Taylor Swift continued her tour "Red" with a stop at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena in September.(Photo: Gannett/Larry McCormack, The (Nashville) Tennessean)
Five years ago, Taylor Swift was singing about sitting in class in her song, Fifteen. This week, the pop/country superstar is preparing to open three classrooms of her own.
On Saturday, the Taylor Swift Education Center will open earlier than expected at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The center is the product of a $4 million donation Swift pledged in 2012 - the largest single donation made by an artist in the museum's 46-year history.
The center opening will precede a record sixth songwriter/artist of the year award to Swift from the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which will present the honor to Swift at the annual awards and induction ceremony Sunday night at the Music City Center.
The Swift center, which had a previously announced opening date of early 2014, spans two floors and includes three classrooms and a learning lab, as well as an interactive children's exhibit gallery that will open next year. Swift said Tuesday that she was happy that the classrooms came first, as those were a priority for her and the museum.
"In school, I was taught a certain amount about music, a certain amount about theater, and that interest sparked something in me. It made me look elsewhere to learn much more about it," said Swift, now 23.
"I think, for me, it's just going to be so interesting to see Nashville continue to be this hub for music, and this hub for music education. I love the fact that people are coming from all over the world to go to school for music (in Nashville), I love the fact that this is now a new opportunity for kids to be a part of programs that are going to help them know more about what we do here."
The completed center will give the museum seven times more space for new programs, as well as firmly established ones. Museum director Kyle Young said that about 75,000 students participated in the museum's educational offerings in 2012. "This gives us a lot more space to do a lot more things," Young said.
Those plans expand beyond music, and won't just be geared for children, but teens, adults and seniors, as well.
Kids will get their hands on an array of instruments in the museum's "Musical Petting Zoo," or get slightly messy with Hatch Show Print letterpress art in two "wet" classrooms with spill-friendly floors, or watch curators at work in an adjacent storage area and studio. Visitors of all ages can look forward to future offerings, including songwriting workshops, dance classes and a Hatch-led letterpress program.
The center is part of an ongoing $100 million expansion that will more than double the museum's size in an area of downtown that already this year has seen the opening of the Music City Center and Omni hotel.
A new theater, exhibit hall and Hatch's new headquarters are scheduled to open or host their first events at the museum in the coming weeks.
"It's always kind of a challenge, this perception that museums are kind of old and dusty and only dealing with the past," Young said. "And it's important for us to be always perceived to be relevant. Having Taylor's name associated with what we're doing is one step towards securing that relevance, obviously, and then (the expansion) is really key to us, to continue to attract and engage younger visitors."
It's possible that Swift won't be associated with the new center by name alone. While there currently aren't plans for her to be involved in programs, she said, "I think that it's something I would definitely be open to."
Another award on the shelf
Swift's songwriter/artist of the year awards from the NSAI are among the items that will be displayed in the center's new gallery. Swift has now won the award more times than any other artist, surpassing five-time winners Vince Gill and Alan Jackson.
At 17, she became and remains the youngest artist to receive the honor - and it's not one that's lost on her.
"Writing my own music is what makes up most of my identity, I think, as an artist and as a human being," she said. "I don't know what my life would look like if I didn't write songs...to have that part of my life be honored is so special, I can't even verbalize how special that is."
The award is determined by chart performance and songwriting credits, and Swift was the sole songwriter or co-writer on 14 Top 30 songs from July 2012 through June 2013. But beyond the numbers, NSAI President Lee Thomas Miller recognizes the impact Swift's songs have made.
"She's had an uncanny ability to connect with the age of which she's coming from in a very strong way," he said. "She wrote songs as a teenager about her life as a teenager. But they held together. They were professional, well-written songs. Now, she's a young adult, and you're beginning to see this evolution."
NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison has seen her influence rub off on the newest members of Nashville's songwriting community.
"There's a lot of people that walk through this door that have artist influences," he said. "Taylor always talked about the songwriting part of it. There will be somebody in here today (inspired by Swift). It's every day."
Whether it's through the new center or her songwriting, Swift hopes her fans will find their own ways to express themselves.
"I've tried to tell my fans how much writing songs has helped me with my life, and has helped me process my emotions," Swift said. "It doesn't matter if that's something you want to pursue as a career. I think that trying to figure out a way to say what you need to say and articulate what it is you're feeling is a way to make your life easier."