Freeway Music to cut ribbon Sept. 18 celebrating Blythewood location

Jonny Mondragon, manager of Doko Station restaurant; Ukulele student Mina White; guitar instructor Michael Atwater; Don Russo and his wife Sara Ann Russo. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – More than a decade ago, Don Russo was teaching guitar lessons at a local music store when he found himself dreaming of founding his own music school – a place where students would have their choice of instruments and styles, and learning would not be limited to a set curriculum.

Starting in 2011, he turned that dream into reality. Now his business, Freeway Music, is about to mark its 10th anniversary; the music school now has six locations in the Columbia area and more than 1,400 students.

This Saturday, just a month shy of the anniversary, he’s hosting a grand opening celebration for the school’s newest location in Blythewood – an event that’s been delayed more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event will include live music performances and demonstrations throughout the afternoon, Russo says, as well as food and drinks, games, and charity raffles. The lineup from 1-4 p.m. Saturday includes eight different rock bands made up of students.

“The mayor’s going to be there,” he says. “There’s going to be a ribbon-cutting.”

The event will take place outside Freeway Music’s Blythewood location, across from town hall at the replica train station, which the school moved to from its Hardscrabble Road location at the beginning of last year.

The building, jointly owned by Russo and the owners of Doko Station Pub & Eatery, has a unique synergy, he says. Parents often drop their kids off for lessons and then walk across the shared lobby to relax or grab a bite to eat while they wait.

A year and a half ago, the realization of that reality was less than certain.

“March 2020 was when we were going to do our grand opening, but… the exact day that the restaurant opened, the governor was like, ‘Hey, all restaurants shut down,’” he says. “That was rough – very rough – but we have persevered, and we now are going to officially have a grand opening.”

Russo says it’s been an interesting time; the pandemic meant that signups dropped off, and his teachers found themselves doing everything from virtual lessons to social media videos to socially distanced recording in separate rooms – and asking parents to continue to support them throughout these changes.

Loyal clients were the music school’s saving grace, he says, helping them to survive the pandemic. This summer, enrollment has finally picked up again – and the start of the school year has brought additional interest.

“We just had an incredible summer,” Russo says, “and now that it’s back to school, parents are completely getting their kids involved in everything.”

Over the last decade, Russo says, he has endeavored to be more than just a music school. His business has partnered with nearly every charity in town to provide students opportunities to perform while also raising money for charitable causes.

Freeway Music began in 2011 in the conference room of a restaurant on Hardscrabble Road, then moved to a space shared with a dance studio, then eventually graduated to its own space.

Now with six (soon to be seven) official locations and various additional partnerships, Freeway has more than 70 instructors, including more than 30 instructors and more than 600 students just in Blythewood.

The music school teaches private lessons in a variety of instruments and styles: combo instruments including guitar, drums, piano, and voice; other common instruments like ukulele and bass; classical piano, violin, woodwinds, and brass; and bluegrass instruments including mandolin, banjo, and fiddle.

Its official locations include Blythewood, Forest Acres (downtown), Lexington, Irmo, Sims Music (Freeway’s official music store partner), and the Columbia Children’s Theatre.

Russo says what motivates him is the smiles: the look on students’ faces as their skill and confidence grow; the look on a parent’s face when they see their child progressing; the look on a teacher’s face in response to both of those.

“We continue to partner with the town [of Blythewood] in any way we can to help them with music, and our whole goal at Freeway is to be more than a music school – impact our community and help change the world,” Russo says.

“It’s almost like a dream for me. I feel like sometimes I have to pinch myself…. We’re excited to be part of the community. We’re excited for the future. I really feel like Blythewood’s at the beginning of what it’s going to be.”

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