by Mallory Moad
Do you have a song in your heart but lack the confidence to belt it out? Perhaps someone you know has always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument but didn’t know where to start. Would you like to give your kids (or grandkids) a musical jump-start? I’ve got some good news for you: Fresno Music Academy & Arts has all the good stuff needed to achieve these goals and more.
Located in the heart of the Tower District, Fresno Music Academy & Arts (FMAA) is the largest independent music school in the Central San Joaquin Valley. FMAA founder/owner Debi Ruud says, “We are a school, not a music store that offers lessons. And although we do sell a few items, we focus on teaching.”
That’s how it all began, with teaching. In 1997 Debi started giving voice lessons in her living room to supplement the family income while being able to spend as much time at home with her kids as possible. “Teaching voice came pretty naturally for me since I had been singing professionally for 20 years.” Good news travels fast and with experience, skills and personality in her favor, she soon found she had more students than she could handle on her own. So in 1998, the home studio moved into its first commercial space. With the input of her friend, Mark Royce, Debi christened the new location The Voice Shop and the original incarnation of FMAA was born.
As the Voice Shop grew in popularity, Debi began to add more instructors and options to the school’s curriculum. Soon, lessons in guitar and piano were being offered in addition to voice. The story could end here and still have a happy ending but it gets better. In 2009, The Voice Shop relocated to a storefront in the Tower District to accommodate an increase in the number of classes and students. The Voice Shop now had a small performance space, three classrooms and ten instructors. Word of the high quality instruction continued to spread and the school began to attract students from Reedley, Sanger and Madera in addition to Fresno and Clovis.
And they all lived happily ever after…
Wait – I’m not finished yet! In 2016 Debi and her partner (now husband), photographer/musician John Alden, realized more space was needed in order to meet the demand for The Voice Shop’s services. In a case of perfect timing, the business operating next door had just moved, leaving a vacancy. An agreement was made, the contract was signed, and a bigger and better school was on its way! Walls were removed and spaces divided, increasing the size to 4,000 square feet and the number of classrooms to eleven. With the expansion came a new name, too. “We offer so much more than singing lessons and we felt that the name ‘The Voice Shop’ did not reflect all that we do here. Fresno Music Academy & Arts defines us now in a more complete way.”
But the most impressive improvement involved the performance area. What was once a glorified room with a stage evolved into a theater that is fully equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and sound, and can seat up to 75 people. It even has its own name: ViSTA. The acronym stands for Voice Shop Theater Arts, with the small “i” representing a microphone. While home to quarterly showcase performances by FMAA students and FMAA’s in-house theater company, ViSTA is also a Rogue Performance Festival main stage venue and has been utilized by SHINE Youth Theater and FMAA’s own Hearts On Fire community rock n’ roll choir.
FMAA’s schedule of courses now includes private, one-on-one instruction in voice, guitar, piano, mandolin, fiddle, drums, ukulele and accordion. Most of the 16 teachers have degrees in music and all have extensive experience in their field of expertise. Lessons are available for all ages, including children. The early childhood music program, Music Fun Time, focuses on kids ages 2-5. “The idea is that if kids can learn colors and shapes, they can learn note names and values,” explains Debi.
The reasons people come to FMAA are as varied as the individuals themselves. Television competition programs like The Voice and American Idol have been the motivation for some. Others want to be able to sing better in church or want to return to an activity that was abandoned when life demands took priority. Parents want to get their kids into music at FMAA for more a more complete education than what is offered in public school. It isn’t only amateurs who make use of FMAA. The pros can be found there, too. John Clifton, a well-known local blues musician who has gained world-wide recognition, returns to FMAA between tours to keep his voice in top condition. “I was having a few issues with my vocal dexterity and Debi got me back on track. Now I’ve got almost as much vocal range as I did when I was in my 20’s.”
FMAA is a true success story. From a tiny living room to a well-respected music school with 16 teachers and a fully functioning theater, it has become a vital component of Fresno’s performing arts community. Debi sums it up when she says, “Here I am now, 16 years later, and we’re going stronger than ever. I have my partner in business and life, John Alden, to thank for this growth. Together we have turned this place on fire!” She has a song in her heart and she’s singing it out loud.
My name is Mallory Moad and I’d love to hear the song in your heart, too.
For more information about lessons, Hearts On Fire, gift certificates and everything else, visit www.fresnomusicacademy.com or www.facebook.com/fresnomusicacademy. You can also give them a call at 559-222-7464.