When Jan LeClair began noticing changes in her singing voice, she started looking for someone who could help ensure that she’d be able to continue singing her whole life.
“As an aging singer, the voice acts differently, so you can’t do what you used to be able to do, and that can be very frustrating,” she said. “You almost grieve the ability to participate in the way you used to be able to participate. I needed some individual support in order to make sure I was doing things healthily.”
LeClair turned to Linda Burk, whom she met through some local chorales they sang in together. Burk took LeClair on as one of her voice students at Faith Music Academy (FMA), a community outreach program of Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake, Minn., that provides music education.
Burk, who is also a school music teacher in addition to her instructor and coordinator roles at FMA, started the academy in 2010. A member of Faith, she’d already been using the church building for voice lessons when the pastor at the time approached her with the idea of making the instruction more official and expanding the type of lessons offered.
“The director of music [at Faith] was also teaching piano lessons, so the two of us just started it and developed the program,” Burk said. “It grew quickly to include guitar, percussion, flute and strings.”
The academy offers lessons to people of all skill levels and has students who range from young children to people in their 80s. The program usually has two group recitals every year, and students are regularly welcomed to provide special music during Faith’s worship services.
Burk said the recitals, in keeping with the academy’s mission, are meant to emphasize learning and growth and to celebrate progress. “It’s about sharing, not comparing, when we’re learning,” she said.
That’s why LeClair is so happy to be receiving instruction from Burk at FMA. “I was really struggling,” LeClair said. “I hardly know how to pray without singing. [Linda] really tailors her instruction to the individual. She’s not looking for any certain kind of sound—she’s looking for your sound. She’s so positive and supporting, and really trying to get you to embrace this magical thing that music can be.”
“We try to emphasize the creative, compassionate side of music making—and the shared experience.”
That nurturing environment is one reason Chris Moody appreciates the academy. Moody has been a guitar instructor for 20 years and has been teaching at FMA since 2014. “[The academy] definitely has the perspective that students should go at their own pace and not necessarily be pressured to perform, but to provide that opportunity,” he said. “I really like the diversity and laid-back approach. There are different socioeconomic backgrounds and different music backgrounds.”
Moody said the instruction doesn’t have a prescriptive, syllabus-based approach. Rather, the instructor takes each student as an individual and tailors the lessons and music selections to each person’s goals. “We try to emphasize the creative, compassionate side of music making—and the shared experience,” he added.
That shared experience goes beyond students and instructors.
“Faith loves music,” said John Klawiter, the congregation’s pastor. “Honestly, it’s a real gift to have musicians who are frequently showing up as special music in worship, mostly through prerecorded videos, especially during the pandemic. I love looking at the Facebook Live feed after church and seeing how much our members cheer on the musicians that have played.
“Having this variety of talent constantly enhancing worship is a true gift that is appreciated, plus it gives those students an opportunity to perform and keep growing in their own musical development.”
The academy has been an important part of outreach for Faith—only two of the instructors are members of the congregation, and lessons are available to anyone in the community.
“The academy has great congregational support,” Burk said. “I think we get more people into the building. We want to have our church doors open, and we want to make sure everyone feels welcomed in whatever capacity—if they’re a visitor or taking a lesson with FMA.”
Klawiter agrees: “For churches with talented musicians that want to teach, I’d recommend exploring this option as a way to live out your ministry through sharing the gifts you already have—people and a place.”
The academy has made a significant impression on LeClair, and she is grateful to have found a place for vocal support and enrichment that is so encouraging. “I’ve been so welcomed even though I’m not a member there,” she said. “Faith Lutheran and FMA is truly a unique and essential part of their community.”