DREAM TEAM: Members of the camp's organizing committee going over the details; (inset) Small with music student Eoin Conroy.
Though it’s drizzling steadily, piano chords can clearly be heard as we turn into the first property on the left on Paddington Terrace – the Avant Academy of Music – where, for the past five years, musical maestro Seretse Small and a dedicated team of like-minded instructors have been unearthing and nurturing talents of all ages.
Apart from offering instrument and voice lessons (private one-on-one classes), Avant specializes in developing course material to meets the specific needs of their Jamaican clients. Now, according to Small, the school is about to widen its reach by adding certification in musical theatre to its curriculum. Symbolizing a laudable achievement for the small St. Andrew-based academy, the new programme is a collaboration with the prestigious London College of Music – one of the most venerable colleges of its kind in the UK.
“We will be the representatives for the college here in Jamaica,” Small tells TALLAWAH. As he further explains, Avant will train and prepare the students, and the London College will send down judges for the examinations. “A lot of the persons who study voice with us, mainly want to perform. So with this new programme, a lot of the focus will be on equipping them with skills for the stage.”
To get the ball rolling, Avant is hosting a summer camp at the more spacious Shortwood Teachers’ College, August 8-26. Half and full scholarships are being made available to a select number of participants who sign up. To ensure that the participants receive first-rate training, Small has tapped Neisha Yen-Jones and Tisha Duncan, two multi-hyphenate performers with Broadway and West End experience, to lead a full team, serving as “the driving force” behind the camp. “We want to give them real Broadway-type skills: how to audition, how to command the stage. The aim is to develop the talents,” Small says, looking forward to a successful inaugural staging.
So, too, is Duncan. “I’m glad a programme like this is being instituted to give participants a wide-ranging experience, where they can gain skills, learn discipline and build their work ethic,” she tells TALLAWAH, calling by telephone. “I’m glad that Seretse has chosen to do something like this. And working with an accredited institution like the London School of Music, it will give you actual certification, something you can take to auditions, to workshops. You can take it wherever you want.”
Members of the public will get a taste of what went on at the camp, when the participants and organizers team up for a live show, to bring the curtains down on the camp. The 4-11 age group (which Small dubs the ‘Broadway Babies’) will mount a production of the beloved musical Annie, while the 12-18+ (and adults) group will deliver their take on Beauty and the Beast.
Like any young institution, the Avant Academy has had its growing pains to contend with. Pulling in between 86 and 100 students per term (a mix of the Campion/AISK crowd, retirees, and professionals with recording contracts), it’s a growing business looking to effectively deal with its economic challenges.
At the moment, filming is in full swing for their appearance on the new season of the business-based reality series The Innovators, and plans are afoot to find more spacious accommodations. It’s all part of a five-year plan. “We’re going to need a bigger space because we’re growing and developing our own programmes now,” says Small, who predicts that in the near future, Avant will be offering locally created tertiary-level programmes. “We’ll be using Shortwood Teachers’ College for this camp, and we’re grateful for the partnership. But I’d really like to find a property to purchase that will better facilitate our expanding programmes.”
> BOOK SHELF: We came across some cool titles at Avant Academy, including The History of Jazz and The Music Teacher’s Survival Guide.