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New London's String Theory School of Music re-opens doors

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Thousands of musical notes from an array of instruments and voices articulate within these walls. Some are fluid and resonate with virtuosity; still more are awkward or even flubbed — but never expressed without desire and dawning passion.

On this weekday autumn morning, though, the only music taking place in this cinderblock building in an otherwise residential neighborhood in New London is the paradiddle-rhythm of a rainstorm on the tin roof. This is the latest and hopefully permanent location of the String Theory School of Music, a labor-of-love owned and operated in various locations over 15 years by Chris and Amy Leigh.

Like many small businesses, String Theory continues to face big challenges in the time of COVID-19.

Chris Leigh is taking a visitor on a tour of the facilities to demonstrate efforts that have been made to ensure maximum safety now that String Theory, in compliance with the state's staged re-openings, is again welcoming students on-site.

"We've obviously had to adapt, and we're now using the building in a completely different way than we we'd originally envisioned," Chris Leigh says. A tall man with short hair and a goatee who could pass for a former college linebacker, Leigh is in fact a popular longtime blues guitarist known throughout the region.

"We lost over 80 percent of our business since March," he says in a soft, conversational tone, "and as soon as we realized what was happening (with the virus), our only goal was to keep the pulse going until we could figure out what we could do to make it through and survive."

The interior of String Theory is roughly divided in two, arranged for private instruction as well as for group lessons or ensemble rehearsal. Drum kits are assembled on risers. Electric keyboards and guitar amplifiers stand at the ready, and a beautiful grand piano, donated to the school by Caruso Music, lends an air of classical distinction in one corner.

In the middle strip of the building are offices, a break room and restrooms. The overwhelming impression, as one takes a clockwise tour, is the abundance of precisely installed sheets of plexiglass hanging from the ceiling or erected in perpendicular fashion from half-walls — describing geometric angles and bisecting cubicles to ensure maximum protection in a time of airborne plague. Hand-washing stations are everywhere, as are cartons offering the requisite masks.

"It looks like I raided a giant salad bar to get all this plexiglass," Leigh laughs, "but the rehearsal rooms are in open layouts of about 1,100 square feet, so we've taken a lot of precautions. We want people to know they can get in and out safely but, but this is literally a very safe place to take music lessons. And it LOOKS that way, which allows people to psychologically relax and play."

Through the years

The original String Theory School of Music was in a small space in an old doctor/dentist space in East Lyme. After a few years there, the Leighs had trouble getting commercial leases for, as Chris Leigh says, "a business that makes a lot of noise." They tried a few other spots in East Lyme but wanted longer term options and ultimately found the current location.

Over the years, teachers have included some of the finest and best-known professional musicians in the region. Ten are on staff offering instruction in piano, voice, guitar, bass, drums and percussion, strings and accordion. And such is the experience of the faculty that, if a curious soul wandered in and wanted instruction on some fairly obscure instrument, someone at String Theory can probably play it — and play it well.

Similarly, the structure of instruction is creative and interactive. There are private lessons, group lessons and performance bands comprised of students of all levels of fluency. Amy, a full-time teacher at Ella T. Grasso Technichal High School in Groton, helms the String Theory Kindergarten Band.

"We have amazing and committed musicians on our faculty," Chris Leigh says. "If you've seen a lot of bands in the area, you've seen our teachers. They're working professionals who understand the importance not just of instruction but of performance and interaction with other musicians. More than that, they're all friends."

Further reflecting that spirit, the Leighs emphasize a community feel — within the walls of the school and at large. They fund a music scholarship for their students; their first honoree, Jacob Graham, a college student on hiatus due to the virus, has come full circle and teaches drums at String Theory. The school has a float in the New London St. Patrick's Day Parade. And they're ever mindful of the String Theory presence in a residential neighborhood.

"We've been here over two years now," Chris Leigh says, "and we've gotten to know the folks here. We had a few noise complaints early, but we learned how to wrap it up on time." He laughs. "Once you get beyond 10 p.m., heavy metal is not appreciated."

After a recent storm, a large limb from a neighbor's tree came down and, Amy Leigh says, "Chris went over with a chain saw and cut it up for them. They baked him a cake. It's a really good neighborhood and I think they appreciate what we've done with what was an empty, derelict building. It's a business that focuses on family and some of the people around here have even become students."

Moving forward

Over the past several months, while the Leighs became experts in building construction and COVID safety therein, they also did their best to maintain contact with clientele. Chris Leigh made a video that shows and explains the precautionary steps they've taken, and they also took a survey of clients to find out their situations and how the school could adapt or help out.

"We knew it was going to be tough," Leigh says. "This effects everyone and significantly. And, look, New London is an incredible arts community. We're in this with the Garde and the Hygienic and the clubs and museums and so on. But there's a real sense of togetherness. And the City of New London has been so supportive with the school since the very start.

"As far as our clients are concerned, a lot of people no longer have the discretionary income for music lessons and, believe me, we understand that. So many have lost their jobs. And even with folks getting assistance, maybe now isn't the right time to invest in music lessons. We were impacted by that and sympathized with it and we took it to heart."

Results of their survey indicated that about a third of their client base simply couldn't afford to move ahead; another third expressed interest in resuming lessons when it was safe to do so; and the rest were willing to continue via virtual instruction.

"So, it was imperative — not just for business but also for the progress of our students — to go online and learn how to conduct virtual lessons and clinics," Leigh says. "Are online lessons ideal? Well, I've learned a lot from YouTube lessons. There's some great stuff. But, particularly with younger students, what's missing is the 'coach' aspect — someone who's thinking about you as an individual and what your learning style is and how best to convey that information to you."

New London's Alan Goldfarb, a keyboardist, takes lessons at String Theory and participates in the instructive rehearsal band sessions. His daughter, Anna, is also a student, taking drum lessons as well as voice and ukulele instruction.

"Obviously, everyone was shocked by the virus at the start, and like everyone else Chris and Amy figured out how to make it work with protection," he says. "What was impressive was how (String Theory) kept us posted and stayed in contact. We love it there and they've totally helped us in what we're trying to achieve. As (restrictions started lifting), Anna was one of the first to show up in person and play drums — and she wasn't at all nervous. The place is totally safe and protected. And I'm back, too, and officially in the Thursday night band."

Cathy Webber Cooper is another parent whose daughter Christy is a student at the school. Christy started in the String Theory Kindergarten Band helmed by Amy Leigh and has been a student since. Almost 14, she's taken voice, piano and drums.

"String Theory is a great place run by great people," says Webber Cooper, adding that when the Leighs opened String Theory in the current location, her family — and other students and parents — helped out with the move and painting.

"That shows how much we feel about this place," she says. "Christy plans to major in music at college, and String Theory has played a big part in that. There's no distinction between the approach with adults and kids and the levels to which they can rise. When kids get to interact with professional and advanced musicians, it means so much. And when the virus hit, Chris and Amy did what they needed to. They made it work through Zoom and we didn't miss a lesson the whole time."

The big picture

"Right now, we'll work with our students however we can, be it Zoom or in person," Chris Leigh says. "We're all still figuring it out. But we're glad to get people back in the facility. The opportunity for kids to play music with each other, to learn the sense of groove and chemistry that comes from being with other musicians. It's the old way but, in the case of music, it's so important. So we're doing our best with the big picture in mind."

On a recent Monday night, it's fair to say that there's a "business as usual" spirit at String Theory. Amy Leigh is in the office, chatting with the mother of a student. Across the hall, masked and behind protective glass, keyboard instructor Rufus Davis is all smiles as he gently shows a young male student the chords to Bach's "Ode to Joy." The young man is perplexed at first, then breaks into a smile as it clicks in. Within a few minutes, Davis shifts to an almost calypso bass figure and lets his charge improvise over the top.

"Man, it's good to have (the students back)," Davis says at the end of the lesson. "It's good to BE back. Music is such therapy; such a healing and joyous thing. I think in these times, we can all learn from that."

Meanwhile, Chris Leigh is in another practice room, explaining an A7 to D7 structure to a young female guitarist whose father looks on with a smile.

"There you go!" Chris Leigh says as his student locks into the rhythm. "You've got it. You're playing the blues!" He begans to vamp a delicate solo on his own guitar over her chord voicings. "And, see? You can then play a melody in the same key. And soon there's a sound and a feeling like you wanna just let the music take you somewhere."

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