In North Tonawanda, New York, a suburb to the north of Buffalo, there is a half-century old, family owned music store named inconspicuously, Matt’s Music. Founded fifty-three years ago by family patriarch Matthew Piorkowski, Matt’s Music has been a community loved business, and music education outlet for generations.
Piorkowski in his day was an accomplished musician, with a love for mentoring others. As a singer, and accordion player, he had a long, and storied career in the world of Polka, having appeared on the Lawrence Welk show, performed for Pope John Paul II, and was a fixture in traditional Dom Polska Parades.
Current vocal director of Matt’s Music, and grandson of Matthew Piorkowski recently reminisced about his formative years, learning from, and performing with his grandfather.
“I remember going to gigs with him, and playing the drums, and piano while he played accordion. That was what I did for a long time, and I learned a lot. My mother though was a Jazz singer, and it was through her that I discovered singing. I was probably about 16 or 17, and I started shadowing her, and she opened my eyes to the world of singing as an entertainer.”
Kathy Carr, Zach’s mother, carried on the tradition of Matt’s Music, and is now the owner-operator of the music store. The principal mission of Matt’s Music remained selfsame under her guidance. Through the years, the store weathered some rough economic times, especially being positioned in the Rust Belt, where economic growth has been slower, and harder to come by than in many other parts of the nation. As what one might call a niche, or luxury, or cultural product, being a music store made survival that much more difficult. Perseverance, however, fueled vision, and success.
“Grit.” explains Zach Carr, speaking of his own life, and his road to success. But in a way, his life has mirrored the business his grandfather began. “Perseverance, and grit. That’s it. It’s not always about being the most talented, or more gifted than the others. I just didn’t stop. I never stopped moving.”
After being inspired by his mother’s singing, Zach Carr decided to pursue a path of becoming a performing vocalist. He attended Concordia College in New York City for Vocal Performance. There he earned an internship with Carnegie Hall, and began touring the country with the Carnegie Hall choir. An opportunity that afforded him a chance learn from many of the nation’s leading vocal coaches, while singing in shows in all fifty states. Returning closer to home after his time at Concordia, he continued his education at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
But as many performers find, Zach had come to a crossroads in his life, and struggled to find what was next.
“It was 2011, and I still hadn’t finished my bachelor’s,” Zach recalled, “nothing had settled. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I came back to Buffalo to work at the store, to try and start fresh. I had taught lessons there before, but just drums, and piano. But I started teaching voice, very part-time at first. I had the opportunity in my education to train with these amazing vocal coaches, all with different methods, from Jazz, to Classical, and Contemporary, and Musical Theater. I wanted to merge all of these styles; be a melting pot of vocal technique. So I started teaching a few students every week, and I loved it.”
In 2013, Zach was attending the University of Buffalo, and working on his doctorate, while continuing to add students to his vocal classes, which were now growing in popularity. It was at this point Zach approached his mother with the idea of creating a vocal department within Matt’s Music.
“It’s a family business, so we don’t do departments. We don’t do programs. We hadn’t tried anything like it in 53-years of business.”
But the idea was well received, and soon after, Zach was taking on thirty to forty students at a time in his vocal classes. He then hired into his new vocal department Stephen Piotrowski, a colleague he met at the University Of Buffalo, who was the music director of the a capella group, Buffalo Chips, as well as a former vocal student, Kimberly Potfora. Growing into a formal program, with an established methodology, and teaching staff, Matt’s Music became an accredited member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.
The trio then wondered how they can take it a step further, not just teaching their students, but creating opportunities for them to perform.
“Sometimes kids don’t get that opportunity. They don’t make the cast of the school musical, or they get cut from a competitive chorus,” Zach noted, “so we asked, what can we do to give kids more opportunities to perform, and to love life through their singing, and performances?”
What blossomed from this desire to give more was their new Vocal Performance Team program. Although offered to all students at Matt’s Music, there is an audition process, and not everyone is accepted. The program also carries with it requirements that all accepted members need to maintain.
“Every year we have requirements we have to meet,” stated Connor Maxwell, one of the original members of the Vocal Performance Team, “for example, service singing for example, where we’ll go and sing in nursing homes. We have to complete a certain number of performances, such as competitions, or a school musical. We also have to attend the performances of the other members of the team. It’s not just a competition, but it’s supportive as well,” Maxwell continued, “I love the feeling of coming out into the audience after a performance, and seeing all of my friends from this team! They’re my favorite group of supporters!”
Zach Carr reinforced his initial desire to not just give his students a place to perform more, but also teach them how to be better performers, not just vocalists. “We now have 112 vocal students, but we operate, and function as a unit. We added a dance instructor, Cortney (Costanzo) to round out our staff, so now in our program you can learn how to be a better singer, a better performer, and even understand dance, and the choreography aspects of performing. It’s a comprehensive experience, and it gives them more opportunities to take advantage of more varieties of performances.”
Brittany Hoffman, a six-year student of Matt’s Music, and member of the performance team had just such an opportunity. Through diligent searching, Carr and his team have created a database of performance, and competitive opportunities for his students. One such opportunity, Hoffman turned into a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall.
“It was a competition in New York, so we provided video submissions for it,” explains Hoffman, “I chose to perform in the Opera genre. The submissions are judged through rounds until finalists are chosen, and I ended up as one of 37 finalists across all genres.”
A competition that Carr noted was international, and began with over 400 competitors.
Lizzie Scott, a 13-year old performer with the Vocal Performance Team, was another of the finalists for that same competition, and joined Hoffman at the Carnegie performance. “Being on this team has opened a lot of doors for us,” Scott said about her participation with the team, “this was an international competition. There were singers from around the world, and of the finalists, three were from our team.”
Aside from opening doors, Carr looks to establish singing as part of a broader, positive outlook on life, and as a mentor, he stands behind his students. Maxwell spoke fondly of his experiences learning from Carr, “Zach has helped me become who I am; not just as a singer, but as a person.”
As witnessed by anyone who has been a mentor, as young people develop skills, they develop as individuals through those skills, and experiences simultaneously. Nowhere is this more evident than within the development of performers. When asked about what intangibles young performers need to learn, Carr answered, “Humility. First and foremost, and that’s a hard one. It can also go the other way, where they become too humble. So first is humility, but second is getting them to understand within themselves that they deserve this. They deserve every minute of performance time that they have. They deserve to be recognized for what they do, but need to accept it with humility.”
Carr furthered those thoughts, “As instructors, that is one of our biggest obstacles, and so many people in general don’t buy into that, or believe that idea. That idea that you matter. Not because you perform, but because you as an individual, you matter, and you’re worthwhile. I don’t know what word goes with that – the appreciation of music, of singing, of performing, and that same internal, intrinsic appreciation and acceptance of yourself, of who you are. You have a gift that you can share with the world, and what you can do on stage is incredible. There’s no reason you can’t carry that as a part of who you are everywhere you go.”
“There’s a fine line between being part of something bigger than yourself, and feeling like you’re not worth anything. This generation seems to struggle with that, so we work at helping them find that balance.”
In his individual interview, Maxwell, who began as a student at Matt’s in 2011, seemed to back those very thoughts his instructor mused, “He’s my biggest fan, but also my biggest critic. He’s honest. He’s helped me through some hard times, and my worst insecurities. No matter what I’m struggling with, he’s right there to help. He shows everyone through the way he treats others what it means to be a good person, and that has helped me become who I am.”
But traveling the road of growing a family business into a game-changing opportunity for kids who want to be performers has a unique set of challenges.
“The ultimate goal is to build a vocal performance academy; one place where people can learn everything it means to be a good performer.” Carr’s future plans include building a rehearsal, performance, and recording studio. “We’re a family owned store, and typically family owned stores don’t do things like this. I can tell you that from experience. Like when we went to New York to compete, and one of the judges said, ‘It’s so cute that you guys are here.’ Still, that stigma is important. I never want to lose sight of why my grandpa started this, or what makes my mom run it, or why I love it so much. I never want to lose that. Rather, I want this to be a legacy everyone can be a part of.”
Part of growing that legacy is also providing for his teachers, and helping them grow their skills as performers, and mentors. Recently his staff made the trip to Atlantic Coast for a weekend of extra training.
“We’re partnering with the Tim Welch Vocal Studio in New Jersey. This will hopefully be a lasting partnership, with the goal of our studios working together. Our students performing there, his students performing here in Buffalo with us. His studio puts people on Broadway regularly, so we’re excited to work with him.”
Carr’s students summarized the importance of this partnership when we discussed their goals. Both Maxwell and Scott admitted their dreams of making on Broadway.
“But you know what else would be cool?” Scott asked rhetorically as we spoke, “Cruise ship singing. My mom just suggested that yesterday, but I think I want to live in New York City, and be in theater. I hope I’m good enough!”
Hoffman dissented from her peers’ Broadway aspirations.
“For a while I wanted to, and I think most people have that dream of being on Broadway. I’m not sure I have the personality for it. It seems to be competitive to where you have to knock others down to get ahead. I’d rather help people.”
As she nears the end of high school, and looks toward the future, Hoffman is considering music therapy as a way to put her musical talents to work for her in her career.
Regardless of their current dreams, or future plans, the Carr family is creating an environment for all of their students to thrive, and find the endless possibilities, and the support they need to accomplish their goals. From their humble beginnings as a hometown music store, to the growth of a world-class music, and vocal program, Matt’s Music is giving their students a chance to belong to something bigger; a family that includes hundreds of members, all helping each other learn, grow, and achieve.
“We’re getting interest from all over the region now,” Carr pointed out, citing he now has a student who travels over sixty miles from Ellicottville, New York, to attend his school. “You love to perform? Great, you’re welcome here. You’re part of our family. I want every single one of them to know they’re part of our family. I want them to learn, and stay, and eventually even be coaches, and teachers here, too. But if they can walk away from their time here, when it comes to an end, and say that they really learned how to love performing… that will be a good day.”