By Caleb Chapman
Starting a Music Program from Scratch
Back in the fall of 1998 my wife, Alison, and I went for a lazy Sunday drive that changed my life. I was an undergrad student at Brigham Young University in Utah completing a music degree with plans to pursue an MBA. On that drive, Alison suggested that instead of me pursuing a business degree, we should open a music school. To me it seemed like a crazy idea with little chance of success, but I learned a long time ago to listen to my wiser partner. So, just one month later, without much experience, without money, and without any significant business training, we opened a tiny music school in Utah.
Onward and Upward
Today that tiny music school has grown into a program with 13 ensembles and close to 200 top-notch young musicians, ranging in age from 10-18.
Our flagship group, a jazz ensemble called the Crescent Super Band, has received international attention, thanks to the program’s 22 DownBeat Awards, and appearances at venues from New York to the Netherlands. In fact, the band has been named Utah’s “Best Professional Ensemble” in any genre by Utah Best of State for 8 consecutive years – pretty amazing for a bunch of high school kids.
In a very short period, our graduates have landed significant scholarships in many of the nation’s top music schools – Berklee, North Texas, Miami, USC, the New School, and many others. In fact, each year our 20-30 graduates from the program rack up well over $1,000,000 in scholarship offers.
I just got word that an upcoming show for the Crescent Super Band at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola has already sold out and our headlining debut at Carnegie Hall has almost sold out a month before the concert. I had to pinch myself when I got this news! How did we go from that Sunday drive in 1998 to having a full house at one of the world’s most famous concert venues?
A Recipe for Success
As I took a moment to reflect, I realized that there are several key philosophies that have served us well. They are not genre-specific and I am confident that the success our program has experienced can be duplicated anywhere when these principles are implemented. And, while none of them are “groundbreaking,” when combined, they provide a powerful recipe for a successful music program.
1. Keep music fun
As soon as studying music becomes something our musicians have to do—a chore—we have lost the battle. And this isn’t true just for our students; music needs to remain fun for the educator as well. Think back to what sparked your own passion for music. How can you instill that in your students?
2. Instill pride in the product
Music programs are cool! How can this be communicated properly, and the pride shared with the students and community? It comes from a mix of culture, programming, recruiting, professionalism, and other aspects. It starts with the way you, your students, and the public view the program. What can you do to position your group as a cultural resource to your community?
3. Remove students’ perceived limitations
Young musicians don’t know what the limitations on their ability are until you tell them. Don’t be afraid to set the bar high and keep notching it up. You will be amazed at the results!
4. Practice (and rehearse) for perfection
You already know that when a student practices while allowing mistakes, all he is doing is getting better at making mistakes! Create a culture that strives for as much accuracy as possible in rehearsals as well as performance and select the repertoire that will allow you to do that. What motivates your students to strive for perfection?
5. Empower your musicians with clear guidelines for learning the repertoire
It’s the old “teach a man to fish” analogy. A good educator can teach students how to play any piece of music. A great teacher will educate those students on how to accomplish this on their own. This approach allows them to learn new music during their individual practice time and not just when they are in rehearsal. For example, something that worked great for my jazz students was establishing a set of “rules” for articulation, which they apply to every piece they sight-read or play, whether in class or at home.
6. Surround yourself with a powerhouse team
Start with mentors for yourself; assemble an all-star cast of musicians and educators that have the skills that you want to develop who are willing to coach and guide you. Then, build a dream team for your students—clinicians, a network of private teachers, parent volunteers and boosters, and a staff of specialists. We’re all in it for the same reason: the students. Let’s help each other succeed.
7. Listen. Listen. Listen.
Encourage your musicians to learn the language of music through active listening. Provide information on area concerts in all styles, not just the one they are focused on in the classroom. Assemble listening recommendations and a forum for them to share their current interests and artists they have discovered.
As an educator, I love hearing about how other educators help their students succeed. What are your tips to helping your students achieve their best? Share in the comments below.
Caleb Chapman is an award-winning performer, author, music educator, and producer. His new book, The Articulate Jazz Musician co-written with Grammy-winning saxophonist Jeff Coffin, was released by Alfred Music in 2013. For more information on Caleb’s projects and educational innovations, visit CalebChapmanMusic.com.