Moving Music

After 100 years and thousands of lessons, MacPhail Center for Music finally gets a home equal to its impact

Click here to see more images of the MacPhail Center model.

FOR MUCH OF THE DAY, the corner of LaSalle and 12th streets in downtown Minneapolis sounds like any other urban streetscape. But by afternoon, bursts of cello and piano, drumming and singing drift down to the sidewalk from the open windows of an old brick building. The churning is like that of an orchestra tuning up, with so many random snippets—Handel here, jazz there, rock kicking through the brick walls—that you wonder how many musicians could possibly be inside. Thirty? Forty? A hundred?

In fact, every night some 550 students pass through the building that has housed MacPhail Center for Music since 1922. They take lessons on 35 different instruments from some of the Twin Cities’ best-known musicians, including pianist Nachito Herrera, trumpeter Kelly Rossum, former Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra cellist Peter Howard, and rockers Chris Osgood and Chan Poling. MacPhail is one of the largest music-education centers in the country. And that’s exactly the problem. The building, designed to house retail in case the music school failed, is now overflowing.

The center has opened branches in Apple Valley and White Bear Lake, and holds some classes in the basement of a neighboring building, next to the kitchen of Temple restaurant. (When Tiburón occupied the restaurant space, its shark tanks leaked into the music rooms.) But space isn’t the only problem. The 85-year-old building has never been significantly upgraded (it lacks even air conditioning). For nearly six years, MacPhail directors worked with some of the area’s top architects to conceive a new building, but none of the designs seemed to capture their vision of a space that is not just a school—corridors of classrooms sealed up like a junior high—but a true center for artistry. Something that would say: This is where music is made.

The new MacPhail, rising on the riverfront near the Guthrie Theater, was designed by James Dayton, a Frank Gehry protégé (and fifth-generation scion of the department-store family). When it opens to the public the first week of January, the sleek, silvery space will not only feature many more music studios for lessons—56 of them, stocked with 90 pianos—but a couple of things the teachers currently go without, such as phones and computers.

Courtesy of James Dayton Design

A state-of-the-art performance hall will seat 225 listeners; an outdoor plaza will invite passersby to linger for summer shows. Speakers will broadcast songs from an exterior performance courtyard, tempting the curious to venture outside. The studios, which are partially soundproofed, are designed so that some ambient sound leaks out. Jazz and rock classes will be held in a glass-walled penthouse studio. Great marketing, maybe, but also a signal that MacPhail is more than a school—it’s a venue, a magnet for master classes, as much a part of the city’s artistic fabric as Orchestra Hall.

MacPhail president David O’Fallon hopes the new building will demonstrate that MacPhail’s classes aren’t just for the rich, or even the musically gifted. That its students include not only prodigies primping for conservatories but also adults rediscovering the cello they stashed after high school. “The perception that we still run into is that it’s for a few talented kids, and probably just for piano and violin,” says O’Fallon. Dayton, who also designed the new Minnetonka Center for the Arts and is the local architect executing Gehry’s plans for the Weisman Museum addition, says MacPhail’s current facility kept its work under wraps. “You could walk around the outside and not have a clue as to what’s going on inside,” he says. “This is like taking a Fabergé egg and splitting it open.”

MacPhail began as a violin school in 1907, founded by a former member of the Minneapolis Symphony. By the time Lawrence Welk attended in 1927 (presumably for accordion lessons), it was the MacPhail School of Music and Dramatic Arts—the “Juilliard of the Midwest.” It offered classes in music and speech—longtime WCCO reporter Bill Carlson and actress Helen Hayes were MacPhail speech students. Instructors taught theater and radio-announcing. There was even a class on bird-calling.

When William S. MacPhail died in 1962, his family donated the school to the University of Minnesota, which dumped everything but the music component and ran it as part of its continuing-education program. In 1994, when the U cut MacPhail loose, it became an independent nonprofit, concentrating on widening its reach without courting thespians or ornithologists. Just music—for everyone.


In the past few years, MacPhail has doubled the amount of financial aid it offers to individual students. Its community partnerships, providing musical training in schools and other organizations, have increased from 18 to 48. MacPhail’s programs now extend from Thief River Falls to Blue Earth, with more than 70 percent of the school students qualifying for subsidized lunches. For the Ascension School, a Catholic academy in north Minneapolis, MacPhail essentially is the music program—students are bused in weekly to the center for classes.

MacPhail’s recent growth correlates with cuts in funding for the arts in public schools. MacPhail senior vice president Paul Babcock, who has overseen the center’s outreach, acknowledges that the center is taking on kids whose parents want more and better training than the schools can give. But he believes there is nothing wrong, and everything right, in simply wanting the best musical education available. “We’ve had parents tell us that the progress with their neighborhood teacher wasn’t what they wanted,” he says. “MacPhail took something that was just okay and made it great.”

On a typical weeknight, the small studios lining the MacPhail Center’s four levels are a honeycomb of harmony (if everyone’s been practicing), a hive of industriousness that speaks to the idea that musicians aren’t born, they’re made.
Two pianos are crammed into Nachito Herrera’s studio, one occupied by a teenager with shaggy blond hair and an affection for the pop music of the 1970s. Herrera corrects the student’s fingerings then suggests some practice pieces. He still runs through similar exercises two or three hours a day. “Everything that’s been useful for me, I give to them,” he says.

As soon as the teen’s time is up, the next student enters: an older man in wingtip shoes who is a fan of Chopin and other Romantic-era composers. MacPhail’s 160 instructors work with whatever material the students are interested in pursuing. The teacher’s job is simply to spur progress.

Courtesy of James Dayton Design

“You can’t teach if you believe musical talent is like alchemy or that [people are] born with it,” says Andrea Leap, a vocal instructor and professional cabaret, operetta, and musical-theater performer. “The goal is to take any given student and move him toward his path. If someone brings in an accordion and wants to sing ‘La Vie en Rose,’ I have to do that, and also do Bach and Handel. I’m inspired by colleagues who believe that mastery of music is soul-nourishing in some way and is accessible to everyone—an unremitting faith that music is redemptive.”

About a quarter of Leap’s students are adults (nationally, the fastest-growing group of music students is aged 25 to 45). Among them is a Guthrie actor who is up for a singing part, a 60-year-old Jewish woman researching Yiddish theater music, and yes, a female accordionist who wants to learn Edith Piaf songs. But the majority are teenagers, some working toward auditions for college music programs, others pushed into class by their parents (the latter, Leap says, “don’t last long”).

The fact that these students of different interests and abilities meet delights Babcock, who believes strongly in the social significance of performing together, of sharing an ancient tradition. That’s why he has expanded the center’s music-therapy classes, in which developmentally disabled kids play simple instruments. It’s also why MacPhail’s youth programs are offered practically in utero—parents bring children as young as six weeks to a class of lullabies, bouncing games, and massages.

Ultimately, music is a sort of sounding board, Babcock believes—a true measure of oneself. “Music is completely honest with you,” he says. “You only sound like what you sound like. It’s brutally honest and there’s something nice about that.” Of course, what one hears is sometimes not so nice, and students may eventually step away from the tuba or the trumpet, never to honk again. But they’ve experienced music firsthand, and that’s good for them and good for the community.

“People are much more prone to becoming patrons and audiences for the arts if they themselves have engaged in the arts, not just gotten bused to a concert,” says O’Fallon. MacPhail’s legions of students, in other words, may well be enabling the growth of the area’s arts community. With the new building, the spotlight will be on them for a change.

Click here to see more pictures of the MacPhail Center model.

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.