Sticking Their Necks Out: The National Music Center?s Cassidy Bernhard shows off some of the facility?s equipment.
Sticking Their Necks Out: The National Music Center?s Cassidy Bernhard shows off some of the facility?s equipment. Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

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The National Music Center has some exciting programs lined up for the coming months in what used to be the City Museum of Washington, D.C. On the schedule are drumming classes, jazz classes, DJing classes—and a conference for defense contractors.

The music center isn’t gearing up for battle, just renting out space to pay the bills. Music, after all, sometimes takes improvisation, and the same is true for this particular piece of real estate.

The National Music Center is located at the Carnegie Library, former home of the City Museum, which isn’t big enough for all the facilities the Music Center’s champions originally wanted, such as a music museum, a 3,200-seat theater, and two concert halls. They thought the old convention center site would be a better fit, but D.C. Council rejected that idea in 2004. Two years later, after the City Museum closed, the city offered up the Carnegie Library. According to an agreement between the city and the D.C. Historical Society, the Music Center can stay in the building rent-free for three years as long as it covers maintenance costs like gas, utilities, cleaning, and security.

That’s no small thing. Marketing and Development Director Cassidy Bernhard says it costs about $50,000 a month to maintain the historic beaux-arts building built in 1903. And the music programs the center runs aren’t quite cutting it. So the center rents the building out for private parties and corporate functions.“We lean heavily on special events,” she says, adding that rocket scientists, debutantes, and “neurosurgeon musicians” have all partied under the center’s high ceilings.

But the special events are just one aspect of what’s going on at the Music Center these days; in June 2006, it opened the Gig, its music-programming arm. In an e-mail, Executive Director Jim Weaver calls the Gig a “Petri dish” for programs he hopes will one day be available at a full-fledged National Music Center and Museum. In the meantime, he says, the Gig is a “user-friendly, hands-on resource” offering music classes and equipment, on loan from the Yamaha Corporation of America and other manufacturers.
Classes at the Gig are held through partnerships with individuals and nonprofits, Weaver says. They’re advertised in newspapers, through Craigslist, and on MySpace, says Bernhard. This summer, the Gig will link up with the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, CityDance, and the Smithsonian Associates, among other groups, to offer classes that range from hip-hop dance to music training for teachers.

According to Weaver, “the Gig receives minimal fees [for most of these classes] that help defray the expense of keeping the building open.”
CityDance, for example, offers hip-hop and swing classes in a new studio at the building and pays the Gig rent. Jeff Antoniuk teaches Jazz Band Masterclass every Monday night, which he calls “an opportunity for adults to get together in a band setting and play music.” He holds two master-class sessions a week, with seven students in each class. The students pay $65 for a two-hour session. Antoniuk then pays the Gig $450 a month in rent. The Gig has also received grants from a variety of foundations.

Still, covering the building’s costs remains “a pretty big challenge,” Bernhard says. In fact, the building is so expensive, it can make offering affordable classes downright difficult, says Clark Sabine, the Gig’s audio-visual technician. Sabine, a local musician (he plays guitar in the band Statehood and bass in the band Andalusians), discovered the Gig through a friend a few months ago. He says he was attracted to the mission of the place, especially its emphasis on music education.

When Sabine first arrived at the Gig in February, he thought he would try to teach guitar lessons with Mike Shleibaum of the band Darkest Hour. “I thought, here’s a really popular guitar player from a really popular band,” he says of Shleibaum. “There was no way we could lose.” The center had already calculated how much it would cost to keep the building open during lessons, he says, so he advertised the classes at $250 per student for a five-week course. He posted ads in Washington City Paper and Craigslist. Between 10 and 20 people contacted him, but when they found out how expensive the classes were, he says, they “disappeared.”

Sabine suspects the price was too high. “Anyone can pay a guitar teacher to come to their house,” he says, and they can probably do so for less money. He thought, “Just to get somebody through the door, it can’t be this difficult.” Then he had another idea. He decided to transport some of the equipment to a small room and offer practice space to area musicians. Now, for $60, bands can rent a room and rock out for two hours in the old Carnegie Library. Sabine began advertising the practice space in mid-April. About six groups have responded, he says, and some musicians have reserved the room for multiple sessions.

The practice spaces have been a success, Sabine says, and that’s good, because, Bernhard says, “having basic programs is not going to pay the electric bill.” Weaver says the Gig has hosted about 120 special events with rates that are “competitive with comparable facilities in the city” and notes that “the fees for those events provide a large percentage of our current income.” This month, the Gig hosted an event for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. In April, the Gig rented out space for an event showcasing plans for the old convention center site, the very site the music center once hoped to call its own. On New Year’s Eve, the band Scythian hosted a masquerade ball in the Music Center. Rental rates depend on the room and the number of guests but range from $1,000 for the theater to $15,000 for the entire building and grounds. The rates include security and technical staff, Bernhard says.

Sabine still doesn’t understand why it’s so tough to get people to come to the Gig. Maybe it’s the Gig’s non-virtual location that’s the problem, he says, noting that a lot of music instruction is now available on personal computers. “They thought they could provide a place for people to learn in the digital age. But learning in the digital age is what that man is doing over there,” he says, pointing to someone hunched over a laptop in a coffee shop. “They’re not hauling their ass to some museum in D.C.” Or maybe, he says, it’s simpler than that. “Maybe the building’s cursed.” Whatever it is, “they’re trying like hell,” he says. “I really do feel they had a bum deal.”

Weaver calls the Gig an “evolutionary” endeavor. “It really is a big deal to have a start-up,” he says, adding that he hopes there will be “more and more” programs to come.

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