Atlanta music program strikes the right chord in changing neighborhood

MaKhi Haynes runs his fingers down the keyboard as instructor James Shealy looks on.

A smile slowly crosses Shealy’s face as he watches the Centennial Academy student play the “Mexican Hat Dance.”

“Now give me some of that soul from last week,” said Shealy.

He gently prods the teen not to look down at his hands but up at the music. Sing the notes, he said.

“If you can sing it, you can play it,” said Shealy. “You internalize the notes. He has a naturally soulful voice. It’s a style I recognized as special. He has a natural vibrato that makes his voice go up and down a little bit within the same note. He kind of does that naturally.”


MaKhi is one of seven students enrolled at the Kevin Baker Music Program, which was launched by the  Friends of English Avenue in January. The music program provides lessons to children who live in the community and is named in honor of Baker, a local volunteer and musician who died in 2017. His sister, Suzanne Baker, was the nonprofit's first director.

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“Everyone said you’ve got to get the kids,” said John Gordon, a Buckhead businessman who co-founded the nonprofit with the Rev. Andrew Motley, senior pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church. “For some of the older people, the die is already cast. If you get the kids early enough, it gives them options. They may choose music over joining a gang.”

The Atlanta neighborhood is still very much in transition. Historically, it was a middle-class and working-class neighborhood — first for whites, then African-Americans. In later years, drugs and crime took over the streets as residents died or moved out.

The community started getting attention after the 2006 police shooting death of 92-year-old resident Kathryn Johnston after a botched “no-knock” raid.

To “pay” for the lessons, students have to complete homework assignments and bring in a signed voucher from their teachers. The voucher is worth $25 — the cost of a lesson.

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Research has shown that music stimulates many areas of a child’s development from enhancing reading skills and comprehension to building social, emotional and language tools.

The program is run by James and Julia Shealy, who moved to the English Avenue neighborhood from Smyrna.

He majored in music education at Kennesaw State University and is trained in classical piano and percussion. He also writes, produces, does studio work and has his own band.

Julia Shealy started singing in church and also worked in musical theater. The Shealys lead the worship ministry at River City Church in Smyrna.

The relationship between the Shealys and the students extends beyond music. They’re neighbors.

All but one student lives on their street.

“This is what we wanted,” he said. “We want to build those close relationships with trust.”

Their goal is to have a dozen students by summer. They hope word will get around. The program bought some instruments. Others were donated. If the students practice and perform at the first program recital in the fall, they get to keep the instrument they were loaned at the start of their lessons.

Every Thursday afternoon, the upstairs of the two-story green house on Lindsay Avenue is filled with sounds of children playing the keyboard, guitars or drums. The Shealys’ Jack Russell terrier, Clay-Bobby, wanders in and out of the room. A diffuser sprays a mist of peppermint and citrus essential oils, which Julia Shealy said has a calming effect on the students and helps heighten their focus.

A sign hangs on a wall near the window: “It Always Seems Impossible Until It Is Done.”

There have been positive changes in the students’ performance in school.

“Parents have told us they notice their kids come alive,” after their time in the program, said Julia Shealy.

“We hope to inspire and educate the kids to possibly explore the pursuit of music as a career as well as develop a lifelong discipline and love for music,” she said.

Outside there are many distractions.

Friends of English Avenue was formed to help revitalize the neighborhood. Efforts included housing and community gardens, one of which is located next to where the students take lessons.

At one point, to address safety concerns, the nonprofit renovated a house and let police officers live in it without charge. When the first family moved out, officials found it difficult to get a second officer to move in.

“The condition of the neighborhood had a lot to do with it,” said Gordon. “I also think that it was politics, which was a disappointment. I sort of adopted the attitude that God was in charge. Maybe, this was not going to happen.”

Instead of police, in stepped the Shealys.

“This is a lovely young couple devoted to their faith and feel that this is their calling — professionally and musically,” Gordon said.

MaKhi Haynes has already started composing.

He plays alto sax in his school band, but wanted to try a different instrument.

Keyboards “are pretty cool. You can play in treble clef and bass clef. There’s a lot more variety in how you want your music to sound.”

Another student is Aryanna Maymi-Booker, 9, who wants to be the next Katy Perry. She and two of her siblings participate in the program. She and her half brother Auvalli Booker, who is also 9, recently faced off on a friendly quick chord challenge to correctly identify and play a chord on the acoustic guitar selected by their teacher. The prize was a single Hershey’s kiss, which Auvalli Booker, who wants to be an architect, claimed.

“I think guitar is the second most important instrument in the band,” said Aryanna Maymi-Booker, who likes to play and sing.

A younger sister, Aniyah Royal, is a beast on the drums.

Aniyah Royal’s mother, Vanessa Booker, said she’s noticed a difference in the children.

The class is important to them. Recently, Aryanna forget her lesson voucher in her desk. When she realized that she didn’t have it, she broke down in tears.

Her mother has noticed Aryanna is learning responsibility. Sometimes, her daughter might be stressed out because she has to help with her younger siblings. Now, she’s got “to be the role model.” When she’s in music class, though, all that goes away. “Emotionally, she feels at peace. She can be herself.”