Music school breathes new life into long-vacant New London building

New London — Once boarded up, a long-vacant city building has found new life as a music school.

Formerly the site of the Clinical Day School, affectionately known as the Little Red School House, a building off Hawthorne Drive is now the home of The String Theory School of Music, founded by husband and wife duo Chris and Amy Leigh. Chris is a professional guitarist and has been a private music instructor since 1987, while Amy is a teacher at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School.

The music school, originally located in East Lyme, completed its move to the city last month and has quickly made itself at home in its new location hosting its first of many public coffee house performances Sunday afternoon. 

"It's not 'Dance Moms,' it's not 'American Idol,' this is about giving people a comfortable place to take a risk in," said Amy Leigh. "That's what we're really doing here."

Since New London educators handed off responsibility for the building a few years ago, the Little Red School House had sat vacant as the Renaissance City Development Association — the city's development arm — worked to find a suitable owner or tenant. Although it drew interest from a few groups including the Drop-In Learning Center, nothing came to fruition until the Leighs expressed interest.

Founded in 2007, the String Theory School of Music had always been located in East Lyme, but about a year and a half ago, the Leighs began searching for a new space to expand their small business. Last fall they first came to look at the location in New London, said Amy Leigh.

Leigh said the couple was fortunate to get assistance from the community, the RCDA and other city boards, and ultimately received final approval to lease the building on Feb. 5. Although they'd like to own the building within the next two years, leasing was a good place to start as their business attempts to grow, she said. 

"I'm very proud that we were able to do what we did, and manage to make it work inside of our budget," said Leigh. "Now we'll go forward improving the property over time."

"We're not done by any stretch of the imagination," she added.

Since receiving final approval, the Leighs have completed extensive renovations on the building with the assistance of family and friends, addressing issues with the electrical system, carpeting, doors, paint and windows, among other things. Although Leigh preferred not to say how much they have spent to this point on renovations, she did share that a contractor originally gave them an estimate of $80,000 to do the work.

Ultimately the couple hopes to go beyond improving the building.

Leigh said that the goal is to continue to expand the school's staff, which grew to 10 on Sunday, as well as increase the number of students. Currently the school has more than 70 students who are a fairly even mix of children and adults, said Leigh.

She added that with 4,420 square feet of space they have plenty of room.

Leigh also said the school is working to expand its offerings, which already include private and group lessons for beginners and advanced students studying guitar, bass guitar, upright bass, voice, violin, viola, piano, drums, clarinet, saxophone and flute.

"We can expand as wide-ranging as we have space for," she said.


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