Celebrating its one-year anniversary at the Lakewood location this year, The Music Lab continues to flourish. With a motto of ‘Offering high quality, personally tailored musical education for all ages’, behind the music school is teacher Michael Clark, founder, visionary, and musical maestro.
Clark began piano lessons around the age of six after displaying an interest in his grandmother’s upright piano. “I would kick the pedals, creating rhythms while I played random notes that did not sound good. She’d say, ‘mind the pedals’ in her British accent,” he remembers fondly, and so began the journey of interesting music characters throughout his life.
For the next ten years, Clark would continue taking piano lessons from his very first teacher, Lita Nomellini, who was both a piano and accordion player. “She was a really interesting character, and so cool,” he says. “She was a drummer in a Vegas band in the 60s and 70s.”
In middle school, he joined band as a percussionist under the tutelage of Mr. Folmer. This marked the beginning of a preeminent mentor and influence in his life. “Mr. Folmer is amazing and he was a constant presence,” Clark says. “I cannot say enough positive stuff about him. Not only as an amazing musician but as a person who worked endless hours way over his salary.”
Simultaneously, he joined the jazz band as a jazz pianist, also led by Folmer and continued until graduation.
With his life-long dream of becoming a film composer, Michael Clark would go on to PLU to complete a degree in music composition. During this time, he did a great deal of classical music writing and piano playing, all leading to a passion for chamber music that still continues today.
After a brief gap year in Europe working on a farm through the WWOOF program, Clark changed gears, planning to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology or psychiatry upon return. As he prepared for tests and prerequisites, he substituted within several school districts, deciding he’d like to do one more thing before he made the commitment to grad school.
That one more thing turned out to be joining AMERICORPS, where he found himself at the Urban Grace Church, in downtown Tacoma. There, he was involved in community outreach programs in support of the church mission.
Around the same time fate stepped in, leading to where Clark finds himself today. A friend from church asked him to give them piano lessons. Eventually, this developed into a mobile teaching business with over five students and Clark traveling to homes for instruction.
Still, within his term with AMERICORPS at Urban Grace, he realized the need to have a home base for his musical teachings. He was fortunate to rent incredible office space from within the building, resulting in the first official Music Lab. “I never thought I’d be directing a music school,” he says. “That happened purely by accident but I found that I really loved it.”
Things really started to grow as he developed a website, marketing strategies and researched the potential for growth. He refined his vision for a music school that, not only allowed him to teach but gave other teachers the opportunity to instruct. He was hopeful this could allow for a chamber music program, one of his great loves and not usually a thing for kids.
As he set out to expand, Clark realized he’d outgrown his current location and needed a larger lab.
Today, the Music Lab is located in a 2,000 square foot space. There is a very large and open room, as well as four individual workspaces. It employs five teachers and covers everything from piano, percussion, and composition, to guitar, violin, viola, songwriting, music production, and voice lessons.
On the foundation that one does not have to have talent to flourish within musical pursuits, students thrive in an environment where they can grow at their own pace and enjoy music recreationally. “I think talent equates to interest,” says Clark. “In a practical sense, it means, that student is going to practice because they want to. I want people here to feel that music is just another skill that is open to them.”
Teaching self-discipline in a world of instant electronic gratification can be challenging, but Clark teaches his students that these things take time, and most of all, he believes in them. It can be rigorous, students are expected to work hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. “I expect you to work when you’re here because I know that you can,” he says. “I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t believe you could do it.”
There’s even a ‘Sonata Society,’ a three-night per week open hour of practice time allowing for more focus and fewer distractions. Students can reserve practice rooms at the lab, with teachers available for guidance when needed.
Through collaborative and very hands-on learning approaches, Clark has created a musical community within the walls of the school. “It’s like a little eco-system,” he says. “I’m teaching in one room. I can hear guitar lessons in another and violin in the next room — all this crazy, beautiful noise. There is a wonderful mix of parents and students coming and going, talking to one another and friendships forming. It’s very inspiring and motivating.”
Fortunately, The Music Lab was able to maintain its ground through COVID-19, due to the ability to continue to offer lessons online. The school remains dedicated to safety, following all government mandates and face covering requirements. The large space allows plenty of room for social distancing, as in-person lessons resumed during phase 2.
In the future, The Music Lab hopes to offer week-long music exploration camps, a musical theater program and is currently working on a preschool curriculum for learning the fundamentals of music through games and play.
Like the great mentors before him, Clark has become one himself. Though he may not know it yet, he has become the interesting music character in the lives of others.
7304 Lakewood Drive W.