The Song Leader

At the undergraduate and graduate commencement this past spring, the person in full academic regalia chosen to “lead the singing” of the Brenau University alma mater and the university’s praise anthem was 27-year-old Gabriel Lopez, BU ’14.

Lopez believes in providing a compressed term of intense training, even in the music theory he once hated, for all age groups. And it is working as the bustling school gains new pupils every term.

Ironically, a sixth-grade music theory class almost derailed Lopez’s long journey to a musical performance degree from Brenau. After that class, he said with a hearty laugh, “I never wanted to take music again.”

However, he comes from a family of church pastors and leaders who regard music as a central component of the worship experience and it was not too long before the frustrated 13-year-old was back on the musical horse again. ”Music,” he said succinctly, “is my life.”

By the time he reached his early teens, Lopez already played drums in ministries his father led at Sugar Hill United Methodist Church in Buford, Georgia and Oakwood United Methodist Church. When the keyboard player left the church, he moved from drums to the keyboard.

“That’s the way it is when you’re the pastor’s son,” he said. “Someone can’t be there and it’s like, ‘OK, the pastor’s kid will fill in.’ I can do the basics on all the instruments, but I’d rather sing than play instruments.”

As if that were not practical experience enough, Lopez – serving as youth pastor in Hispanic ministries headed by his father, grandfather and uncle – began to see the need to have a place for music training, especially in the church community. But where could he gain practical experience delivering the kind of intensive short-term weekly training he envisioned? For Lopez, the answer to the question was to start his own business. In March 2013 while he was still a Brenau student, Lopez opened Passion Music Institute in Gainesville, Georgia, a school designed to help people of all ages embrace their love of music. The school offers classes for those 3 years old and up in voice and choir, piano, bass, drums, acoustic and electric guitar and, yes, even music theory. Classes typically run an hour each Saturday for a four-month period.

During a winter break in college, Lopez held a five-day music camp at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but was happily surprised when 40 students signed up for the camp. By the time the second semester rolled around, the school had enrolled more than 100 pupils.

In December, the school opened its doors at a small strip shopping center across from Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville – and just a few doors down from Iglesia Cielos Abiertos, the non-denominational church started by his father. Separating church from school, Lopez said anyone can enroll in classes, regardless of religious affiliation – and regardless of the level of previous musical training or experience. All students audition so that Lopez and his other teachers can learn their skill levels and place them in classes with other students with similar skills.

Although he readily asserts that his business sprung from his religious background and provides a service to those who participate in church music programs, the separation was important. “There are different styles of worship and belief,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone who might have an interest in learning more about music to be uncomfortable coming into an unfamiliar church.”

Classes are always small, and a portion of each session is given to individual instruction and tutoring. The facility includes a couple of studios in which students can make recordings of their music.

“It was obvious Gabe had a passion for music and teaching others,” said Bobby Ivey, an assistant professor of music at Brenau who was one of Lopez’s teachers. “Opening the music school was the perfect application of his gifts.”

Blended Experience

Lopez said that when he was younger he was not confident that he could make a living with music, so he considered many other options with the idea of keeping his music as something he did on the side. However, Lopez reflects now that each of his experiences, no matter how short-lived, helped to prepare him in some way for his decision to start Passion Music Institute. His childhood of playing in church bands gave him the musical start he needed. A year of intensive Bible training taught Lopez how to be a teacher. When college came around, he considered studying animation. He took business classes at the University of North Georgia, briefly studied audio engineering and technical production and then decided on clinical psychology. His business classes and two years working at the ESL Institute in Venezuela, which taught English as a second language to native Spanish speakers, gave Lopez the skills he sought to run a business.

“After my time in Venezuela, I was thinking that I can actually make it work,” he said, referring to his goal of starting a music school. “I was able to learn everything there. If a sales person was out, I’d have to sell. If someone needed to answer the phone, I’d answer it.”

Lopez, however, lays significant credit on the doorstep of the Brenau music program and its focus on education that one can use in life for giving him the final push he needed to go forward with his plans. A fair-but-demanding faculty helps students learn their crafts and understand the real-world implications of their studies. You succeed at Brenau, he said, when you accept that you are pushed and challenged for a reason.

“The Brenau program is tough, but it’s really good. Every single thing I’ve done at Brenau has helped me. Every single thing. I take something I learn in the morning and apply it here in the afternoon.”

2014 Undergraduate and Graduate Commencement
Gabriel Lopez sings the National Anthem during this year’s undergraduate and graduate commencement ceremony.

In addition to the university helping Lopez become a better business operator, Ivey said he believes operating the business helped Lopez become a better student.

“When Gabriel began teaching music at his school, he quickly discovered the importance of all we were teaching him at Brenau,” Ivey said. “There was a reason he needed to study voice, piano, music theory and music history because he found himself applying this knowledge every day.”

Brenau’s faculty, Lopez added, “are not playing with you. They want what’s best for you, and they have a passion for what they do. They teach us not to ever give up, that you will find what you’re looking for if you just keep going. That is advice from people who have been doing this for years. That’s been priceless.”

Lopez wants the school to grow. He has plans to improve the kid-friendly nature of Passion Music Institute and grow the enrollment in Gainesville. Yet even as he does that, he has an eye to expanding, first locally – perhaps into Gwinnett County – and then internationally to such locales at Puerto Rico and Guatemala.

In September, he’s going on a mission trip to Haiti, primarily to bring food and other relief items.

“But I hope I can teach music to some kids. That would be a great extension of what we are doing here.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article in the print version of the magazine erroneously reported that Lopez led singing at both the May 2 and May 3 commencement ceremonies. He led singing at the May 3 ceremony. 



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