Braxton Haulcy likes to tell the story of how music changed his life. “I was a ‘D’ and ‘F’ student in second grade,” he said. When his mother got him started in piano lessons, his grades improved to A’s. Music, he said, helped him focus, become a successful student and enjoy a long career as an executive.

In 2018 Haulcy became executive director of Walker West Music Academy, a fixture in the Summit-University neighborhood for the past 34 years. Over the past four years, he has greatly expanded its mission of teaching musical performance to children.

Through an array of partnerships and with an ambitious strategic plan, Walker West has grown to include programs for students of all ages—everything from music to stimulate preschoolers’ developing brains to digital music production to a dementia chorus that exercises its elderly members’ recall of songs from their past.

Walker West cofounders Grant West (left) and the Reverend Carl Walker (right) posed last June with executive director Braxton Haulcy and students Jay Marr, 15, and Josiah Walker, 14, at the music academy. Photo by Brad Stauffer

In the process, the Music Academy has outgrown its space at 760 Selby Ave. It needs to move before its lease expires in 2023. Walker West is now conducting a capital campaign in hopes of moving to larger quarters. The campaign aims to raise $5.4 million for a building and $4.7 million for new programming needs.

As part of that campaign, Walker West is seeking $5.4 million from the Minnesota Legislature to purchase and renovate the former Amherst H. Wilder Foundation building at 650 Marshall Ave. The appropriation bill was introduced by state Representative Rena Moran (DFL-District 65A), and it is now making its way through the House committee process.

 

Haulcy said it is important for Walker West to remain in the Summit-University neighborhood and continue its involvement in such local activities as the annual Selby Avenue Jazz Fest and the occasional performances at neighborhood venues. “We’re rooted in this community,” he said.

The Wilder building on Marshall offers several advantages, according to Haulcy. It would increase Walker West’s space from 6,000 to 16,000 square feet, including 3,000 square feet for instrument storage. The new facility offers improved rehearsal spaces and a larger performance space. Plans call for greatly upgraded technology as well as better soundproofing.

 

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Walker West was looking for larger quarters when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Recitals were getting crowded. Instrument storage was overflowing. The lack of a recording studio on the premises was presenting challenges. And the pandemic only added to the space crunch with the need for social distancing. Rooms were reconfigured, desks were moved into hallways, and offices were turned into classrooms. Programming moved online.

The virtual lessons and performances at Walker West will continue for the foreseeable future, but there is a growing demand on in-person space. The music academy has reached its capacity on Selby with 230 students attending classes each week and 5,700 participating in programs annually. The academy has about two dozen instructors.

Walker West’s Selby facility has other shortcomings. Outside, there is no designated parking or drop-off and pickup areas, creating hazards for students and concert-goers. “It’s a dangerous situation,” Haulcy said.

The Wilder building on Marshall offers several advantages, according to Haulcy. It would increase Walker West’s space from 6,000 to 16,000 square feet, including 3,000 square feet for instrument storage. “We have to turn down instrument donations now,” he said. The new facility offers improved rehearsal spaces and a larger performance space. Plans call for greatly upgraded technology as well as better soundproofing.

According to the academy’s website, Walker West was founded in 1988 when Grant West and the Reverend Carl Walker joined forces to provide piano instruction to children. With one rented piano in the upstairs of a duplex, the founders pursued a vision that went well beyond teaching music.

“The idea was to build a safe place where neighborhood children could pursue something positive and life-affirming,” Walker West states on the website. “We were teaching piano and building self-confidence in children who often didn’t have many people encouraging their success.”

Several months ago, Wilder Foundation moved its healthy aging and caregiving services from the Marshall building to Frogtown. Walker West used the building last summer for its music camps and gained an appreciation for what the building could mean for the academy.

The sale of the Marshall building is proceeding, with action by the Wilder board expected in mid-April. In the meantime, Walker West is lining up interim financing. Haulcy expects it will take about 60 days to close on the purchase. Renovation would then begin.

“We’re in communications with Walker West about their interest in the building,” said Wilder spokesperson Andrew Brown. “We’re excited about the building’s potential to be a place where the community can continue to gather.”

— Jane McClure

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