Growing up in Howell, Jay Sweet was destined to become a musician.
Photo: Jay Sweet owns Sweet Music Academy and Sweet Performing Arts Center in Howell.(Photo: NOAH K. MURRAY/CORRESPONDENT)
“I started playing guitar at age 5 and was involved with music all through high school, playing in local clubs,” shared the 40-year-old Howell resident, who graduated with a degree in professional music from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he specialized in composition and performance. Seeking further academic training in the field, Sweet went on to secure a master’s degree in jazz history and research from Rutgers University while continuing to perform locally and on cruise ships and also teach music history and theory at both Rutgers and Middlesex County College.
It was his combined love of performing and teaching that inspired his launch of the Sweet Music Academy in 2004. From a 1,000 square-foot retail space in the Howell Plaza Shopping Center, “we started out providing rental instruments and sales with a focus on private instruction with college-degreed music teachers,” Sweet said. Business was strong from the beginning and the Academy has ultimately grown to encompass some 16 instructors and 250 students, some traveling from as far away as northern New Jersey to receive the academy’s expert instruction.
“Our students range from young kids to older students who want training for college auditions, often at places like Julliard and Berklee, adults who want to start playing again, and retirees who are picking it up for the first time,” Sweet said of the instruction the academy offers to all age ranges and skill levels in everything from guitar, piano and drums to other popular stringed, percussion and brass instruments, with group and private classes priced from as low as $75 to $100 per month for weekly sessions.
With an additional emphasis on performing, “we’ve held recitals and concerts annually and have helped arrange for students to perform at local venues like the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and Rivoli’s Grill & Chill in Howell,” said Sweet, who recently bolstered Sweet Music Academy’s capabilities on this front by adding 1,600 square feet to his location this fall in the form of the new Sweet Performing Arts Center.
“We’d always done a couple of workshops and concerts each year in a small space in the back of our facility, but we now have a full stage with a state-of-the-art sound system and professional-grade acoustics so that students can perform for family, friends and community members in a comfortable setting and on a much more regular basis,” he said. “It allows us to stage performances right in our own space and give students in rock and jazz bands or musical theater a full experience.”
Introducing a new acting and theater program as well, Sweet said that the school “offers smaller classes and personalized attention and gives each student an opportunity for a solo, which is great training for future auditions and larger roles.”
Wall resident Tara Raichle proudly sings Sweet Music Academy’s praises. In addition to the piano lessons her 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle has taken there, “my 16-year-old daughter Chloe has been going to the Academy since fourth grade, first for violin lessons and now for lessons in the upright bass and electric bass with Jay, and since she began working with Jay she’s made regional auditions for both orchestral music and jazz with the upright bass, which we’re so proud of,” Raichle said.
“Anytime Chloe has ever needed something or has had trouble with a piece, Jay’s been there to make sure she’s as prepared as possible and has arranged for her to play at Rivoli’s with other students so that she can gain real performance experience,” Raichle said. “He and his staff are extremely well-versed in all instruments, know how to give pieces their best sound, and truly help their students to play and perform with confidence.”
While Sweet said the 2003 movie “School of Rock” and subsequent launch of School of Rock locations has helped boost kids’ desire to jam, “our emphasis is on music education and the opportunity to use it.”
Sweet noted that piano and voice lessons are especially popular today, likely because the recent trend towards home recording requires more of those skills. And while other local competitors abound, “we emphasize the teaching aspect,” he said. “A lot of music schools rent rooms to just any instructor, but we have a real program with high-quality teachers who are hand-selected. We’re very focused on providing the best teachers and have an outstanding and loyal team of instructors.”
In the new year, Sweet is excited about a new program being introduced at the Academy “which will offer students a specific curriculum designed by myself and their instructor with targets and milestones,” he said. “It’s more of a mentoring program that will be great for serious students and beginners as well.”
Sweet confirms that teaching remains close to his heart; in addition to the Academy, he teaches several music history courses and offers private bass instruction at Monmouth University. But he’s never strayed far from his roots. A professional musician who specializes in the double bass, electric bass, guitar, mandolin, banjo and ukulele, Sweet has played and recorded with several well-known musicians, performed on TV and radio, and has three album releases all available on ITunes and Spotify. He also performs over 100 nights a year, including a standing gig at Brandl in Belmar on Friday nights, and strives to offer that joy to his students.
“I hope we can continue to inspire more young and aspiring musicians and help nurture their love of music,” he said.
SWEET MUSIC ACADEMY & SWEET PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
Location: 4042 Route 9 (Howell Plaza Shopping Center), Howell
Founder/Owner: Jay Sweet