Francis Graffeo: playing a new tune

Beth KinnaneGet Up & Go, Inside 640

Among the many things the COVID-19 pandemic has proven is that human beings were made for innovation. The past 10 months have seen one postponement after another along with the migration of activities to virtual platforms in order to continue on.

That paradigm shift came to Knoxville’s Joy of Music School just as readily as it came to all area non-profits. But executive director Francis Graffeo said that, all things considered, staff and students have handled the adjustments with aplomb.

Francis Graffeo

“We had to change our model on the fly and get all of our lessons moved to Zoom,” he said, noting that the organization’s volunteer teachers were the ‘biggest surprise” in terms of how readily they adapted to the challenge of using this now essential technology.

The greater challenge was ensuring students had what they needed to continue participating.

“We really ended up facing a curve with some of the kids and their families. Our classes are free to lower income kids,” Graffeo said. “In some cases, the only device available might be one parent’s cell phone. So, we had to get students trained up as well.”

The Joy of Music of School was founded in 1998 by the legendary Jim Dick, who started WIVK radio and saved the Tennessee Theatre from destruction. That’s severely short-listing his contributions to Knoxville and East Tennessee, but among his enduring legacies is this school that provides free instruments and musical instruction to children from lower income brackets.

“These are not the kids whose parents can afford to send them to private lessons,” Graffeo said. “Jim Dick was a visionary in making this happen for them.”

While it took a minute to clear the technology hurdle, morphing into the world of virtual instruction opened other avenues for the school.

“As we moved online, it allowed us to accept teachers that don’t live in Tennessee,” Graffeo said. “We’re going to continue expanding the nationwide footprint. There’s no reason not to.”

Finding fresh approaches is nothing new to Graffeo, though. He first came to Knoxville as the general director of the Knoxville Opera from 2000 to 2005. He founded the popular Rossini Festival, which earned him the Opera America Bravo! Success Award. He has been the executive director of the school since 2005 just as it moved to its permanent location on Euclid Avenue.

“Among the many hats I wear, I’m also a landlord,” he said with a laugh. But the blessing of that job, he added, is that the building is paid for and the leased spaces do help bring in some money for the school. Not having rent or a mortgage to pay has been helpful in a year when fundraising has proved a challenge.

“Our biggest fundraiser is a holiday ball and auction at Cherokee Country Club, which we obviously couldn’t do this year due to Covid,” he said. “So, we moved it to an online event stretched over several days. Overall, it went pretty well, but not exactly without a hitch. But we learned some things if we have to do it again this year.”

Go here to learn more about the Joy of Music School or to make a donation.

Beth Kinnane is community editor for

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