Holy Cross Music Academy Develops Musicians; Provides “On-Ramp”

By Jake Willis, Holy Cross, Daniel Island

The Church of the Holy Cross on Daniel Island recently began a new program somewhat unusual for a church: a full-on music lessons school called Holy Cross Music Academy. I am Jake Willis, worship leader for Holy Cross and director of Holy Cross Music Academy, and here’s more about how this unique offering in our community came to be and the vision behind it.

Since moving to Charleston in 2017 to be a worship leader at Holy Cross, the Lord has slowly placed a unique path for music, ministry, and mentorship in front of me. 

It began five or six years ago with a handful of wonderful families that asked me to teach guitar or piano lessons on Daniel Island. These students had a passion for it and stuck with it, and I had a desire to help them use their gifts in new ways. I began inviting them to play with me at church and I started planning local events at restaurants where they could play their songs. When Black Tie Lessons, a fantastic music lessons program on DI, closed in the midst of COVID, it opened a door allowing our church to reach the community in a new way.

In the fall of 2021, Holy Cross Daniel Island campus pastor Jonathan Bennett approached me with an idea he wanted me to pray about: formally opening up our preschool rooms, which sat empty in the afternoons, for music lessons. We both knew it was a large need on Daniel Island, and that the ground I had paved doing freelance lessons and local events with students would be a good on-ramp for the community. After much prayer, vision-development, and planning, Holy Cross Music Academy (HCMA) was launched in January of 2023. All of our instructors are believers who are involved with music leadership at their own local churches.

There is one glaringly obvious question about HCMA: why do this all through a church? Within the vision we have laid out, the answer falls into three categories: discipleship to students, outreach to our community, and provision for our instructors. 

Discipleship: Private lessons offer a wonderful way to develop relationships. An instructor gets time to know a student on their own terms, away from peer pressure or their families, and teach in a way that fits that student’s personality, goals, and character. Learning music has an interesting way of revealing aspects of one’s self; I am constantly digging beneath the music I teach to address both the positive character traits and the insecurities of my students. And, when you know a student is a believer, it provides a unique avenue for discipleship and mentorship. 

Additionally, we disciple through opportunities to play on our worship teams at Holy Cross. I learned a tremendous amount when I was in high school by playing in the worship team at my church, and I offer my students many opportunities to play with us on Sundays, in the hope that they’ll grow in life and in their relationship with the Lord in similar ways. Holy Cross Daniel Island has nine current or former students regularly involved in our Sunday morning worship teams and numerous others who have been invited in for one-off occasions.

Outreach: Much like Holy Cross’ preschool, this program invites the community into a consistent relationship with our church and with wonderful Christian instructors. By creating a positive experience in our small community, we hope that families will feel comfortable enough to attend church with us when we invite their students to be a part of something. And, more importantly, that when a significant pastoral need arises in their life, our church may quickly come to mind as somewhere they can go for help. Relationships matter deeply when it comes to outreach and evangelism, and we hope HCMA is an avenue for furthering the gospel through new relationships in our community.

Provision for instructors: Many jobs in church music are part-time, contracted, or require extra income on the side. HCMA provides a faith-based environment for talented local church musicians to work and to provide for themselves in a way that combines their passion for music and ministry. This can be a fantastic “second job” for part-time worship leaders in Charleston, and is much more in line with their calling and giftings than Uber driving or waiting tables. We have instructors from a variety of denominational backgrounds, as well as instructors versed in both traditional and contemporary music. As someone who has been on that journey myself, I am very passionate about the fact that HCMA provides this opportunity for local worship musicians and compensates them competitively with the other music schools around town.

Holy Cross Music Academy currently has eight regular instructors and we had between 60-80 students since our January launch, with hopes of growing this fall as we begin our first full school year. Lessons are open to both children (ages six and up) and adults. If you’d like to learn more about what we do, check out our website: hcmusicacademy.com