We are believers in live music and are cheerleaders for the venues in which live music is taught and performed. And we believe that local encouragement of live musical engagement is vitally important. We recently began seeing posts on our social media outlets regarding activities at a music school and performance venue in nearby Charlottesville, VA named The Front Porch. We first asked Ms. Emily Kresky a musician friend of this magazine to enlighten us a bit since we discovered that she was an instructor in the music school at this venue.
Kresky told us that The Front Porch is both a roots music school and a concert venue. The school offers private lessons to students of all ages on many instruments and many styles of music. The venue portion hosts concerts by a variety of local and regional artists as well as artists from around the country and the world. The Front Porch is the brainchild of Ms. Emily Morrison. We contacted Ms. Morrison, and here is her story.
Ms. Emily Morrison is the Executive Director of The Front Porch. Emily’s hometown is Ferrum, VA—a region steeped in traditional music. There, she grew up in a family of musicians and educators. Morrison holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Education from The College of William and Mary; and she moved to Charlottesville in 2000 to teach high school English. Besides being a high school English teacher, she has founded and operated a summer day camp for children and directed a performing arts program at a Montessori school. Emily’s passion is helping others express their innate creativity.
We began by asking Ms. Morrison why she named her project The Front Porch. She answered, “I like the idea of the spirit and openness of the front porch as a gathering place where people share stories. Once upon a time, people sat on their porches. It was a place where they would visit, play music, and share stories with each other. This is an idea that resonates across cultures. This front porch concept is not just an American thing nor is it exclusive to one culture or a group of people from one particular background. It fosters an idea of openness and sharing of yourself and your life. I like the idea that everybody is welcome. The front porch is a place where people could be walking by and find a place to join.”
With that insight, it is easy to understand why Morrison chose that name for her project. Her project (just like the front porches many of us remember fondly) is also a gathering place for friends and neighbors. It is not just about music. They also do dancing; and have story-telling events—there is a lot of different cultural opportunities at The Front Porch for people or all ages and walks of life.
In The Beginning …
I wondered about the Genesis story for The Front Porch and found out from Ms. Morrison that it all originated from a teaching position she held in an elementary school. Not too long after her arrival in town to teach high school English, Morrison was offered the opportunity to become a music teacher at an elementary school where her children were currently enrolled. While not formally trained in music instruction this was not a stretch for her. Here is her take, “I am not trained as a music teacher but I can teach music. I took the job and invented a curriculum based upon the music from my home town because you can teach what you know.”
She further explained, “I grew up in a musical family; my parents were musicians and educators in the local school system so I just offered a music curriculum that was based upon the music from Southwest VA that I grew up listening to and playing. In other words, the music that was in the air back there.” She continued, “I invited guest instructors to come in and teach. Pete Vigor came in and ran a string band for the middle school students. He and his group became my backup band. The students wrote folk songs from around the world; did plays; learned folk dances; and studied world music and culture.
Emily remained at Mountaintop Montessori for three years as their music, dance, and drama teacher. She told us that she enjoyed doing that so much that when her own children left that school and she took a different job as administrator at a different school, she wanted to keep the spirit of the music work alive in her life. With that in mind, she started offering folk music classes at her home. She reached out to some friends who had been helping with her school music program and asked them to come into her home and offer house concerts and music lessons.
She explained, “It was really just a little side project while I was working a desk job. Nevertheless, I developed a vision for what we do now (at The Front Porch) in my mind. I came to believe that what we were offering would be something that was good for all ages. I had a feeling that it would be successful but I did not start it with that in mind. I started it because I thought it would be fun and it really took off! The goal was to do it for six weeks at my house as just a little fun project.”
Too Big For A House
The fun project went on for six months in Emily’s home and outgrew her room. She then rented a building on the campus of the school where she formally taught as a music teacher. Morrison summed up the saga like this, “We kept the project going in that building for a year until we found our current downtown location. The project has been growing by leaps and bounds every since. I quit my full-time job as a school administrator after two years with this music project and now this is my full-time job.” Emily continued, “Our organization officially launched as The Front Porch in the fall of 2015 in that rented building. After a year there, we moved to a downtown Charlottesville building located one block down Water Street off the downtown mall. We have a five-year lease on this present facility so we feel secure in this present location.”
Since The Front Porch started as a one-woman show so to speak, we wondered how Ms. Morrison could possibly find time to take care of all that needs doing. She said, “It really blows my mind but I have a great staff. For a long time it really was just me until I hired an operations director. For the first several years I volunteered my time and paid the operations director to help organize the schedule and insure that students and teachers were on time. Presently, we have five full time professional salaried staff-members to help with the administration of the business. There is also a 34-member hourly-paid teaching staff. The professional and hourly folks receive a competitive wage. It is a priority for us to pay our staff and the performing musicians that appear in our concerts a living wage. It is not easy to make money in the arts. It is important to us that we treat all these folks as the professionals that they are.”
The concert venue is the other important part of The Front Porch. This facility provides a listening room environment. It accommodates 100 seated guests; and insures a very intimate feeling between artists and guests. It is a busy venue. In 2018, they hired 418 musicians and staged 63 concerts. They plan to stage over 100 concerts throughout 2019.
Local and National
A percentage of the artists that the venue features are local or regional and a percentage of the concert performers are national touring acts that are passing through the area. Typically, the artists reach out to The Front Porch staff and then the staff vets the act through review of performance videos and such. Occasionally, there are acts that the staff would like to showcase because of personal preference. For those artists, the staff contacts the promoters of the acts.
The description of The Front Porch with its many and varied lesson offerings to students of all ages plus its many concert offerings, certainly paints a picture of a robust and growing culture center; however, quality and growth does have a cost and that cost requires funds. The Front Porch is a 501C3 not for profit venture and has an operating budget that has grown from $50K the first year of operation to the current operation budget that stands at well over $600K. Most of the budget’s money goes to the performing artists and the teaching staff.
Student paid tuition, plus concert ticket and concession sales generate about one half of the operating income. The Front Porch enrolls between 250 and 300 students of all ages every week who pay tuition to take classes. Morrison said, “For these folks, we function as a typical music school.” Funds that are derived from grants to non-profit groups that foster the arts as well as philanthropic gifts from various sources generate the other half of the operating budget. This is the money that supports The Front Porch’s community outreach efforts.
As part of the community outreach, The Front Porch teaches lessons to 150 students each week, many of whom are tuition-waved or scholarship endowed. Morrison injected, “These lessons are not all in our facility. We go out into the community and teach lessons to folks in elder-care facilities; to children in after-school programs; and to children in schools as part of the music programs offered there. The Front Porch offers musical mentor-ships; runs children’s choirs; and organizes music clubs, We even offer music opportunities in the juvenile detention center twice a week.”
The community is generous in giving back to The Front Porch in support of its outreach efforts. Also, staff teachers generously give of their time as volunteers to help with various events. Emily added, “The organization receives help from about 150 active volunteers who do all sorts of tasks here.”
It’s A Dream Job
How does Emily Morrison feel about all she has going at The Front Porch, you might ask? Here is how she answers that question, “This is my dream job. I love it! It is so rewarding. After a slight pause, Ms. Morrison continued, “There is something I think about every day, and I want to say it. We believe that musical experiences and music education enriches individuals and communities. We believe it is important to offer those services and those experiences to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. When communities have rich cultural opportunities and shared experiences, it lifts everyone up. When I read the daily news and then come to work, I experience a cognitive disconnect. While the news can be very nasty, I see love and cooperation at work among all people regardless of their personal beliefs and feelings. When I experience real people in everyday life, I am always impressed. My faith in humanity is restored on a regular basis by just coming to work.”
We asked Emily if she had any vision for the future for The Front Porch? She answered, “My secret dream is for other local chapters of The Front Porch to open in other communities in Virginia. I have a vision that this operation could spread and impact a lot more people. It is important for organizations such as this to be hyper-local. They need to represent and be connected to the community in which they are located and to serve that community and the musicians of that community. Every community has different needs and a local front porch organization should reflect those needs. Rather than continuing to expand the operation in this city and encourage people to travel here, it makes more sense to have sister schools in other locations that operate somewhat independently and reflect the community in which they are located.”
We asked for any final words that she cared to share with us, and here is what she related, “Music is a spiritual enterprise. People need to be in the same room and come together and experience art. It is something that we are biologically predisposed as human beings to experience and create; and as creators of art we want to share our creations with others. The need to come together and share those experiences in real time is universal.”
It certainly seems that The Front Porch is a very special musical place. If you reside near Charlottesville you owe it to yourself to sign up for a music lesson or two or maybe ease into that special listening room and catch a concert. Morrison says that the local artists always draw a good crowd of guests. You can always point your computer’s browser to https://frontporchcville.org/. You can learn a great deal more that we have space here to tell you.