In the opening of a Facebook video for Junior Jammers, a virtual preschool music program conducted via Zoom, Bold Music Lessons instructor Tracey Bengough strums a ukulele and encourages the class to warm up their voices.
Lead instructor Catherine Sentigar joins in as the children prepare to sing solo verses of “Let It Go,” the break-out hit from Disney’s 2013 animated feature Frozen. A little blond-haired boy holds a maraca like a microphone as he sings: “Let it go, let it go/ Can’t hold it back anymore”
A brown-haired girl repeats the chorus. Despite sporting a wide smile, the next little girl freezes and can’t get the words out. The teacher assures her that it’s okay.
“It’s very brave to do a solo,” Bengough says.
A free virtual class held every Thursday at 11 a.m., Junior Jammers is designed to jump-start each student’s musical journey at an early age, introducing children to age-appropriate skills that they will benefit from throughout lives, according to Bold Music Lessons’ website.
It’s just one of several programs — including open mics, gig nights, summer camps and home collaborations — offered by the music instruction company Dean Williams and George Ramsay launched in 2013.
The birth of Bold Music Lessons
The two were both Davidson College students giving lessons at a local music store. Both had notes on how the business could run better. Namely, they agreed on the notion that a music school doesn’t need a physical space; teachers could go to people’s houses to give lessons.
“The main idea was to bring convenience to people rather than have another thing to drive yourself or your kid to,” Ramsay says, adding that the idea is far from revolutionary. What is innovative is Bold Music Lessons’ total commitment to the idea, he feels.
Although the music academy without a campus has recently pivoted from in-home lessons to virtual sessions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bold Music Lessons’ focus has not changed, says Ramsay, a 29-year-old guitarist, bassist, cellist and classically trained pianist who majored in music at Davidson College.
“Everything that we do, even after going virtual for the time being, is very hands-on [and] high-touch,” he offers. “[Classes] are equal parts learning music and expressing your creativity with your teacher.”
In a community living in the shadow of the novel coronavirus, Ramsay sees the company as providing a service for both clients and instructors. With most gigs gone, Bold Music Lessons is one of the few lifelines offered to Charlotte-area musicians. Ramsay hopes to provide a memorable experience for instructors as well as their students.
It’s interesting work, and high-paying too, he maintains.
“Compared to other teaching studios, our pay rate is significantly higher — often double — for our teachers,” Ramsay says. “Paying our staff as much as we possibly can has always been a priority, and our entire business model has been set up to achieve this.”
Choosing the right teachers
Ramsay estimates that the company’s clientele is 80% kids and 20% adults. Prior to the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders, teachers traveled to their students’ homes. The one-on-one aspect of the lessons has been a big draw for musicians like Payton Harkins, a University of North Carolina School of the Arts – Winston-Salem graduate who teaches guitar, piano and bass for the company.
“It’s the thing that makes them different from competitors,” Harkins asserts. “[In-home lessons] are more personal. They attract a more dedicated student who practices more regularly, [and] who takes more lessons for a longer period of time.”
Instructor Matthew Johnson graduated from Winthrop University with a degree in guitar performance. He was drawn to Bold Music Lessons because of the company’s empathy for their teachers. As a musician, Ramsay gets other musicians, Johnson believes.
“They really seem to be for the teachers and George is such an easy guy to work with,” Johnson offers. “He’s 100% got our backs.”
For their part, Bold Music Lessons has applied painstaking criteria to acquiring teachers.
“There’s not one background we’re looking for in a teacher, because every student learns differently and every musician has come into their own and become an expert in a different way,” Ramsay says. While instructors like Harkins hold impressive degrees, other teachers are seasoned pros with no technical education, just experience as players who started gigging fresh out of high school and have gone on to tour and score record deals. The ability to teach and connect with students is just as important as mastery of an instrument, Ramsay adds.
On the other side of the equation, prospective students are interviewed to determine the best way they learn, their level of experience and their musical interests.
“[We provide] a matchmaking service for musicians and students,” Ramsay maintains. “It’s definitely not something like Uber where you just sign up on an app.”
The result has been a diverse roster of music instructors with a broad array of specialties and experience, ranging from jazz- and lullaby-inflected singer songwriter Emily Sage to classically trained Colombian pianist and singer Andres David Cruz Gomez.
Thoughtful pairings create real results for BML
Providing quality instruction for students and plenty of work for musicians has paid off. The song the Junior Jammers sang could just as well have been titled “Let It Grow.” In Charlotte, Bold Music Lessons boasts a roster of 25 teachers serving 350 students. Last March, the company expanded, adding a Raleigh branch that has signed up five teachers.
Unfortunately, the expansion came right on the cusp of North Carolina’s shut down. While a Raleigh branch is still on the company’s radar, opening in the state’s capital city has been placed on the back burner. Other than that, Bold Music Lessons’ transition to a music market still under quarantine has been remarkably smooth.
“It was simply luck,” Ramsay says.
Prior to the COVID-induced shut-down, business was booming, he recalls. Instructors were getting all the clients they could handle and more says instructor Jason Jones, who performs and records as R&B artist Jason Jet.
“At one point they were able to get me up to 25 clients at one time,” he says. But a generous number of students also meant a great deal of driving, with Jones hitting the road to meet with people in Matthews, Waxhaw and beyond. Though Jones decided to scale back on his course load to devote more time to working on a studio he’s planning to open this summer, he still maintains a roster of virtual students — a mix of his own long-time clients and those he connects with through Bold Music Lessons.
Johnson’s clientele was also in the double digits.
“I had 21 students,” Johnson remembers. “It was pretty full, especially because I had to drive to their houses.”
Then last March, the world changed.
“I’m not paranoid or hysterical but my dad’s a doctor and I was hearing things [about COVID-19] early on,” Ramsay recalls. “We were monitoring the situation as far back as December and January.”
Lessons move to online
When the time came to go full-on virtual, Bold Music Lessons was ready, though Ramsay maintains it was a fluke of good fortune.
Last fall, with its instructors carrying full workloads, the company was in a quandary about how to schedule make-up lessons. As teachers got busier and busier, it’s became harder to accommodate students who missed or canceled lessons and to reschedule teachers to come back to their home.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘You can’t reschedule,’ but finding a time for me to go back to your house if you live in Fort Mill and I live in Myers Park is a pretty big ask,” explains Ramsay. So, the company started testing make-up lessons via video. “If not for a video solution, the end result would probably be that the [rescheduled] lesson wouldn’t happen at all.”
By February, Bold Music Lessons was working out the kinks in their video system while training their teachers how to use it to present effective video instruction. February turned out to be a month of severe storms, a situation that also played into the company’s hands.
“Pretty much all of our teachers through February had some serious cancellations, and they had to start doing the video make-up lessons,” Ramsay recalls. In March, when it became clear that the pandemic was getting worse, Bold Music Lessons put their teachers on notice that they were going to switch to video when needed.
On March 14, Ramsay was driving back from a wedding gig in South Carolina and got on the phone with Williams. On March 15 they agreed to teach exclusively online.
“We got the email on Sunday night and it was one of the easiest transitions ever,” Harkins remembers. The students, parents and teachers were immediately onboard, and there were few if any hiccups, he maintains. “It was oddly perfect.”
Johnson says that only five or six students dropped out due to the video transition. He says he’s impressed with how smoothly Ramsay was able to keep instructors working.
“Out of all the jobs that coronavirus affected, you would think musician would be pretty high up there with many not being able to work at all,” Johnson offers. He counts himself fortunate, only having to contend with income from lost live gigs.
Looking into the future
After the pandemic, will the company ever go back to primarily in-home instruction? Ramsay says it’s up to the teachers.
“If a family wants to go back to in-home lessons tomorrow, it really is up to the teacher as to whether or not they’re comfortable,” Ramsay maintains. That said, many clients are discovering that they prefer video instruction. It’s slightly cheaper than in-home visits, because driving costs are not factored into the price tag, and parents are finding that their children are still receiving plenty of care and attention.
Bold Music Lessons has validated the effectiveness and efficiency of video instruction, Ramsay believes. He guesses that most clients may take a hybrid approach in the future, virtual lessons augmented with the occasional in-house visit.
“At the end of the day we want to keep our teachers busy,” Ramsay contends. “Musicians are getting slammed by all of this. Our number one priority right now is to keep them working.” He feels the company can best benefit musicians, and themselves, by broadening their online offerings.
Video lessons aside, Bold Music Lessons has focused on fostering connection and a sense of community for their teachers and students in other ways. The lockdown has curtailed some of their special programs, such as Gig Night.
“It’s a great opportunity for musicians to showcase what they’re doing,” Jones says of the live events that were staged every quarter on Saturday and Sunday nights at Heist Brewery.
“It’s a ton of fun,” Ramsay offers. “It’s a tangible event that students can work toward. It’s always good to have deadlines.”
Making the best of a bad time with online music lessons
With live events at breweries off the table, the company has devised a workaround with Collaboration From Home, a recurring event that began last April. It pulls the Bold community together through virtual technology to craft and record a cover version of an iconic song.
“We are leveraging technology to build and curate an engaged community,” Ramsay says. April’s offering, a rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song,” was performed and produced by teachers as a sort of test case for the concept. May brought together 25 to 30 students, teachers and friends for a take on the O’Jays R&B standard “Love Train.” Next up on June 5 is a rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
The song choice has been determined by a number of questions; Ramsay offers. What’s a song that everyone knows? Will it be interesting musically but not too hard for students to play? BML’s staff was also thinking about songs that would reflect the state of the world when they recorded them.
“’Your Song’ was a beautiful thing for everyone to enjoy because we’re all kind of sad and anxious,” Ramsay related. While “Love Train” was just an opportunity to have fun, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” felt right because Ramsay believes we’re all feeling a little bit defiant after being cooped up in quarantine.
School’s out, but summer camp is still in
Starting on June 15, the company’s next project, Bold Music Summer Camp, will move the company out of virtual space into the real world, Ramsay promises.
For the past six years, the week-long summer camp has been comprised of small groups of 10 to 12 kids in four age-specific groups: middle school for two groups and high school for two others. The groups would then work and learn at Charlotte musician and producer Jason Scavone’s Sioux Sioux Studios.
This June, Sioux Sioux is still in the mix, but the camp will also be a bit more structured, Ramsay says. He promises a more robust plan with activities, a songwriting workshop and a performance element that the program didn’t have before. Monday through Wednesday, campers will experience writing and performing at the Evening Muse in NoDa. On Thursday and Friday, they will learn the ropes of recording their own music at Sioux Sioux.
Ramsay calls the camp sessions “live with an asterisk.” If campers don’t want to come into the studio, they can still record their parts from home, he says. In addition, the camp will stagger studio time, bringing campers and teachers in one by one.
Students can also video commute to the Evening Muse if they don’t feel comfortable in a group, Ramsay maintains. The campers and musicians who do come to the venue are in small enough numbers that social distancing will be no problem, he says. Temperature checks will be done at both locations.
“We’re ready to offer people this experience,” Ramsay insists.
Ramsay contends that all these efforts go back to the importance of teaching people how to make music.
From a developmental standpoint, children who learn music from a young age do better than otherwise, he offers.
Learning music also teaches you discipline and refines motor skills. In addition, Ramsay extols the virtues of learning new skills. He maintains that he’s a good enough bass player, but no virtuoso. Even so, he would never give up playing music with other musicians.
“What has always kept me interested and engaged with music is its social prospects,” Ramsay says. “Some of the greatest people I’ve met in my life, I’ve met through music. Some of the best experiences I’ve had have come through music. Being able to play music with other people is one of the greatest gifts there is.”