Melvin Davenport Jr. developed an interest
in playing the keyboard when he was 10 years old, perhaps inspired by his uncle who played the organ for Greater Little Rock The Lord Church.
It was an interest that his parents, Melvin Sr. and LaTonda Davenport, decided to fully nurture, seeing an opportunity to develop a talent they had discovered early on.
“I felt that practicing piano would be something Melvin could do to bring him out of his shell as he was a shy child,” said LaTonda. “Once my husband and I took him to the Dorolyn Academy of Music for the first time, I knew it would be an ideal fit for him to develop his talent.”
Young Melvin, now 13 and a seventh grader at Mark Skinner Elementary School, has been practicing piano regularly once a week ever since, and says that the school has been vital to encouraging his musical development.
“I have been practicing alongside my instructor Chris Terry,” said young Melvin. “He is very precise in how he sees performing music, but he is open also to allowing the performer dictate whether they want to experiment with the song’s form. He really trusts the pianists.”
Melvin, who resides in Austin, is one of 200 students currently attending Dorolyn Academy, 411 S. Blvd., which will celebrate its 27th anniversary with a special ceremony on Friday, Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m.
Opening in 1982, the academy was the brainchild of founder Dorothy Bounds, who collected $1,003 in funds to finance the start of the non-profit musical institute.
Bounds, who is a composer, educator, choral conductor and vocal coach, received her Masters of Arts Degree in Music Education in 1980 and sought to oversee the school, which would offer students tutoring in vocal training, piano, organ, trumpet and guitar.
Her primary goal upon opening the inaugural location at the intersection of Austin and Lake St. was to assure that it was affordable to all residents of the community regardless of economic status.
As a result, she set tuition at $5 per week.
“I wanted everyone to have a chance to explore their interest in music, not just those with unlimited means,” said Bounds.
The tuition was increased four years later to adjust to inflation. Currently the school offers classes for $75 per month, a price that LaTonda said is more than worth it, even during the recession.
“We invest in Melvin’s lessons, even if the cable bill has to be a little late,” she jokes. “Investing in his future is our top priority.”
In 1990, the school was relocated to its present location. The new building is a spacious 15,000 square feet and holds an auditorium that seats 350. The auditorium is key to allowing the academy to showcase its student performances in recitals and concerts.
Most of the students of the academy are between the ages of 10 and 30, although, as Bounds said, “We accept students from 5 to 105.”
The continued maintenance of the academy by its loyal staff of 15 and the support it has received from throughout Chicagoland are the reasons for its longevity, according to Bounds.
“We have never received a major government grant for operating the school,” she said, adding that most of the instructors are either volunteering or receiving modest salaries courtesy of stipends. “Nevertheless, it has been the dedicated work of the instructors and students that has made this work.”
Bounds said that the job of the academy is to both encourage the student to excel at their musical talent and to mentor them in overcoming their insecurities about potential failure.
“I have seen children come into the school not knowing whether they can sing or play an instrument in front of people and then contact me years later and tell me they are in a Broadway show,” said Bounds. “To have that type of impact on a young person’s life is the most rewarding part.”
This is certainly the case with Melvin, who plans to follow in the footsteps of his uncle and play the organ for the Little Rock Church, while attending his chosen high school, Whitney Young. In the distant future, he sees himself becoming a cardiologist.