By Nick Walden
Correspondent, The Press-Democrat
Music has been the driving passion in the lives of Aja Gianola-Norris and husband Dan Gianola-Norris, 34. But for the past seven years they have focused on sharing the love at Music to My Ears in Cotati.
The school turns 7 this month, but the couple’s story begins when they were 15. Dan was from Tomales and played trumpet. Aja was from Rohnert Park and played harp. They were participating in a weekend retreat for the Santa Rosa Youth Symphony at Camp Meeker in Occidental.
A brief romance was ignited, lasting a few weeks to two months, depending on which partner is asked. A few years later, their paths crossed again at Cal State East Bay (then known as Cal State Hayward).
“She followed me there because she wanted to marry me,” joked Dan.
Aja earned a bachelor of arts degree in voice and harp, Dan in trumpet. They moved to Baltimore so Dan could work toward his master’s degree in music at the Peabody Conservatory at John Hopkins University, and while they were there they came across a musical education center unlike anything they had seen in Sonoma County.
Rather than working out of a music store or rented rehearsal rooms, “it had dedicated areas for musical development with multiple teachers under one roof,” said Aja.
After Dan finished at Johns Hopkins, they moved back to Sonoma County so quickly that he missed graduation in order to work with the West Bay Opera in Palo Alto. He made ends meet by performing and going house to house giving music lessons.
“You really can’t teach trumpet in an apartment,” he explained.
By 2006 they were ready to start their own business, modeled on the musical education center in Baltimore. They found a shopping center space west of Highway 101 with a large open area and six instruction rooms, and started recruiting students and teachers.
“We lease the building and have two staff members who handle administrative duties,” said Aja. “All of the teachers are independent contractors.”
“It caught on pretty fast,” she said. “We started with 12 students, and after six months we had tripled that number.”
At the end of the year they had 75-100, and now have 16 regular instructors giving weekly lessons to 155 students.
Music to My Ears instructors can teach a total of 18 instruments, including the basics like guitar, flute, clarinet, drums and cello as well as euphonium, ukulele, harp and digeridoo. They also lead organized trumpet ensembles, children’s and teen choruses and musical theater groups.
And in the summer they offer Itty-Bitty Broadway programs for kids ages 2-18 that culminate in performances of a musical.
This year, 93 students are enrolled, with kids 6-18 working on two separate performances of Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” one for younger members and another for older ones.
Similar to summer camps, the program takes students through eight weeks of instruction that includes costumes, makeup, sets, lights and, of course, performing. They will perform four shows July 26-28 at the Sonoma Academy campus in Santa Rosa. Tickets are $15, $10 for kids, and can be purchased by calling Music to My Ears, 664-0123.
“It is the biggest show we have done,” said Aja, giving the credit to a Groupon campaign.
“We have students from all over,” said Dan, “as far away as Cloverdale along with Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and other towns around the county.”
They offer instruction to anyone and have students as young as age 4, as well as adults.
“It is really great. You have adults that are successful in their careers and they come in because they have always wanted to learn an instrument. Then they have all of this energy and passion that they pour into it,” Dan said.
The couple is involved with music within the community, working with the Rohnert Park-Cotati Children’s Chorus and performing at events like the Kid’s Day Parade in Cotati and the Cotati Tree Lighting.
“There is really no other program like this,” said Dan. Instructors often rent space for their lessons or travel to homes as he once did.
“The downside is that as a teacher you are worried about getting to the lesson, if they will be there, are you going to get paid, and other things that aren’t related to the actual teaching,” he said.
“Here we have everything under one roof,” Aja added. The office handles appointments, billing and other administrative tasks. “That leaves the teachers just focusing on teaching, which allows music to happen and better connections with students.”
Dan still plays classical music with the San Francisco Golden Gate Park Band and the Santa Rosa Symphony. He also performed to sold-out audiences in “Carmen” at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
Aja’s passion is singing in musicals, “although I have hardly done that in the last 10 years,” she said. “My biggest gig is being a mommy,” with a young son at home and a daughter due this summer.