CLIFTON PARK — Music transcends all.
The staff (more like family) at Modern Day Music School, snugly located in an unassuming plaza on Route 9, understands this. All use this knowledge to make a difference in the lives of those they touch. The school, known for its powerhouse students Moriah Formica and Madison VanDenburg, has more behind the doors, and in its heart, than the voices it trains and the musicians it tunes.
“I remember I once had a student who had a friend pass away and for whatever reason, she couldn’t go to the wake,” vocal coach and musical instructor Laura Beth Johnson said. “The student came in here and said, ‘I want to write a song about this.’ So, we put pen to paper and she was able to write through the grief and use her music as a way to channel that grief into something positive and productive.
“I was so grateful and honored to be a part of that process and help her find her voice,” Johnson said.
Johnson (one of four members of the Johnson family who work at the studio) is amazed at how her student has grown since that day.
“She’s writing all the time,” Johnson said. “It has given her the confidence she needs and she has blossomed since that day into even more of an artist.”
This is just one example of the way that Modern Day Music School is able to be there for its students. In music, you’re vulnerable. You’re open. You’re bearing your soul. For some, it’s incredibly intimidating at first. For others, it’s a relief right away. For all, the studio is a sanctuary; a place where they can be free, vulnerable and most importantly, themselves.
“The students develop these incredible bonds with their coaches and teachers that makes them want to work even harder,” owner Paul Benedetti said. “They come in for this 30-minute session. Sometimes, they only sing for about five minutes of that. They’re working through something tough in their personal life and they feel safe enough to come in here and talk to us. We want them to feel safe.”
These bonds were evident as our staff visited the studio on a rainy Friday afternoon. As pictures were being taken, Formica and VanDenburg were belting into a mic. Their vocal coach, Lesley O’Donnell, was standing outside the sound-proof booth. The doors were open, the vibe was good. As the girls tried to find their pitch, O’Donnell was offering encouraging words even though the girls were just goofing around.
“There it is!,” O’Donnell exclaimed as the teen stars belted out an impressive harmony. “There we go! Awesome!” A smile spread across her face. “It’s amazing,” she said.
Benedetti started Modern Day Music School in 2011 with a partner, who he bought out in 2013. The need for the school was a response to his own son’s musical talent. When his oldest son was a teenager, he was playing drums and decided he wanted to start a band. The problem was, there was nowhere in the area that made it easy to coordinate young musicians who wanted to get together with peers. Benedetti said it was a “nightmare” because there was always curve balls thrown; some kids really wanted to play, while others weren’t ready for the commitment it held. On top of that, where the bands would eventually play weren’t kid-friendly. The teens would play at house parties, where Benedetti didn’t feel was a good place for these young musicians.
“I come from the studio business and I’ve been playing, teaching and singing forever,” he said. “My partner and I had a thought during this time period; wouldn’t it be awesome to create a space where these kids could find like-minded students, and even better, have a safe space to play?”
The school opened with its well-known band program. Essentially, students signed up and are paired into a band with three to four other students with the same essential goal. Benedetti said these kids usually don’t know one another at first, and even more, they don’t always want to play the same thing or even like the same music.
“It’s not only a music session, it’s team-building,” he said. “These kids learn that you sometimes have to work with people you wouldn’t pick at first for whatever reason. That’s something you’ll run into regardless of where you end up in life.”
It sometimes takes a bit for the band to adapt. The band program is offered in three-month sessions. Despite the initial uncertainty, the kids not only learn to work well together, but they become friends and will often ask to play together again at the beginning of the new session.
“They’ll want to do more, work harder and see where they could potentially go as a cohesive unit,” Benedetti said. “If we feel it works as a whole, we will happily try to accommodate those requests.
The band program eventually was joined by music lessons when Benedetti realized how needed it was. Now, the studio employs at least a dozen coaches with all different abilities and talents. While those like Formica and VanDenburg are jumping into the mainstream, 7-year-old Ella Dane Morgan is a student with a different passion — performing on stage. At 5 years old, she was starring with pop sensation Sara Bareilles in the singer’s smash hit “Waitress.”
“I have reverse stage fright,” Morgan explained. “I don’t really like performing in front of friends and family, but I love performing on stage.”
Morgan’s mother Laura agreed, explaining she’s had to physically carry a crying Morgan as she pleaded to get back on stage, long after the curtains closed.
“We were bitten by the Broadway bug at a young age,” Laura Morgan said. “Once she got the taste for it, she wanted in. We sometimes commute between here and the city three to four days a week for whatever she has going on.”
The young Broadway star has learned so much from her three years of instruction. Laura Morgan said they picked Modern Day Music School because of the school’s command of music — they know what they’re doing. There are not a lot of roles for children on Broadway, but the Morgans have made it work and the young star has been consistently in her element, doing what she loves most.
“I’ve learned to belt by opening up my mouth like a cave,” Ella said. “I pretend I’m stuffing all of these marshmallows in my mouth. It’s helped.”
Another belter, 11-year-old Ashlynn Boyce, has been working on the same techniques. The two-time winner of Clifton Park American Idol has always known she could sing, surprising even her parents.
“I was shocked when I first heard her,” Boyce’s father Jesse said. “None of our family has this skill and she can command it so well.”
Boyce has been attending Modern Day Music School for two years. Having just relocated from Pittstown, Boyce and her dad were passing through one day and she saw the sign for the school.
“I just knew I wanted to go here,” she said. As shy as she is, she knows what she wants. “I had a feeling about it.”
Jesse Boyce put all his trust in Benedetti. Soon Boyce, who was sent home early from Clifton Park American Idol the first year she tried out, was in command of her talent like never before.
“She can be so successful at this,” he said. “You just want the best for your kid. No place is perfect, but this is pretty close.”
Boyce said her warmups have completely changed her. They help her get ready for the big notes she loves to hit, ones she hopes to sing with Demi Lovato someday. Two years later, she still wants to go here. It’s become as much of a sanctuary for her as anyone.
Students like Boyce are how the teachers summarized what they feel the school does for students. The initial intimidation of coming in and bearing a part of your soul that many are self-conscious about — even those who know they have talent — is overridden when they step into that studio and feel validation about something they’ve worked on for so long.
“It’s music. That’s what we know,” O’Donnell said. “It makes sense for us to teach it. We are simply the vehicles for these kids to hone in on the thing they love so much.”
Tony Garza, the jack of all trades of the school, agrees. Garza teaches guitar, bass and ukelele. He is the head of the school’s Little Rockers program and is the rock school director. For him, it comes down to helping the students learn important life lessons, like they have to be ok with not being perfect.
“I always tell my students they are good, they are special and they are worthy,” Garza explained. “I want to help them find their voice.”
Katie Johnson, another vocal coach and the song writing teacher, agreed. “Music has changed the lives of these kids, and they’ve changed all of us,” she said. “They come in not believing in themselves and they find who they are through the music.”
The teachers are assisted by the helpful Benedetti and Cailin Burke, the studio manager. Burke explained students are not just randomly assigned — rather, the studio takes the talents of each individual into consideration and pairs them with the coach that can address those specific needs.
“No curriculum here,” was echoed by every single employee of the studio. Benedetti added, “We use music that the students want to learn about to construct our lessons. If they love Taylor Swift, we will visit her music and learn notes, harmonies and how the song is constructed. We want to make learning fun for these students. Curriculum is great, but we want to take an individualized approach to each student. This is not one size fits all.”
Eighteen-year-old Formica, 17-year-old VanDenburg and 15-year-old Cassie Cenzano are on their way to superstardom. All three said they owe so much to their coaches; while it’s taught them how to sing, it’s also taught them how not to.
“I hate it when people come up to me and tell me how they’ve never taken lessons,” Formica said. “We take pride in our lessons because they’ve taught us how to maintain our voices. Not taking lessons is great, but when you accidentally blow out your voice because you didn’t maintain it, that’s definitely not fun.”
Formica and Cenzano landed at Modern Day Music School around the same time, right after the school opened. Formica is a rock powerhouse, effortlessly having both the voice and stage presence to make audiences question why rock went away. Cenzano is influenced by the sultry vocals of Adele and Stevie Nicks, a stark contrast to Formica. VanDenburg finds her influence in singers like Celine Dion and once said she prides herself in the ability to sing ballads “decently well.” As her recent appearance on “American Idol” has shown, she was maintaining the level-headed kindness and humility all three girls embody
“Moriah was actually the one who encouraged me to come here,” VanDenburg said. “I think that’s what sets this place apart from everywhere else. It’s welcoming, it’s chill and our coaches genuinely want to get involved in our lives and provide the support we need outside of this.”
Cenzano agreed. Her low, soothing voice articulates her gratefulness to the studio for its ability to reach out to her. She’s in the studio too, working as hard as her peers.
“The key to these lessons is listening and taking it all in,” she said. “We all practice a lot. We’re open to what we’re being told. We want to learn.
“Being a musician is always in you,” Formica concluded. “True artists, like the three of us and those who are here with us, love music in all of its forms, and we love that we can make our own music.”
Benedetti chalks up his impressive staff and students to the “vibe” he puts out. While they frequently get applications for new employees, Benedetti said it’s so much more than having the ability to sing or play.
“If you can come in here and you have the talent, great,” he said. “But the vibe is so important. We want to create a modern, safe, welcoming space. We want to give our students an experience, not just a lesson.”
Modern Day Music School is actually looking to expand its team, with Benedetti promising new staff members will have the qualifications, vibe and personality its customers have come to know and love.
“When we are told by parents that their child is excited about that 30-minute lesson, I know we are doing something right,” he said. “It’s 30 minutes, once a week. Yet, the students long for the time here. They have siblings come and hang out while they practice, and we provide a space for them to grow too with whatever they need.
“I know we are doing something right when we see these kids so happy,” he concluded. “We want things to make sense for each individual student, and we think we’re achieving that.”