So recently some big news in the Utah Valley Area is that The Music School has closed it's doors. It has been on the Television stations like Fox 13, Ksl Channel 5, and other media outlets.
It's interesting to see how much time they allow a news story to hit the airwaves. In a matter of 2-3 minutes the media outlets encapsulate a story and pick the pieces that are "of interest" to the viewing public. This is the norm for news stations around the world, but it's a shame to not be able to see the inner workings of what actually happened more in depth. Hence the reason for this post. I wanted to help clear my head about things at The Music School and at the same time, try to shed some light on how things worked ... from a teacher's perspective.
Some of you may know of my direct ties to The Music School. My direct tie being my brother, Caleb Chapman, was the founder and director of the institution. With that being said ... I will not touch base on things outside of an instructors insight at the school. I had some knowledge of other things that were happening that touched the realm of administration, operations and various other knick-knacks. I'll hold off on those little tid-bits of information for another post. For now ... I'm a teacher.
So I started teaching at The Music School around 2003, back when it was Crescent School of Music. I initially started teaching music theory. It was a fun gig that allowed me to let my insights with Theory shine light on subjects for a number of High School and Jr. High kids. It was a fun time. I did quizzes and tests and had grades for each student. It was part of my responsibility to record and get those grades into the office so it could go on a "record" of some sort. This forced me into thinking about curriculum instead of the "off-the-cuff" instruction that I was used to giving in trainings.
About 6 months into the instruction I was asked by my brother if I would be interested in teaching Guitar lessons. I had never taught a Guitar Lesson before. It was a nerve-wracking experience for me and I'm pretty sure that my first student wasn't that impressed. My problem with what I was doing was it lacked structure. I decided (two weeks into teaching) that I needed to structure a plan for me to teach Guitar like I did with Music Theory. I started down the road of creating a curriculum and focusing my attention to fundamentals instead of "playing songs." This approach worked really well for me and I was able to share a number of my insights into what I was doing for lessons with a couple of the other instructors.
Lessons were simple. I knew the assignments I was working on and the goals that needed to be achieved. After each lesson I took my "Teacher Binder" and wrote notes and checked off the lessons that I instructed. Each week a person from the office would pick up the binders and check things off so that we could get paid. The system had a couple flaws, but on the whole it was a very simple concept to the lessons. You want to be paid, you fill out the sheet and have the students sign it as well. Checks and Balances. It was great.
So things were going relatively well. Crescent was growing, but not fast enough. The facility we were in was pretty outdated and run-down. It wasn't the high-class establishment that Crescent needed to be. So as time went on the word was spreading about what a great opportunity this music school was for Utah's students. This is where things started getting exciting.
Enter Sentry Financial, a financial services company who wanted to invest money into Crescent and take the school national. The key here was they wanted to take the school "NATIONAL." A couple of things really interested them about Crescent that made it an appealing opportunity:
- Curriculum Based Music Instruction - Much like what I had done for Guitar a lot of the teachers in other departments started to formalize a set curriculum for their instruments. This meant that each student would get the same "principled" instruction so there could be uniformity.
- Ensemble Growth - More students in an ensemble would mean more potential for revenue results. If you could have an ensemble of 100 kids and only have to pay one instructor that is a lot better then having one instructor being paid for 100 ensembles of one.
- Cutting Edge Music Instruction - utilizing the latest technology in music education (i.e. SmartMusic, GarageBand, Finale, etc) would mean that students would get an opportunity from lessons that they couldn't get anywhere else.
- Franchising Opportunity - The reason why it was so appealing was the idea that this COULD BE REPLICATED!! If American Fork, UT could garnish a TOP institution then it would certainly fly in Salt Lake City, Denver, Boston, etc.
So Sentry came on board as an investment group and invested a lot of money. The first thing that happened ... name change: The Music School was born. Unfortunately some of the teachers didn't catch the vision of the new "re-brand." For some of us it was hard to take away the cool Crescent vibe and go with something so generic as The Music School. Second, a location change: The facility had to be changed to keep the "cutting-edge" vision of the school. Where we were just wasn't doing it. So a new facility was looked into and found. And after, what seemed like an eternity, the new facility was found and established and we could now enter and teach.
The new place was great. A renovated Gym/Spa location which meant HUGE space to have ensembles, lessons, a recording studio and a performance venue. The place was great, but from the teacher perspective it meant that it was going to take A LOT to break even ... and that could mean payroll cuts.
When I first started teaching at Crescent I had roughly 52 students a week and I was getting around 20 dollars an hour. Now at the new facility I cut my hours back because of other work commitments, I had around 25-30 students getting around 21 dollars an hour, but ... from what I understand with my students being billed out at a much higher rate then previously. I understand that the facility cost more and that meant more overhead, but there seemed like there should have been another means than not letting the instructors benefit. And, here's something that killed me, I wasn't allowed to know what I was being billed out to with my students. I got into a LONG discussion with one of the accounting guys from Sentry about that. My promotion for the Crescent was, "Come take lessons from me at Crescent. It's around $54 a month." I wasn't able to do any of that with the new facility because I didn't know what I was being billed out at (I've recently heard from some students that my last billings were around $80 a month ... and no pay raise). The argument told to me was that when you higher a consultant through an agency, the agency broker's the financial dealings and the consultant doesn't know what he's being billed out as. Being that my other job deals with Consulting quite often I had to disagree with that sentiment. All in all it became very difficult to promote and market for the school.
And speaking of Marketing... supposedly The Music School was going to market the teacher's to get them more students. I talked with the same Sentry accounting guy about what marketing was being done for me personally so I could build my studio. He said that they would mention my name on the phone when students inquired about guitar lessons. I looked at him and asked what type of marketing was that? Just because I go into a music store and ask "Where's the rap section?" and a person points in the general direction doesn't mean that "marketing" is being done.
The reporting system was new and improved as well ... kinda. The days of paper documents were over. A new system called "Jaco" was put in place and allowed teachers the ability of completing their instructions via a web-application system. Well ... I wrote a document that talked about all the problems the new system had and the bugs that were included. How it was very easy to "Dock" a teacher's salary and "Forge" false entries to get more money out of the school. I also stumbled upon some neat security holes within the application, but because the institution was becoming more "cutting-edge" there was no way to go but ... up. Hopefully. It seemed pretty funny to me that no one in the administration staff really liked "Jaco." All-in-all the User Experience was REALLY Lacking. And the investors kept throwing money at it to try to fix the mess, without really addressing what the INSTRUCTORS or ADMINISTRATION staff wanted. I had a hard time understanding why people didn't want input from their "clients" when creating a solution for them.
Mentioning the "Cutting-Edge" technologies ... each studio was outfitted with a new iMac that had a variety of applications that could be used to create a more productive music education. The problem was that most of the teachers just used the computers for surfing the web and playing with iTunes. It wasn't until later, when instruction on how to use the new cutting edge software was being held, that instructors started using the computers for something more productive. Sure there were the exceptions, but for the most part the iMacs because really modern looking paper-weights. Yet another cost that needed to be covered at some point.
So there I was teaching lessons. Every year, Caleb would get up at a company retreat and give a "State-of-the-Company" address. Each year new and exciting things would be mentioned that really didn't affect my world, but made things impressive for the investors: like "All-Star" line-ups of "Artist-In-Residence" programs (which was odd because none of the artists were actually living in the area); Free Weekly Music Theory Lessons (which was geared toward the Jr. High/HS crowd that none of my Adult or Elementary students really participated); new ensembles (that were a little out of my beginning students league) and other various items. The potential was great, and the showcase for the investors was keen, but it just didn't mean anything to my world.
So there I struggled. Trying to get Jaco to work "the best" for me, Combating with billing system rules that didn't make much sense (so if a student doesn't show up for lessons on his last day, I'm supposed to schedule a make-up lesson or else I don't get paid for the last lesson? But it's his last lesson he all ready said that he didn't want to take anymore? So if I can't reschedule what happens to that money? The school keeps it even though I was here to teach the lesson?), and most importantly trying to deal with the new politics that was being implemented everyday by over zealous management staff (When the CEO of The Music School pulls you aside and says "I need you to work on student retention" when you had a record of 85% student retention in a department that maybe had an average of 30%, it makes you wonder what you're doing wrong?) I started thinking that my days at The Music School were going to be numbered.
Now I understand that things needed to change ... heck we were going to be franchising this wonderful model. But I adhere to my main problem when it came to the investors: They didn't understand the musician's world. Now musicians are notorious for being bad in business, but artists are a certain breed unto themselves. You can't treat them like regular business people without giving some training and insight in what that means. The investors were trying to run a company full of "yes" men. But artists are creative people that don't believe in saying "Yes" all the time. And the artists/musicians weren't helping the business side either but it was mainly because they didn't understand how their role worked. Communication was lacking from all parties, but if it wasn't for the investors always pushing and taking a course of action that didn't make sense to the operational side (Instructors/Administration) how could it ever have worked.
Music Lessons are an extremely difficult service to be profitable in when dealing with LARGE SCALE MANAGEMENT. It can be very lucrative when it's just you managing you. The investors didn't understand that, nor were they able to communicate their vision so that we could understand them.
There's always next time. Don't you worry ... someday there will be a next time.