Music teaching coach
Wendy Brentnall Wood
music school marketing

What makes you a unique teacher – interview of Wendy by Andrew Ingkavet 2015

What do you think makes you unique as a teacher?

Writing my own teaching program is something that not many teacher get around to doing and mine covers currently 6 instruments with more underway.

What frustrated me early in my teaching career, was firstly the number of children or adults I saw who wanted to learn to play an instrument who were being turned off learning music because it was too hard for them or too boring and so they dropped out of lessons. Secondly they weren’t being taught to read and understand making music or exploring improvising,creating and the other facets of music in an easy to understand way. When I started teaching, it was very traditional. So I ended up putting together my own method. The method encompasses reading and playing technique, theory, performing, improvising,listening skills. But it’s put it together in a structured system so it’s very easy to follow.


So what makes it different than other methods out there?

The simplicity and the fact that it covers all the different areas of music,listening,playing, reading,creating and so on. I broke down every musical concept beginners will use in their first two or three years of learning.

We start with rhythm for example.

How to play and read one beat, two beat four beat notes. The language to describe the notes is simplified because like you, I have taught quite a lot of preschool children from age 3 and found that traditional names and counting systems just confuse young children. I also found that older children and adults can learn more quickly if they are not burdened with complex information until they feel ready.

So we don’t count in numbers like 1-2-3-4 for a four beat note.

So what do you say?

We say “play”, as they play it and make a sound and then they hold and hold and hold. Then they go on the next one. And when they do a two beat note, it’s just “play” and hold. And a rest is “rest” or if it’s a two beat rest, it’s “rest rest.”  This simple language is actually describing WHAT they have to do.

Students usually learn one concept each week such as the semibreve or whole note and we do exercises together in class exploring the concept, then they have some tunes they go home and play with backing trax.  Each concept has a flash card, a homework theory or writing page and we have some creative improvising they can do to backing tracks. It’s a package of different activities all related to semibreve. And then the next week, after their homework review we’ll do the same activities using the minim or half note concept.

These are all private lessons, one on one?

Currently I do shared lessons as well. Two students coming to a class together. In the past, I’ve also done small group lessons of 3- 5 children.

So when you bring on a new teacher, is there a long period of digesting and learning this new system or is it something they can pick up right before a lesson?

They need to have done my online training  with access to all the materials so I’ve set up some reading,quizzes and some videos that take them through the program. Obviously, the more they can do in terms of training the better equipped they are to start off.  So if they are local I’ll get them to come and sit in on some of my lessons and they’ll see the structure and then I’ll observe one of their lessons. And give them some feedback on how they go so that’s really important as everyone brings their own style and past experience to their lessons.

Do you employ these teachers? Or are they all freelancers?

In the past we have used subcontracted teachers but now we employ them so they get more security and enable us here in Australia, to specify HOW and what we want them to teach.

The same in the U.S. now I believe.

So how many employees do you have now?

At the moment, we’ve only got fifteen in our own studios, but we had around 35 when we used to teach in a lot of primary schools around Melbourne. But that’s going back probably about fifteen or so years ago before technology really came into it’s own, helping with administration. At that stage everything was done by phone call as we didn’t have email, so it was very much long hours and hard work to keep in contact with everyone. We eventually decided to franchise our school business to ensure the quality of admin and teaching and then eventually moves into retail Music schools instead of just school programs and we opened up in four different locations around Melbourne.

So you rented space and then you have these teachers in the space.

Exactly.

Are you going there every day to check out these teachers to make sure that everyone is doing their job or how are you doing it?

I would usually work from an office in one of the studios and oversee its operations and we experimented with different admin assistance for the other studios. we employed full or part time managers who were purely administrators and we’ve had teachers who also did some management as well. Currently our studios left basically runs themselves with efficient technology systems so we don’t have to physically be at each location. The teachers have their key and they can come and go as they need to.

So what technology are you using to administer all of these employees at all these locations?

For administration of the lessons, employees, payroll, databases and so on, we have a customized software program. It also does our calendar/ timetable, payments through a payment gateway, attendance, lesson notes and so on. We also have an accounting package that we use behind to run company accounts called MYOB.

How long have you had that?

We’ve used MYOB for many years and the customised program for about four or five years.

And it’s working out?

Absolutely. administration of any business but particularly a service business takes enormous amounts of time, so getting time efficiencies through simple systems using technology is really important. But the issue of employing people is still I believe the biggest difficulty of running a business.

What do you mean by that?

When you operate as a sole trader, your reputation is built upon how well you provide your service. But when you employ other people your reputation can be built or destroyed by the way THEY provide the service. You need to invest a lot of time in recruitment training and supervising people to ensure your business and reputation reach your quality standards. People can be unreliable, and I mean that in the nicest possible way! You can come up with the best teaching program in the world but if your teachers don’t show up or if they become unreliable, leaving early,changing lesson times often for gigs or off on tour for weeks at a time, then obviously the students lessons are impacted and you can lose students simply because the teacher themselves becomes unreliable. Or worse still where they don’t teach your program correctly because really their hearts not in it, they arrive late,give the bare minimum attention to their students, put their hand out for their money and go or they don’t even show up.

So how do you deal with that?

It’s important to be clear at interview and training about what the employment expectations are. You also have to be extremely careful in your recruitment so you need to read people’s personalities, their goals and whether they fit the role. It’s not always easy to get right. You also have to look after them well so that there’s a reason that they like coming back to teach for you and with you.

What do you think makes them want to come back to you?

I get a lot of really good responses when I’m recruiting with younger or inexperienced teachers because I give them lots of free training and support. As a uni student, getting started as a teacher can be quite daunting so if I can offer them a complete ready to teach program, how to use it, things to watch out for, and tell them I’m there for any questions. They just really appreciate the support and mentoring. I get a lot of good feedback from these teachers on how easy to use my programs are and how much help it was getting them started..  I think if you can support people in that way its a really worthwhile. So that’s definitely a positive.

What is the average length of time that you keep most of these teachers?

On average they probably stay about two years, maybe 3 years. I’ve had some that stay longer for 5 and 6 years and I’ve also had some they don’t stay around very long at all.

And are they going off to start their own studios or what are they doing?

Some teachers will  start to grow their own studio in their local area but not all. Some take the experience and branch out on their own so they can earn more. The difficulty they then have is that they then have to do their own recruiting of students, administration and so on. not everyone wants that responsibility, but if they do and I’ve helped them learn what providing a quality teaching service is about, then that’s great. I’m really proud to be able to assist others in this way.

There’s also a lot of people these days that are transient, they’re not going to be permanently in your city for the rest of their lives. Some also return to study.

So that sounds like a recurring issue for you then you have to constantly be recruiting.

It is. And I imagine that is the same for a lot of music schools.

Yeah. How many students do you currently have of your own?

Currently I have around 44 students, some in shared lessons but mostly individual.

I certainly enjoy my holidays !

Are they mostly children or are they a mixture?

Mostly primary children but also some preschool and some adults. Children mostly in the afternoons after school. Some adults that come during the day and some will come after work. I love teaching adults as much as I love teaching children.

I don’t have a preference for one age group, although I don’t tend to take too many teenagers.

I love taking beginners at any age  but particularly adults because they’re so keen to learn and they know that they are going to put in some time. So they usually advance really quickly. Conversely I enjoy my grade 4 and 5 level students because that teaching is a whole different style and content.

How did you expand from being a solo teacher to employing multiple teachers, what were you thinking? How did you think about that?

Well, it really began because I was teaching 6 days a week. I was teaching in seven different primary schools during the week and then teaching at home as well.  I had 110 students.With my young family of 3 kids,  it was a bit crazy.

As a multi-instrumentalist, I was teaching many different instruments. It was a clear and easy decision to remain as the piano and keyboard teacher and gradually find specialist teachers of other instruments such as guitar,drums,woodwind,violin,singing to hand off that teaching to. I worked out what was financially viable to hand to another teacher who became part of my teaching team and did it gradually. It also enabled further expansion because we all had more time to take students at each location.

I notice you had a franchise model on your website, have you sold many franchises?

That’s another whole story in itself. In the year 2000, we actually franchised our school programs. We had around 35 employed teachers and 40-odd school locations. It was becoming an issue of quality control of admin and teaching. Because we didn’t have  the current efficiency of technology and I was very concerned about the level of quality of the teaching was being compromised simply because of lack of time.

We had 7 franchisees in Melbourne.

We needed very few employees to administer the business because we had the franchisees doing most of the teaching and their own administration.  Franchisees, have put money down to purchase their business and can be more committed to the teaching and the quality than the employees are.

Because they own it.

Yes, exactly. And they earn more from it than an employee would.

So how do you structure it? There’s an upfront payment of some kind and then there’s a licensing fee?

Yes, that’s exactly right.  

So do you still have franchises operating?

Not at present, although we are finalising plans to offer a home based Music School franchise. We had problems with our initial franchisees because at the time I hadn’t written the teaching method. We had admin and marketing systems and so on.They were all wanting to just teach their own different ways which meant we lacked consistency.

So we ended up buying back the franchises progressively. We then explored a  retail studio model, but that is expensive and a bigger responsibility than most music teachers want. Currently we are going down a different path where we are going more and more online and giving teachers more autonomy.

What do you mean? Directly to the student or to other teachers.

 

Both.

Say I wanted to be a franchise of yours in New York City. I could do that online.

Potentially and operate from your own home.

We are currently developing this model here in Melbourne employing teachers who want to teach at home using our method of teaching and we recruit the students for them.

So far its working well. I know there’s a huge potential for our teachers to poach those students. So far we haven’t had any issues again because of careful selection of teachers. No matter where or how you employ teachers, there’s always going to be the possibility that some of the students might get poached by the teachers.

Do you have some kind of non-compete clause in the contract somewhere?

Contracts are an interesting thing. I’ve spent a lot of money with solicitors over the years particularly  with franchising where it costs tens of thousands of dollars to set up agreements,  plus a huge amount of time to maintain as well. If somebody does the wrong thing, even if it’s written in your contract, you have to be prepared to spend more money and more time and suffer the worry to address the issue.  You have to decide if it is worth it or not to. Better to achieve a great culture and support network than be a policeman in your own business.

So you can’t just say it’s in your contract and think you are protected because you are not.

What do you look for in a teacher?

They need good communication skills. You’ve also got to look at what they want to do with their lives. Do you they really want to be a performer and they’re only doing teaching for the money or do they really love teaching?  There are all these different components to their personality, reliability, encouraging, fun and so on.  Definitely do reference checks. Make sure they’ve got whatever background checks, police checks, and everything else as well. But I did fall into the trap once or twice of getting people who are highly qualified, loads of experience and they ended up either being the worst possible teachers because they couldn’t relate to young children or they didn’t stick around long enough. There’s all sorts of different scenarios.

So what do you think are your top frustrations, challenges right now with your business?

One of the issues is always the cash flow when it comes to holidays. For you as well as your teachers.

Dealing with different student expectations- all of the different reasons that people want to play music as well. We go through years and years of training to become a professional musician, we have a whole different set of reasons why we practice, to most of our students.  Plus there are so many kids coming through these days who are learning because their parents want them to learn or they just want to play some movie themes and pop tunes without actually learning to read music. So trying to get that balance with education and motivation and enabling them to keep achieving at lessons even when they’re not practicing. I have for example a number of kids who never practice (for a whole range of reasons) and yet they keep coming every week because they get that half an hour where they actually get to do it, enjoy it and move forward even if slower than I may wish for them as a teacher. You allow them the experience without the pressure. They sometimes have those light bulb moments and its amazing.

So if they’re not practicing at home you’re kind of guiding them to practice in the lesson.

Yeah. We are still giving them a taste of what making music is about. The experience. Not putting them off by forcing them to feel bad they haven’t “practiced”.

A lot of people teach the way they were taught. And that’s because they’ve never been shown any other way.

I often read on Facebook groups, teachers complaining about the students who don’t practice and that they want to audition people and only take the students that are committed. What a shame. So many other people who want to get involved and you’re just saying “no, I’m only going to take the people who are prodigies.” I find that a shame.

There are so many people who don’t understand or want to commit to being a professional or even an advanced musician but would love to be able to play for themselves just a bit. We need to give them a chance!

What are the biggest opportunities in your business right now?  What are you most excited about?

Being online and making the most of technology is a great opportunity. I’m excited about our building a whole new website at the moment, which is going to be connecting students and teachers all around Australia and then hopefully beyond. It’s been described as a Music Teacher Directory on steroids!There will be free teacher training and similarly info helping new students, or parents. Teachers will be given the online tools to run their business more efficiently. Tools that will do the booking, run their calendar, do their payments, all of the back end stuff that they hate doing but that will all be on our website.

So you would kind of be like their unofficial franchise way.

More like their agent. But in this way, we can connect with teachers that have a whole lot of different skills to students anywhere.It opens up the door to all different sorts of teaching methods and instruments. It is more about connecting all these people together and giving them the tools to make it easy for them to have music lessons.

Is this using your proprietary software, the custom software that you built?

No this is a whole new system.

Wow, are you a technologist?

I certainly love technology and what it can do, absolutely, but essentially I have create the ideas.

Do you have partners that are working on that stuff with you?

No, I’ve just got some website developers that I’ve recruited who got really excited when I told them what the idea was. This is a whole new area for our business, and I am aware of the fact that music teachers are really creative people.

You’ve done the same thing I’ve done. You’ve put together your own method. Not everybody goes that far, but everybody seems to like to put their little spin on it. So I became aware, even though I think my method is the best in the world, and you probably think your method is the best in the world, that not absolutely everybody wants to use it so I didn’t want to limit the way we connected people by saying “You have to use my method.” So we have gone down this path of going as an alternative, people can connect. And I can still have people using my method if they choose to.

It’s not quite finished yet. We have got the front end of the website and the guys are now building the back end. Most likely it will be a small percentage of fees so that you’re not locked into a specific amount.

We have a payment gateway so we’ll be collecting the fees every week and then they can get paid every week as well.

What trends do you see happening in the private music school space?  Do you see any opportunities or threats that are upcoming trend-wise?

I think we’re traveling through the threats of YouTube at the moment. There’s a lot of teenagers and adults who go to YouTube or the equivalent to try and learn how to play an instrument and I think in some ways it’s a threat and in some ways it’s actually a benefit because people will get into it just a little bit and then find they really want to do  this but can’t  on their own and then they’ll go off to a teacher so I think YouTube could be seen as a threat that people are doing that instead of having lessons. I think it’s actually more beneficial than its not. I will often use YouTube in a class and we’ll be talking about a piece of music, doesn’t matter what sort it is and I will say to them, do you know this one?  Then we get on YouTube and they go “oh yeah now I remember that one!” So that’s one thing.

In terms of the trend with everybody using mobile phones, smart phones, tablets, but particularly smart phones. Who doesn’t have a mobile phone (unclear) and the accessibility of connecting with people through a smart phone or a tablet means that sometime soon there’s going to be an explosion of online lessons that are not just the video on YouTube but they’re really connecting face to face online for their lessons. I think that’s got to be the next trend.

Are you looking to take part in that?

Being mobile friendly is another feature on our new website. We aim to make everything as easy to connect students and teachers as possible.

So is this master plan getting to launch?

Within the next one to  two months at the most, but with ongoing development as you would expect.

Wow, so when did you start this project?

The concrete idea really developed in January of this year and since then I did lots of research on the best way to create this, which in the end has been a custom build.

I then had to find a team of developers keen to take ion.

What are you going to call this?

www.bookmymusiclessons.com.au

Teachers can now register their interest at our landing page and they will get a great opening offer as well as being the first teachers given exposure to the students we recruit to the site.

You can also come and talk to us at our Book My Music Lessons facebook page 

if you are interested in connecting with Wendy or learning more about her programs and websites, you can visit the following :

www.musicschoolsuccess.com.au  Wendy’s Music School Success Consulting website

www.wendysmusic.com.au Wendy’s Music School and programs

www.bookmymusiclessons.com.au  Wendy’s Music Teacher Directory on steroids!

https://au.linkedin.com/in/wendysmusic Connect with Wendy