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Hope Holmberg/MEDILL

Skip Landt teaches a harmonica class for beginners on Wednesday afternoon at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s new location, which opened in January.

No hills, but school’s new facility is alive with the sound of music

by Hope Holmberg
April 05, 2012

When Karen Banks-Lubicz started as a Wiggle Worms instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music, she was one of 20.
Now, 13 years later, there are 45 – proof that the visual and performing arts education center has outstripped the quarters it moved to the last time it needed to grow, 15 years ago.
Wiggle Worms is a program at the school for babies and toddlers. With babies and toddlers come mothers and strollers.
In the school’s new space, an additional building across the street from its current site at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., that’s not a problem.
“There is a room big enough for stroller parking, which, for Wiggle Worms is a big deal,” Banks-Lubicz said.
But don’t get the idea the growth has just been among the wee ones. Bau Graves, the school’s executive director, said, everything has been growing.
“There’s not really any particular group that came in and made everything crowded,” he said. “It’s all the groups.”
For each of the past five years the school has set new attendance records, Graves said.
“It’s really been an exciting time in the life of the school,” he said.
Graves said that demand for their services than they have been able to satisfy. The expansion has allowed them to explore new ideas and expand into different class areas.

Melissa Flynn, executive director for the Chamber of Commerce in Lincoln Square, said there is a generational mix in the neighborhood.

Flynn said there are many families in the neighborhood, and she also knows some families whose parents have retired and decided to move into the neighborhood.

Flynn said they have heard very positive feedback about the new building and that she considers parking concerns in that area to be a neighborhood wide issue, not an issue directly related to the school.

“We are thrilled to have them call Lincoln Square their home,” Flynn said.

Since the lot was vacant before the school decided to expand, Flynn said people are very happy to see that area come alive again.

“It just adds a whole new life to that block,” Flynn said.

According to the school’s website, the new building has three large dance studios, 17 acoustically-engineered classrooms, and a 150-seat dance hall. Graves said the new building has made it possible for them to take the loudest classes, like Irish Step Dancing, and move them over into the new space.

One of the weekend events that began with the completion of the expansion project is the Global Dance Party series, which focuses on a different dancing style each Friday night. The room holds 186 people and has been selling out almost every week, Graves said.

Graves said they had a lot of support from the community regarding the expansion project.

“We do our best to be a good citizen in the neighborhood and we hope we are providing a service that people are interested in,” Graves said.

Greg Hynes, 29, a supervisor at the Starbucks store a few doors down from the new building, said he has noticed more people walking around with guitars.

Hynes, a Lincoln Square resident who has worked at the Starbucks store in Lincoln Square for five years, said they have been busier this spring than they were last spring.

“Every day we experience an Old Town rush,” Hynes said.

Hynes said he feels the Starbucks has been affected positively by the expansion.

“I think it’s a very symbiotic relationship with them,” Hynes said.

Emily Sibert, a manager at the Bad Dog Tavern, located at 4535 N. Lincoln Ave., said they have been getting more business on weekends when shows take place at the school’s new building.

“I think it’s just easier to walk down here,” Sibert said. “I also don’t know if we’re losing business because people don’t know where to park.”

One retired contractor who lives about 10 blocks away from the school, Dave Smith, 62, said he has not noticed extra people on the street yet.

“I think it’s the same,” he said of parking availability.

Smith has been utilizing the school for about 15 years, and his kids have taken classes there as well.

“It’s a place for great musicians to teach and pass on their knowledge of not just folk music but music from all over the world,” Smith said.

Skip Landt, a long-time harmonica teacher at the school, conducted an open jam session on Wednesday afternoon in the lobby of the new building. The room was filled with people playing guitars, harmonicas, a fiddle, a mandolin and banjos.

Landt said when he started the jam sessions in 2008, eight or 10 of the same people would show up every time, but now it’s normal to see between 20 or 30 people show up, depending on the week.

“We want people to know what it’s like and how much fun it is to have music as a part of your life,” Landt said.