This is part of our series, “Banking on Change,” which showcases local entrepreneurs who are creating a positive impact in their community. The series spotlights one local business each month. Above illustration: Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West by Justine Lecouffe.
Braxton Haulcy understands that music can do more than make people dance.
The executive director of St. Paul’s Walker|West Music Academy was a struggling student in elementary school. But after starting piano lessons, his schoolwork improved. He attributes the positive change to taking up the instrument.
“My testimony is that I was a D and F student when I was in the second grade. They held me back and talked with my mom about it,” said Haulcy. “I enrolled in piano and my grades went from Ds and Fs to As. The way I look at things is that whenever you practice music, it’s like going to the gym. It’s a brain workout.”
It’s fitting then that Haulcy is now at the helm of Walker|West Music Academy, a post he calls the “best job I’ve ever had.”
Walker|West has been providing music lessons and programming for kids since it was founded by Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West in 1988. The nonprofit is located on Selby Avenue in what was St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, which was demolished in the 1950s and 60s when Interstate 94 was constructed. Walker and West started the academy to help revitalize a neighborhood in need of healing by offering affordable music lessons to local kids.
Walker|West has nearly 30 instructors and serves 230 students a week, offering lessons in everything from classical string instruments to jazz improvisation to digital music production. Once focused on K-12 instruction only, Walker|West now has programming for students of all ages. The academy also hosts concerts and camps for youngsters as well as a dementia-friendly choir. Haulcy describes the organization as offering “life-long learning.”
Walker|West Music Academy Marketing Team Lead Genesia Williams emphasizes the fact that Walker|West is more than just a music academy for students and staff alike.
“It feels like community. It feels like home,” she said. “It’s the feeling a lot of people would describe when walking into a church. There’s a feeling that you get when you’re in a space that you can be seen and heard, and you can be cared for. That is the thing that stands out to me.”
Haulcy calls his experience with Walker|West “spiritual.”
“The instructors care. It’s more than just a 30-minute lesson. It’s ‘How are you doing in school? How are things going with the family?’” he said. “We want to engage more, and we want to touch more on the social and emotional piece of the student and bring them into the Walker|West family and village.”
Walker|West has produced award-winning artists, including Prince proteges WE ARE KING and Nikki Jean, a singer-songwriter who has toured with Kanye West and Rihanna. But at the end of the day, both Williams and Haulcy stress that it’s not about creating Grammy winners, but instead successful human beings.
“We know that music heals and music supports academic success. There are life skills that you learn from taking music lessons,” said Haulcy. “You learn how to have tenacity, confidence, you have to learn about teamwork – those are life skills that are indispensable.”
Walker|West is ahead of pre-covid enrollment levels and Haulcy said the ability to provide remote lessons has greatly increased the academy’s reach. Grant West now has students based in Portland, Ore., Dallas, Texas, and Atlanta, Ga.
The organization is in the early phases of a new three-year capital campaign, part of which includes fundraising efforts for more physical space as Walker|West continues to grow. The plan also calls for an investment to upgrade the academy’s technology in order to continue supporting remote lessons. Haulcy calls the plan a “transformation.” The campaign would expand programming for seniors and kids alike.
Helping to build momentum for Walker|West's bold vision for the future is the recent #MNCulturalTreasures award in late spring. 10 BIPOC-led arts organizations in Minnesota were awarded multi-year unrestricted funding made possible by a collaboration of the McKnight, Ford, Bush and Jerome Foundations. This award is the first of its kind for the academy, bringing lots of hope for work ahead.
“Learning music helps folks in all stages of their lives,” said Williams. “That’s really what this work is about – it’s about helping communities and giving people access to something that we all love (music) and can learn.”
Find more about how you can support the academy here. Interested in taking up an instrument? Try a free trial lesson through Walker|West.