. I remember one time in art class, this kid who was sitting across from me kept saying the N word. He said it 32 times. I was like, ‘Really? Are you serious?’ You’re in art class, for God’s sake, you try to listen to the teacher, and you get stuff like that.
“I have always been drawn to music. I always felt safe and welcome there, so I wanted to make music a safe and welcoming space for others.
Safe space to learn
At Thomas Jefferson High School, Specht-Burns played violin in the orchestra and clarinet in the marching band. She holds a degree in Music Education from Seton Hill University, has given private lessons through the Seton Hill Community Music Program and currently teaches music to students with special needs through the program. for adults of Clelian Heights.
Gray is a graduate of Greater Latrobe Senior High School and holds a Diploma in Piano Performance from Saint Vincent College. He also teaches Piano Sensei in Irwin and has served as musical director for area churches and theater groups.
Feeling like an outsider “really motivates me, for people who are going through this or are scared of going through this, to be able to come into a safe space to learn and just be who they are,” Specht-Burns said. “Even if we don’t have a whole music lesson and part of the time just talks about their struggles or what they’re going through, that’s not a big deal either.
“I want to make sure people are proud of who they are and can express themselves in any type of art,” she said.
As of November 2021, PMP has a studio in the Green Beacon Gallery at 235 W. Pittsburgh St., Greensburg, where most of their classes are held. Some classes are also offered at Connellsville Community Center and Danniella DiClaudio Productions in Charleroi, and PMP also has instructors teaching in Pittsburgh, Lancaster, Georgia, and Minnesota.
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Brothers Steve (left to right) and Phil Harrold, two of the three owners of the Green Beacon Gallery, meet Practice Makes Perfect Music Studio co-owners Sam Specht-Burns and Aaron Gray.
They have 27 instructors working with nearly 300 students. Gray teaches piano, organ, and voice, while Specht-Burns teaches violin, viola, cello, and clarinet.
Individual and group lessons are offered in half-hour and one-hour increments. Different fees are charged for teaching a professional or student teacher. The student teachers are college music majors.
“We tell people ahead of time that they’re in college and their classes might not be perfect,” Gray said. “If they run into things they don’t understand, they’ll come to us, and Sam or I or one of our professional teachers will help them.
“So it’s not just education for our children and adult students, but also for student teachers who are trying to become professional musicians in the world,” Gray said.
Share a mission
Prospective students are introduced to PMP’s philosophy of acceptance and inclusion.
“They see our playbook and they have to accept our non-discrimination policy, whatever makes it a safe space,” Gray said. “We’ve had students come from other studios – and it might not have been about their orientation or the color of their skin, it might have been something else – but they hadn’t felt like we were in a safe space, so they moved on to us.
“I have a student who says every week, ‘Thank you for having me.’ It has been really rewarding,” he added.
Instructors receive the same information.
“When we hire a new instructor, the interview process covers their beliefs about acceptance and their opinions about the LGBTQ community, people of color and minority groups,” Specht-Burns said. “We also do our best to hire diverse instructors — people of color, women, the LGBTQ community. We want to make sure that we can work together for the same mission that we have envisioned.
Both children of single mothers, Gray and Specht-Burns want to make sure money isn’t a barrier for their students. PMP accepts donations to its Frances and Marian Fund to help students from low-income families pay for tuition and instrument rentals.
“Frances was Aaron’s grandmother, and she paid for his piano lessons while he was growing up,” Specht-Burns said. “Marian, my grandmother, paid for my violin rentals throughout school. We believe that cost shouldn’t be a barrier, that those who can afford it shouldn’t be the only ones learning music.
Gray met Specht-Burns in December 2019 when he was looking for a violinist to play in the pit orchestra for a show he was directing at the Theater Factory in Trafford. Specht-Burns had played in the Seton Hill Orchestra with Gray’s wife, Julia, who had contacted her through a mutual friend.
By this time, Burns was tired of his full-time job as a church music director.
“It was interfering with my teaching, doing musicals and my musical expression, so one day I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” he said. “I texted Sam the next day and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to start a studio together?’ She was like, ‘Heck yes!’ And that’s kind of how it happened.
With very little capital, they began to ask friends who taught privately to teach classes for PMP, and through them began to build a student base. They advertised their services via social media, printed flyers, word of mouth and local podcasts.
Gray and Specht-Burns connected to the Green Beacon, which houses an art gallery and performance and studio spaces, through instructor Eli Wetzel. Wetzel plays in two bands that play at Green Beacon.
“When we were developing our business plan, one of the things we wanted to do was reach out to music teachers so we could give lessons here,” said Phil Harrold, who owns the gallery with his brother, Steve, and their friend, Kevin Carpenter. “In the 1970s, this building was Butz Music. They sold instruments and they gave lessons in the basement.
Bringing in a music studio “was like a magic piece of LEGO that fit together to maintain the tradition of the building,” Harrold said. “It was super beneficial. We get a lot of cross-pollination with the people they bring in who are into what we do. So it’s very symbiotic.
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune-Review
(Left to right) Abby Slater of Greensburg with her son Eli, instructor Emma Jakiela, instructor Julia Gray with her daughter Cadence and Lindsey Shirey of Latrobe with her sons Levi and Mason during a Munchkins music lesson offered by Practice Makes Perfect Music Studio on July 18 at Green Galerie Beacon in Greensburg.
PMP also offers acting, dance and musical theater coaching, as well as early childhood music appreciation sessions and sound healing sessions.
The program for Munchkins Music, for children 6 months to 2 years old, and Toddler Tunes, for children 2 to 4 years old, was developed by Julia Gray and Specht-Burns’ wife, Breanna Specht-Burns.
“As a family, we use music a lot in raising our sons,” said Lindsey Shirey of Latrobe, whose sons Levi, 22 months, and Mason, 5, attend Munchkins Music. “I work for a company that specializes in working with people with autism, so I think (Gray and Specht-Burns) are doing a great thing.
“Everyone deserves to be treated the same, regardless of background, orientation, religion or mental health diagnosis,” she said.
Gabby Miller of Greensburg leads individual and group sound healing sessions, using her voice, crystal singing bowls, Tibetan steel bowls, a drum, ankle bells and a Native American flute.
“I tell people it’s like a spiritual superfood. It’s good for anxiety, depression, neurodegenerative diseases, ADHD, bipolar, people on the spectrum, insomnia, and physical pain,” Miller said. “Sound enters the body and mind and balances energy blockages before they turn into physical issues.
“It’s not a substitute for traditional therapy or medication, but at the very least, you’ll feel extremely calm and relaxed afterwards,” she said. “I’ve seen people come away feeling cleared, pain free, or feeling like the issue they came in for was almost completely gone or wasn’t much of an issue anymore.”