The Music Plays On

Lessons Continue Amid a Pandemic

Frank Graffeo has spent more than 20 years investing in Knoxville’s music community, first as the general director and conductor of the Knoxville Opera and creator of the Rossini Festival and now as The Joy of Music School’s executive director. He is passionate and all-in, so when the pandemic closed the school to in-person instruction last March, he and his staff were quick to find a workable solution. 

Without missing a beat, they took to Zoom and devised a plan for connecting students with their volunteer teachers. While The Joy of Music School isn’t brimming with what Frank calls the “joyous din of music” every weekday afternoon, he knows their mission and goals are still being reached. 

“There are some things you miss - we can’t see posture and breathing [over Zoom] - but we try not to focus on that because we can’t do anything about it,” he explains. “But this makes the case for why we exist. It goes back to the beginning. It goes back to the depressing cut of music budgets.”

History of The Joy of Music School

In 1998, after Knoxville businessman and philanthropist James Dick visited a music school in Nashville, he and other community leaders and music educators founded The Joy of Music School as a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club. The goal was to bring a quality music education to students who didn’t have access to it through the school system. Within two years, the school became a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and by the start of 2001, the school’s first executive director, Marisa Galick, was hired to manage its business operations. 

By October 2001, the program expanded to include non-Boys & Girls Club members as long as they qualified as being from low-income families. Within another year, The Joy of Music School had grown so fast that its modest 900 square-foot space at the Moses Center no longer suited their needs. They moved to a building at their current location on Euclid Avenue, though it was clear renovations were necessary to bring the space up to code. 

In March 2005, the school broke ground on those necessary upgrades, which included an elevator, a second stairwell, and installing handicap accessible restrooms. The additions were completed that fall, and by December, Frank Graffeo was appointed as the school’s executive director. 

Over the years, the school has enjoyed seeing many students graduate from the program with music scholarships, job opportunities, and the kind of confidence that can only be built through enthusiasm and diligence. 

“It’s always fun to talk about kids who’ve popped up and made a name for themselves. There are a lot of success stories, students going to college - the first in their family - on music scholarships, kids recognizing their worth, something that was already in them,” says Frank. “One of the most amazing things is when kids graduate and go to college and come back here to volunteer as teachers. That just blows me away. I didn’t even envision that when I started. Or we have students come back in with their own kids! Blows my mind. I love all of that.” 

Students and Teachers

Parents apply under the same scale as free or reduced lunch, so the music program remains needs-based. Students don’t need to audition or have any previous music experience, according to Frank. They just have to want to be there. 

Then, students are provided instruments and matched with volunteer teachers, a process that is more elaborate than one might assume. In addition to the instrument, they look at personality and schedule. Some teachers are perfect for beginners, while others are best suited to teaching advanced students. 

Students as young as six and seven start in group lessons, and then by eight or nine years old move into solo lessons. The most common musical instruments of instruction are the violin and piano, but students are welcome to try whatever instrument inspires them. 

“I always say that when the parent wins the argument, the kid takes the violin or piano. When the students win, they get the electric guitar or drums,” he says, laughing. “As long as there’s a teacher we can find and a student who wants to play it, we’ll do it. If someone wants to learn the sitar, we’ll find a teacher.” 

Every year, students present a spring recital, typically hosted at the Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street, to showcase what they’ve been working on throughout the year. As most musical performances were moved online in 2020, so was the spring recital. It’s expected this year’s recital will also be online. 

Families are re-evaluated each year to assess their needs-based status, which is important considering there is a constant revolving waitlist for students every year. 

“On a normal year, the waitlist can be a hundred kids. I would love to have students matched immediately and have the teachers on the waiting list,” says Frank. “We could blanket-ask for volunteers, but we target UT faculty and students who are musical, and we target the vicinity of the school.” 

Since the teaching model changed last year due to the pandemic, the school was able to accept both students and teachers from out of state. It’s a leap forward that seems to be working well so far and lends itself well to expanding the school’s reach.

Whether the teacher is local or not, the student-teacher relationship is an important one.

“We want teachers with experience teaching, if possible, and experience in music, obviously, but we want people who have the time and are willing to make a commitment. You’re going to have a student or two who are relying on you for weekly lessons,” says Frank. “We focus on mentoring too. We belong to the Knox Mentoring Initiative. We pay attention to the benefit that an adult outside of family, church, and neighborhood can have. Just listening. We aren’t pretending that these teachers are counselors, but we’ve learned that we derive a lot of benefit from that.” 

The Future of The Joy of Music School

While the school receives some support from the city and county, it relies mostly on rent from tenants in their building, annual grants, and the generosity of donors. As long as music budgets continue to drop, or disappear entirely, The Joy of Music School will keep its doors open.

“We’re filling the gap of what’s been cut,” says Frank. “Not everyone can afford private lessons. We keep fighting the good fight. I’d love for Knox County Schools to put us out of business by offering every kind of music, but declining budgets keep us in business.”

In addition to monetary donations, the school also accepts donated quality instruments in favorable shape. 

For the foreseeable future, The Joy of Music School will continue its online format, and even after it’s been determined that students and teachers can return to in-person lessons, they’ll keep the online option for those who need it both in and out of Knoxville. 

“I’m guided by our founder’s vision, the late, great James Dick. He’s the savior of the Tennessee Theatre. He started WIVK radio. He used his wealth to better our community,” says Frank. “One of his tenets of the school was to serve as a national model. We’re at the very beginning of it, but we’re building the model properly.” 

How You Can Help

  1. Donate gently used, quality instruments. Minor repairs can be made, if necessary. 

  2. Commit to monthly, quarterly, or annual monetary donations. Or, opt for a Tennessee Specialty License Plate. The school receives state funding through the Tennessee Arts Commission revenue. 

  3. Volunteer to be a music teacher. The school asks that teachers provide a minimum of one lesson per week for one academic school year. All applicants will be interviewed, undergo a background check, and attend a mandatory orientation session before their first class.  

Learn more at


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