Teacher transforms passion for piano into successful Valparaiso business venture
A 30-year arts and business reputation steeped in tradition and success helped Judith Neville assume the ownership of Gratz Piano in Valparaiso to guide a new musical chapter.
Originally opened as Gratz Piano in downtown Valparaiso in 1985, Judith and her husband, David, purchased the business from the Gratz family at the end of 2015 and reopened it in January 2016 with slight rebranding as Gratz Opus 118 Music & Dance at 2701 Beech St.
“When the original store was in operation, it had already established itself as a destination, offering sheet music, music lessons and the largest piano showroom in Northwest Indiana,” Neville said.
“I was already known, along with my husband, for our Neville Ministries Inc., and after much discussion, we decided we would purchase the portion of the Gratz business that focused on the education and sheet music sales.”
Neville, a former piano instructor at Valparaiso University and 16-year veteran piano teacher at the Wirt-Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts in Gary, became the lead musical educator to offer instruction in piano, voice and guitar.
“Being from Merrillville, I had known Mike Gratz, who started this business, since 1994,” Neville said.
“When Mike passed away in February 2014, the family continued with the store, and son Adam decided to concentrate more on the piano-tuning side of the business, which allowed us this opportunity to continue the rest of the business for sheet music sales and the piano lessons and education aspect.”
Along with music instruction, Gratz Opus 118, which spans a retail space and lesson rooms of more than 7,200 square feet, continues the tradition started by Mike Gratz with a large inventory of sheet music, method books and repertoire for piano, voice and guitar. Before the pandemic in spring 2020, the business also branched into dance instruction in 2017, but it was forced to pause it during the COVID-19 response.
“A good teacher will embrace change and make use of any tools available,” said Neville, who earned her bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Spelman College in 1980 and her master’s degree in music and piano performance at Miami University in 1982.
“I’ve learned throughout the years to let music be able to breathe as it is being created,” she said. “We did some months when we closed during the height of the pandemic, but then found this was also the time when people were looking to get back to music as a way to feel better.”
Students at Gratz Opus 118 Music & Dance begin as young as 3 years old and continue well beyond the age of retirement.
Jan Yudt of Valparaiso describes herself as one of Judith’s “both new and old students.”
“I took piano lessons when I was young and then decided that now, even though later in life, I have time now to return to piano,” said Yudt, who has been taking piano instruction from Judith for a year.
“Judith is great in every attention to detail for her teaching,” Yudt said. “She teaches in a way that makes music come alive.”
Yudt said Neville can depict sounds in music, such as a waterfall, and make it really sound like a waterfall.
“I smile every time I’m playing piano in her studio during my lessons,” Yudt said.
Judith and David have three children, two of whom also graduated with college degrees as music majors.
“I’ve also loved to be a musical guide for children, both my own and my students,” Neville said.
She finds it interesting how music has continued to be much the same in many ways throughout the centuries for the appreciation of the classics and the core foundation of how it is taught.
“But in other ways, it has also changed,” Neville said. “Today, I get more and more requests for sheet music for the background music associated with favorite PlayStation video games.”