+ By Brenda Wintrode + Photos by John Bildahl
Lee Priddy pops open a plastic container of blue ear plugs and holds it out like one would offer chewing gum. A sign in the live performance studio at Priddy Music Academy (PMA) recommends ear protection. Priddy is the owner of PMA, a school in Millersville where people of all ages can learn to play in a rock band. Go With The Flow, a rock band of four teenagers, three of whom are Priddy’s children, is setting up.
Lead guitarist and singer Max Pulone fastens the strap to the body of his new, cream-colored Fender electric that he bought with his own money. Priddy throws out a song suggestion: “Stevie Wonder?” Pulone offers his idol: “Maybe John Mayer?” “How about ‘The Spirit of Radio’?” asks Mackenzie Priddy, as she emulates Rush’s Geddy Lee on her bass. John and Andrew Lee stand ready at the keyboard and drums. They settle on Steely Dan’s “My Old School,” a song that showcases the technicality of each student. The well-known opening keyboard riff is played with confidence, especially for someone who has played the keyboard for only five years. The others chime in on cue. Drummer and bassist watch each other to keep the pulse tight. The singer croons, “I remember the 35 sweet goodbyes . . .” While none of the band members have been playing for more than five years, they execute the song with the precision of musicians many years their senior.
“If you close your eyes, you’d never know they’re teenagers,” says Priddy, who has been teaching guitar and voice since 1995. PMA’s eight teachers cover guitar, bass, piano, drums, vocals, and music theory, and encourage students to form rock bands, not just for competitions, but to play together for years and to be able to work as musicians. George Cowan teaches guitar and voice at PMA. He believes in teaching students about professionalism and teamwork. “They learn that other people are relying on them to know their stuff,” he says. “It’s about growing as a person, not just as a guitar player.”
Currently, PMA has 120 enrolled students. They comprise 20 to 30 bands, some of which perform in local venues and at Maryland festivals such as Naptown NerdFest, Annapolis Fringe Festival, and Eastport a Rockin’. Bay Music Festival chairman Twuan Oakes has hired PMA bands for that annual event two years running and praises their readiness to perform. “They were extremely well-prepared,” he says, “and they all had a great stage presence.”
The preparedness comes at Priddy’s confidence that his students can do it. He explains, “I have always wanted to have a music school, to nurture talent, and raise kids’ self esteem.” Trip Cahouet, one of Priddy’s former students and drummer for metal band Aura Awake, describes how Priddy encouraged him, at age 12, to play a Blink-182 song. Despite much self-doubt and after just a few weeks, Cahouet was nailing it. Priddy put Cahouet in a PMA band, mentored the group, and provided constructive criticism. “It was a great way to realize my confidence and explore a talent that I didn’t know I had,” says Cahouet.
Former PMA vocal student and songwriter Jillian Taylor will attend Berklee College of Music in Boston in January 2017. She describes the care and attention for each individual learner at PMA. “Every kid is a part of the family, is special, and is highlighted,” she says. “More than that, their weaknesses are tended to.”
In addition to investing the last two decades teaching young musicians, Priddy is an accomplished musician in his own right. He began playing professionally at 15. He later joined a band, The Melons, penning several of their songs and touring all over the Southeast. The band dissipated, as bands do, but not before Priddy and the bassist were discovered by a legendary Alabama recording house. “Roger Hawkins of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio offered to produce my music,” reports Priddy. After much soul-searching, Priddy decided not to pursue that business relationship. These days, he plays in Annapolis and the surrounding area with his band, The Lee Priddy Trio, and fills in with other groups.
“Lee is one of the best guitarists I have ever heard in 20, 30-plus years,” says Annapolis musician John Van Dyke. Van Dyke not only invites Priddy to gig with him but also has him teaching his son to play guitar, an instrument that Van Dyke plays professionally. “Lee just has that gift of being able to explain.”
Back in the PMA live performance studio, Go With The Flow is playing Prince’s “Kiss.” While Mackenzie Priddy slaps her bass, Pulone focuses on the guitar lead. Act your age, mama, not your shoe size, maybe we could do the twirl.
Years of working with students like these is rewarding for Priddy. He admits that it is much different than playing on stage. “It’s more of an opportunity to have an impact on someone. It’s an honor.” He listens intently to the band as he glances down at his phone. There is nothing for him to teach right now. The band is in high demand and rather independent. Pulone nails Prince’s high pitched, quick-strumming guitar solo, an impressive feat to the untrained observer, and a satisfying result for Priddy. While it’s just another day at the office, it fills him with gratitude. █