TTTV067: Building a Travelling Piano School with Abraham Levitan - Creative Music Education
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TTTV067: Building a Travelling Piano School with Abraham Levitan

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Nov 18

travelling piano school

Abraham Levitan didn’t come from a traditional, conservatory background. So, when he started teaching he included all genres of music. He custom arranged pop tunes for his students and encouraged them to play the music that they enjoyed listening to.

Abraham Levitan Piano Power

Perhaps that’s why he was so popular. His teaching style was friendly and accessible and his studio quickly grew. Soon he had a sizeable waiting list and started looking into hiring teachers.

But how did he find the right teachers?

How do you find teachers for a travelling music school that align with your ideas and philosophy of teaching? How do you make sure teachers stick with you for the long term?

Find out all about Abraham’s approach to hiring, scheduling, and teaching in today’s podcast. Maybe it will even inspire you to start a travelling music school too.

Transcript

Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. Alternatively, click below to download a PDF. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can find the full video and transcript in the Member Resources AreaNot a member? See below for how you can get $1o0 off your membership today. 

In this episode, you’ll learn

  • The benefit of Abraham’s unusual route to piano teaching
  • How a teacher focussed business is better for students
  • Why he stuck with travelling lessons and didn’t open a studio location
  • When running a business, why simple is better than perfect
  • Why Chicago is so suited to a travelling music school
  • Abraham’s approach to professional development for his teachers
  • How to hire teachers that fit your philosophy and style
  • The interview process Abraham uses in his studio

Links Mentioned

Podcast Video

piano teaching podcast

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Being a full-time teacher myself, I know how busy teachers are and how much time, effort and passion we put into our students. Sometimes, the last thing we want to do in our time off is listen to more piano teaching stuff! So, well done for using this time for self-improvement.

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Full Transcript

Click here to read a full transcript on screen

Tim: Abraham, great to have you on the show today. Welcome.

Abraham: Thank you for interviewing me, Tim. It's a pleasure and an honor.

Tim: It's gonna be a great conversation because I was really interested to find out about your business model. That's really what we're going to be talking about today. Abraham is a music school owner but a little bit different, at least in my experience, in that your staff are traveling to students' houses. I come up here a little bit out of the loop, but I haven't heard of this happening all that much, certainly not in Australia. So I'm really interested to dig in and find out a little bit more about how it all works. But before we do that, can you just tell us a brief little bit about your music background and the sort of the starting of Piano Power, your music school?

Abraham: Sure. So yeah, the school is called Piano Power. It is based in Chicago, in the suburbs of Chicago. I moved to Chicago immediately after college. I went to Yale University up in the northeast, and I'm originally from the Midwest, a town called Louisville, Kentucky, which is most famous for Muhammed Ali and for the Kentucky Derby. But I was born in Chicago and had some roots there. And so after college, I moved back to Chicago and was making a go of it as a rock musician, which will hopefully connect with some of your audience. I started my own private teaching practice on the side while I was doing that. To back up to your question about my own music background, I was a history major at Yale. I was not a music major. But I sang in an a cappella group, which has some recognition around the globe, it's called the Whiffenpoofs. I seriously doubt if any of your audience has heard of that.

Tim: Who thought of that name?

Abraham: It was thought of in 1909, I believe, which explains how it sounds like. It's something from a Lewis Carroll novel or something like that. I did a cappella singing in college, I had my rock band, and music for me was pure extracurricular joy. It was not an academic pursuit. And so when I started teaching piano lessons on my own, in 2000, quite frankly I was going by the seat of my pants and thinking what do I love about music and how do I translate that into enthusiasm for my students.

Suffice to say, I had had piano lessons myself, classical and jazz all throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school. So I did have that background to fall back on, but as far as coming in with a method, my method was to keep my students engaged and to do that by any means necessary. I was very pro pop music, very pro original composition, busting out little arrangements of Kelly Clarkson songs in five minutes and having them work on them during the week.

Tim: It's a very similar approach to how I came through as well, because I didn't have that long conservatory training or anything like that. Although I had a music degree, it wasn't even piano specifically, so I was kind of... I'm like, "Okay, how do I keep these kids engaged? Let's do what works."

Abraham: Yeah, it's very interesting. I mean, conservatory training we can go into hiring later because I know that was a topic you wanted to discuss. Conservatory training to me can be a double-edged sword when it comes to evaluating potential teachers, because sometimes the realities of working with a seven-year-old who's squirming around on the piano bench and kind of wants to be there and kind of doesn't, requires a very different skill set from what works in an academy or university setting.

I sometimes think that teachers who go into it with nothing but the sense of, "Well, I really love music and I wanna communicate that enthusiasm," are often a little bit more flexible in those kinds of situations. Anyway, back to how Piano Power sort of evolved from that. 2001 I started teaching myself. I never had...I hear of teachers that have 100 students every week. I never got to that level, but I had maybe 40.

Tim: That's probably why you're still teaching.

Abraham: And around 2007, after I had been doing it for six years, I developed a waiting list, I'm certainly not unique in that category, but it kind of happens once you have your own practice. And new families start calling and you start saying things like, "Well, I think in two or three years I might have spot available." A parent of a six-year-old that really wants to start lessons does not want to hear that at all. So at that point, I started thinking, "Well, maybe there is room to have other instructors that are like-minded, who can help me process this waiting list, essentially."

So there was no plan. I mean, I'm a very type A person and I love planning, so like when I started having a business, I went out and got "Small Business for Dummies" and "Personal MBA for Dummies" and all this stuff and just trying to act like I knew what I was doing. But really, it was a very seat of the pants operation for the first few years. We will now have our 10th anniversary this coming spring, and we're at about 425 students, which is at least 4 times what I ever dreamed of having.

Tim: Brilliant. Well, congratulations firstly. That's brilliant growth.

Abraham: Thanks.

Tim: I think it's gonna resonate with a lot of teachers listening, this point, which a number of them get to and I get asked questions about it, particularly in our community as well. What do you do when you get to this point where you've got too many students to teach yourself? Taking that next leap seems almost too big a leap for many teachers and so they won't go that next step. I definitely do want to talk about hiring staff and how you go about doing that, because I think that is one big barrier for a lot of teachers. But before that, just give us a quick overview. You've got about 400 students. Are they all learning piano or is there a mixture?

Abraham: No.

Tim: And do they have one lesson a week, approximately how long? What's kind of the average?

Abraham: Yeah. So much like Starbucks coffee, I came to regret the name Piano Power on a certain level because it seemed to suggest that the offerings were more limited than they actually were. Starbucks, as it turns out, offers tea and pastries and terrible sandwiches as well, but that's nowhere to be found in their name.

Tim: Oh, I see what you're saying, okay.

Abraham: Piano Power also offers guitar, voice, and drum lessons, but piano lessons will always be the bread and butter. It's about two-thirds of the total right now. A lot of our teachers are multi-instrumentalists. They're pianists who have secondary instrument skills, and that's kind of how our offerings evolve as well. We do weekly lessons. I've experimented being more flexible with that, but it typically does not work in the teacher's favor since it creates...you know, if somebody wants lessons every other week, then suddenly that teacher has a vacancy. And so, as a businessperson, you're always poised between wanting to take in new business and also wanting to have pretty fixed borders around what you offer so that you don't try to be all things to all people because that'll drive you crazy. So that was one of those small decisions that I made early on was that it was weekly lessons or no go.

The other factor that I think makes it work, especially because we're going from house to house instead of in a studio, is that we do not do 30-minute single student lessons at any house. It needs to be at least 45 minutes. If we do 30-minute lessons, it's because there are multiple kids back-to-back. You start to see these logistical decisions that you have to make, where you cannot be all things to all people, but ultimately it's a teacher-centered business. If the teachers aren't happy, you don't have a business. And I think... Yeah, go ahead.

Tim: Well, you wrote a great blog post for us a couple of weeks ago, which we'll link to in the show notes, about hiring teachers and how you put them at the center of your time-tabling, I guess. It's not at the whim of every parent that little Johnny wants his lesson at 4:00 on a Tuesday. It's like, "Well, actually, is that gonna work for my teachers?" I think this is your approach, right?

Abraham: Right, right.

Tim: Perhaps that's something people get wrong sometimes, do you think?

Abraham: Yes. Yes, I do. I could just pause there, but I think you want me to elaborate. So, I mean, yeah, when people get it wrong, I think it's because they're in the early stages of a business and they wanna say yes to everybody because they wanna grow the business as fast as possible. Now, Piano Power, yeah, we have 425 kids in the program now, but we've also been around for 10 years. After year one, we maybe had 50 kids and after year two we maybe had 65 or 70.

So it was never this idea of, "We're gonna be a national conglomerate and I need to have this hockey stick growth pattern to please the shareholders." I mean, this is a family-style business that my wife and I run together. And as a result of that, you're not obsessed with growth, you're obsessed with kind of, I guess, what is sometimes called the "inside out approach," which is essentially take care of the people that are already with you, whether those are teachers or clients, and then word will spread from there, as opposed to obsessively marketing to the outside world and not taking care of the people that are already with you.

In the blog post I think there's a subhead that says something like, "Beware the client-centered approach because it doesn't favor the clients even if you think it does." We were a lot more concise in the blog post so please read it. But when a business like Piano Power or any other music studio says that they are exclusively looking out for their clients' interests and that clients always come first, that probably means that it's probably not a great place to work, and therefore the teacher turnover is pretty high. If those things are not in balance and teachers don't feel great about their work environment being respected, then you can bring in a lot of clients really fast but you're not gonna have that continuity.

Tim: Do your teachers tend to hang around for a few years?

Abraham: Yeah, I mean, so the nature of the beast is, a lot of our teachers are in their early 20s, maybe right out of undergrad and maybe either going through a master's program or trying out the real world for a few years before they do a master's program. So, demographically speaking, the odds are stacked against us of teachers being around for a long time. But that being said, I do ask for a two-year minimum commitment from all of our teachers, and I get that a great majority of the time, and I've had teachers that have been with me for five, six years at this point. I mean, that is your ultimate asset, is teachers who deliver the goods year after year. I mean, that is what makes your life easier from the entrepreneurial perspective than any other factor. And so I bend over backwards for my teachers, and I don't apologize to my clients about that because that makes their experience better, too.

Tim: Yep. Now I think I would be right in assuming that you, when you first started teaching, traveled to students' houses?

Abraham: Yes.

Tim: Yep. As I did, and as a lot of us do it's the easiest way to get started obviously, it's the most convenient for parents, but it's not the best model for teachers, in my opinion, and that's why I don't do it anymore, because you've got all this travel time that you're not necessarily compensated for. So why is it that you stuck with that model, whereas most of us tend to go, as soon as we can, you coming to me now?

Abraham: Yeah, I'll give you the simplest answer, which is that it was the model that I was already participating in and the idea of suddenly making a U-turn, pardon the pun, and opening up a physical space was too much for me to handle. I wasn't even 30 years old when I started this business and I was thinking, "Physical space, studio, insurance, what?"

Tim: Rentals, yeah.

Abraham: Rentals, my head was exploding. So this was a model I was already familiar with. Now, the compensation issue that you bring up is, of course, very top of mind with all this. If you are offering lessons in the homes of the students, you are not going to compete on price with lessons that are in a studio. I mean, what I'm saying in more blunt language is that we charge more than lessons that are in a studio, our teachers are paid more as a result of that, and we also have a regular gas subsidy for our teachers.

Tim: Right, gas being petrol, fuel?

Abraham: Correct, petrol. Which I'm sure will all be much cheaper under President Trump who's going to frack America into oblivion. But that's a subject for another time.

Tim: We should tell everyone as we're recording this literally the election happened last night, last night at my time, today your time.

Abraham: Yes, which is why I'm wearing black, if you can see that in your video screen.

Tim: In mourning. Oh, dear. Let's not even open that up for conversation right now. The gas subsidy, depending on how far the teacher travels, I see also, there's some kind of metric that you work out is, there?

Abraham: Right, right. Yeah, it actually has to do with the number of days they work per week. Yeah, it's another thing where you have to find a balance between a simple system that works and a perfect system that would be way more labor intensive, right? Like, the simple system that works is, "Okay, you work this many days a week, you're gonna get this much for your petrol." The more complex system would be, "Track your mileage and submit it to me and you will get a fee based on that." And that is a level of record-keeping that we don't want to do.

Tim: Right, fair enough. If it works, stick with it, right? Keep it simple, yeah. So give us a couple of the advantages and disadvantages for this model, because I have a feeling there's been some people listening going, "You know what? That makes sense. I could almost get my head around doing that. Like you, I don't necessarily want to throw myself into huge rentals and contracts and all that kind of stuff. But maybe a couple of teachers teaching with me who go to the students houses, maybe I could do that." What are some of those pros and cons?

Abraham: Yeah, so I mean, advantages we've already covered. I get to work from home, there is zero commute for me, there is zero pressure to maintain a physical space.

Tim: Hang on, you said you work from home?

Abraham: Yeah.

Tim: You personally teach in your home?

Abraham: That's a great question. Okay, so I have a two-year-old daughter who is taking a nap right now and will hopefully continue to nap throughout this interview. But since she was born two years ago, I stopped having a practice of my own. So I am purely admin and management at this point. Just to give you an example of my day, after I wrap up with you, I'm gonna head out on the road and observe a couple of teachers in action. I have kind of a regular shadowing practice with all of my teachers and that's something that they're comfortable with because it is pretty low key and leads to a dialog about how to become better teachers.

Tim: Excellent idea.

Abraham: I mean, this probably gets to some of your later questions about how do you keep track of people that you don't see?

Tim: Yeah, totally.

Abraham: But, yeah, back to the business model in general of doing in-home lessons, not having a physical space to me is a huge weight off of my mind. Initially convincing teachers that this is gonna be a good work environment for them, when I know that they're also interviewing with music studios, obviously, there is a logistical factor of driving that you don't have to deal with when you're going to work at a studio. But that being said, I think the pay is more than fair to make up for that, and also we have just a philosophy of putting teachers first, that I can tell you that most studios do not practice, and that is evident in every aspect of the way that Piano Power is run.

Tim: Great. The parents obviously like it too because it's far more convenient for them, right?

Abraham: Oh yeah, oh yeah, of course. Disadvantages, you know, I mean, I guess when I was thinking about talking with you about this business model and talking to potentially a global audience, I think Chicago is kind of a unique city for this. Chicago is pretty drivable. It doesn't have like the huge traffic snarl of like an L.A. or a New York or a London, God forbid. There are just certain physical locations that seem to work better for this. I mean, Chicago is kind of a perfect mix because you have a high concentration of young musicians, it's pretty normal to have a car, and there are some suburbs that are very close to the city that once you're out there, you can hit a bunch of houses and then head back into the city.

So even if you live in Chicago as I do and as most of my younger teachers do, it's often much more sensible to just commit to driving out to the suburbs, hit four or five houses, and then head back home. You're not in rush hour either way, and so the logistics of this particular case seem to work out. But I would just encourage everybody to sort of evaluate their individual location and market because I'm not sure if it's like a universal solution for everybody.

Tim: Good point. Do your staff teach a method, or teach things as you've set it up a little bit like a franchise, or are they free to teach as they wish?

Abraham: Free to be you and me. There is not a specific book or set of books that I recommend that everybody use. I'm certainly standing by to give my opinions on books whenever one of my teachers wants to dig a little bit deeper in that. But I mean, just to go back to that point between a simple system that works and a perfect system that might cause excruciating problems with your workflow, if I were micromanaging every single book that every one of my teachers used, there's no way that I could have scaled the business to where it is now.

Giving your teachers the freedom to make those choices, I think, it makes them better teachers and it also kind of allows me to run the kind of business that I want to run. So, long story short, the philosophy is consistent among all the teachers as far as kind of having great interpersonal skills, allowing for composition, pop music, fun, as well as theory and fundamentals. But it does not advance to the level of, "Okay, you have finished with Piano Adventures Level 1, now you are going to Faber and Faber Playtime Level 2A." Those are decisions that our teachers are free to make for themselves, and I'm advising as needed.

Tim: Fantastic. You probably get everyone together to do professional development every now and then, do you? Where you can sort of talk through things you've found and things that work, and...

Abraham: Sure, sure. So getting people in the same room to do professional development is not something that I have actively done yet. I do one-on-one professional development. So not only am I shadowing teachers on a regular basis, but also Google Docs have been phenomenal, because every teacher has a Google Doc feedback log and a Google Doc evaluation log. The feedback log is for them to give me thoughts about how lessons are going, and then I chime in with my responses to that as needed. The evaluation log is for me to collect any feedback that I get from the parents that they're working with, any feedback from a shadowing day, and resources for them to see what's going right and what needs a little work. I think Google Docs are amazing. I'm obviously always free by phone for phone consultations as needed, but the Google Docs are on a regular schedule. So that gives us a reason to communicate and to make sure that I don't lose the thread on any major issues that are going on.

Tim: And how many times would you shadow a teacher in a year, let's say?

Abraham: Yeah, if it's their first year, I wanna see them two or three times during that year. For my veteran teachers I check in in a shadowing context once a year, typically, and then we have the Google Docs going in the meantime to keep the conversation going. I mean, I'll be honest with you. Teachers who are completely off when it comes to philosophy and interpersonal skills and the mechanics of teaching are not going to magically become great teachers due to six months or a year of professional development.

I mean, really, hiring is the golden ticket. Professional development is great. I don't want teachers to be actively doing horrible work, and if there are little structural fixes that we can make, absolutely I want to make those, but it is not my job to turn a lump of coal into a diamond. A teacher has to have a pretty good set of skills right out of the gate, and then I can finish the final 10% based on observation and feedback logs and things like that.

Tim: Great. Well, that's a very good segue to this very important question of getting the hiring right. How do you make sure you're not hiring a lump of coal, I should say? How do you find the diamonds that just need a bit of polishing? What are some of the tips?

Abraham: Yeah, I guess it's easiest to explain in the context of what my hiring process is actually like.

Tim: That'd be great.

Abraham: It'll start out with me putting out a call either on Craigslist, or in Chicago we have an online resource called Chicago Artist's Resource, which is very well-trafficked. Obviously, my favorite way to find teachers is personal referrals from current teachers. We've even tried our hand over the years with some recruiting services, some of which have worked better than others. So I have this pool of talent that I'm evaluating, and just based on a resume, I kind of have my list of things that send out good signals to me and things that send out bad signals, as I'm sure anybody that runs a business does.

Tim: Can you give us a couple of quick examples?

Abraham: Yeah, so I mean something that would strike me right away as being good is a sense of humor. It's not a musical quality whatsoever, but it is so critical for working with kids, that if they kind of are able to display some wit in the context of just sending some emails back and forth about sending out an interview, man, I am all over that. And being pop-friendly, right? So if they come from a conservatory background but perhaps on the weekends they play in a Backstreet Boys cover band or something like that, to me...

Tim: Please, no.

Abraham: To me, that's a sign that there's another side to that person and that they are not going to be pulling out their hair trying to arrange a Bruno Mars song for a student. And qualities that would make them less likely to get the job, I mean, sometimes it's as simple as geographical, right? I'm aware of where our target geographical area is for clients, and if I see a teacher who is incredibly well-intentioned but they live on the complete opposite side of the city in a suburb, I can kind of see to the end of the line there, that best case scenario I might have them for a few weeks and then they would say, "Oh man, I really didn't realize there was this much driving."

So it's just experience and, obviously, every time you make a bad hire you add another note to self for evaluating future candidates. That's the evaluation process. The first interview is kind of a combination of interview and audition. So maybe 30 minutes of talking about background, kind of getting a sense for stability, as you were saying before, retention and working with a teacher for multiple years is such a big deal that a lot of times, that's what I'm looking for.

Tim: Yes, having a conversation about where they're at in life and study and whatever they're doing, yeah.

Abraham: Sure. Right, right, right. And, you know, just getting a sense of who they are. I mean, obviously, if you can talk for five minutes with somebody about something they're passionate about, you're gonna learn a lot about them as a person, too. It doesn't always have to be right down the line, what is your biggest regret, what is your five-year plan, blah, blah, blah.

Tim: Oh, I hate those questions. But you know what? They're just so staged, aren't they? And unhelpful. Everyone asks the same questions. I really hope that people listening who are interviewing teachers don't, you know, "Just give us your... What do you need to improve about yourself?" And all those that are just...

Abraham: Yeah, right, right, right.

Tim: Yeah..

Abraham: The classic answer to what do you need to improve about yourself is, "Well, I work too hard. I care too much." Kind of turn it into a way to praise yourself again. So, yes, you can be very squirrely with questions like that. So then, after those 30 to 45 minutes, we head over to their instrument, do a little bit of sight reading. These are not Chopin nocturnes that I'm asking them to sight read, this would be something that a second or third year student could do, because I just want to see if they have the chops to play something from a book quickly to demonstrate for a student what they will have to play.

An then I do a couple of other things that are more pertinent to the Piano Power philosophy. One of them is to give them a little five or six-note melody and have them harmonize it. So, in other words, take a simple student composition and develop it into a more full-fledged piece. And then the other thing is, I hand them an iPod and give them a pop song and say, "Okay, arrange a very simple version of this song in 20 minutes that is appropriate for a second or a third year student.

Tim: Wow, wow. Well, that's a really good question. That's a good challenge. That would tell you so much about the teacher.

Abraham: Absolutely, absolutely. Frequently, the ones who fall on their face during something like that are the conservatory-trained musicians who are no doubt absurdly talented at activities like that but they just don't know what to let go. They don't know how to simplify a rhythm, they don't know how to take out the tide notes and make it more easily playable. Because, really, I'm looking to see what their skills are on the ground, in the real world when they're presented with a situation like that.

I've had teachers, candidates, that were conservatory-trained, who have kind of walked out of the interview shaking their heads and saying, "I don't know how you expect anybody to do that in 20 minutes." And I get that. But I've had musicians who are more experienced in rock music and writing charts and things like that who bang it out in 10 minutes and it's simple but it's accurate and playable. Those are the skills...

Tim: So you're not expecting them to notate it, it's just create an arrangement that you could then teach a student by rote. Here's the chord progression, let's do that, and why don't you play the melody in your right hand? It goes like this or something like that.

Abraham: Sure, they could do it that way. But, yeah, I do have others who notate it fully, but they'll just simplify it enough to make it playable. So that's all good as well. Assuming they do a great job with that, then there is a second interview, which is 30 minutes with a sample student that they will probably never see again but who has volunteered for that job.

Tim: And you do that in your office, or your...?

Abraham: No, I typically do that in the suburbs. I have a family that I've worked with for a long time who volunteers their living room for the occasion.

Tim: Oh, really, and their children?

Abraham: Sometimes. Their kids are so old right now that they've kind of aged out. Their kids are also too well-behaved, so they're not good candidates for the job. Ideally, I'll have like a slightly squirrely seven-year-old who is sitting on the bench and has never had a piano lesson before. Obviously, you're gonna learn a whole lot about their flexibility and their sense of humor and their patience if you watch them for 30 minutes with a kid. No teacher gets hired without doing that, and if they make it through both of those hoops, then we move on to calling references, obviously doing a criminal background check and all of that stuff. So that's the overall hiring structure, and with a combination of the intuitive skills, of just having done it for 10 years and having screwed up a bunch of times along the way, I feel like it's a pretty good filter.

Tim: Yeah, it sounds like a great way to assess the skills of a teacher. And it surprises me that schools, in particular, don't do that kind of thing. They'll do an interview, an hour-long interview, and often that's it. Sometimes they'll maybe hear the teacher play, and, of course, as you said, hearing a teacher play something they've practiced is very different to whether they could teach at all. So I think there's a lot we can learn from you, Abraham. I really appreciate you letting us in on your hiring plan because we can learn a lot by that. Because that is, to me, a really effective way of judging whether someone would be a good fit for you and your method.

Abraham: It's my pleasure. Thank you, thank you for saying that. It does require more time on the front end. So, I mean, again if we're going for like hockey stick growth through the stratosphere and you're just trying to hire as many teachers as possible, you're not gonna take the time to have them jump through all those hoops. Bully for you, I'm sure in your first year you will have hundreds of students. But, as far as longevity and having great teachers that stick around, I firmly believe in investing that kind of time up front.

Tim: Absolutely. Yeah, well, it's gonna pay off, isn't it? You find the right teachers, then they make good contacts with your students, they will sell your program to the friends of the students they're teaching,, things will grow organically, they'll hopefully hang around for a bit longer. You're right. If you front load the time and you get things right at the beginning, even though it does take longer at the beginning, you can often save yourself time down the track. I think it makes a lot of sense.

Abraham: Yeah, and I mean, to your point, my wife and I certainly experiment with various marketing strategies all the time, but I have found this particular market to be largely resistant to marketing. Word of mouth is still absolutely the dominant force in finding new clients, and you don't get that without great teachers. You don't get a solid word of mouth referral presence without having teachers that represent your brand, as it were, in a great way.

Tim: That's great. Of course, the client strategy that you've just outlined would work perfectly well for teachers in a bricks and mortar studio, too. That's not specific to the traveling model.

Abraham: Right, right. I don't watch them drive around a racetrack or anything like that.

Tim: Yeah, I see it in here, as long as I get there, and their cars aren't emblazoned with your logo. If they're bad drivers that's not gonna reflect on you, right? I don't know if you have that in the states, but we have it over here. Our big, big companies will have on the back of their trucks they'll say, "How's my driving today? Call a phone number."

Abraham: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, we got that.

Tim: Which is brilliant for the people who own these companies. If there's a phone number on there, hopefully, their drivers will behave appropriately, so I think it makes a lot of sense. All right, so look, we're gonna start the final few questions, but I guess let's just talk marketing very quickly. I mean, you've mentioned now word of mouth, we all know that word of mouth is the best marketing. Do you tend to do any local flyers, Facebook advertising, anything like that these days, or not really?

Abraham: Yeah. So honestly, we are total babies with all this stuff. And by babies, I mean, we are in the infant stages of experimenting with other forms of marketing. I certainly don't want to come across as a guru, this is all trial and error for us. In the past year or year and a half we've started thinking a lot more about SEO, search engine optimization, for those of you who aren't a super nerd. We just want to make sure that when somebody Googles piano lessons and the name of their suburb in Chicago, that we are on page one. That kind of thing is important.

We have experimented with some Google AdWords, ads, and some Facebook ads, and things like that. But again, we've just started doing that over the past year or so. My inclination, and this is, again, every market is unique, but my inclination about our market is that our money would perhaps be better spent just taking out little ads in school programs. You know, "This dance recital is sponsored by Piano Power that provides lessons in your suburb." I mean, it's all super small time, it's not very techie, it's not sexy and glamorous, but things like hanging a flyer on somebody's door or taking out a little ad in a school phone directory or something like that, maybe that's just more appropriate to our market than dominating Twitter, you know.

Tim: Yeah, well, it's all about testing, isn't it? You've gotta try the dance brochures, dance studio brochures, for a term or whatever it is and see what happens. I was just thinking then, how big do you think Piano Power could get? Is there any limit to the growth that you could have?

Abraham: My sanity would probably be the limit.

Tim: And how fast you can hire the right teachers, too, I guess. There are the right teachers out there, I mean, eventually maybe you'd start running out of people who can do the pop and the..., I don't know.

Abraham: Yeah. I mean, I think my wife and I are deeply philosophical when it comes to issues of money and time. For example, we have one car and it's a 1998 Volvo that looks like it's completely falling apart, and my plan is to drive that thing into the ground. I mean, our need to live high on the hog is not really what's affecting Piano Power's growth strategy. Personally, I would be fine if it stayed at exactly the same size for the next decade. As far as like room to grow, I think delegation is a key factor in that. Not to go all Tim Ferriss on you, but if you were to read "The 4-Hour Workweek," he has some good things to say about knowing when a task is able to be passed off to another person.

I have at this point, including myself, a four-person admin team. Everybody's part-time, but they are taking a lot of stuff off my plate that has allowed Piano Power to get to this level. I imagine that if I woke up tomorrow and it was 600 kids instead of 400, that would mean increasing the admin staff accordingly. So, yeah, I think there's room to grow, especially in the city, since about 90% of our students are still in the suburbs. But by the same token, as far as like franchising it or trying to get to 1000 or anything like that, I'm not really motivated by goals like that. Because, again, I was lucky enough to marry a woman who feels pretty similarly about money to me in the sense that you want enough to be comfortable and have a nice life, but it is kind of gauche to want to move into the Trump Tower.

Tim: I was just thinking of Trump. I'm thinking of someone swimming in a pile of cash, yeah.

Abraham: Exactly, exactly. You don't want your skin to turn orange, so watch out. Watch out, everybody.

Tim: All right, so let's get some just overall tips for any piano teachers listening to this, who are thinking, "You know what? I reckon I could give this a go." Whether it's the traveling kind of model or a bricks and mortar academy or studio, what tips would you give them for going out in this and expanding?

Abraham: Well, I mean, here's what I would say. Like, I am lucky enough to find all of the aspects of running a business very fascinating. I'm 10 years into it, and I love super nerdy things, like spreadsheets, like writing standard operating procedures, like coming up with ways to manage people, I love helping other people solve their problems. Like, anything else. I think if you're going into it purely with a profit motive and not understanding that this is an entirely different skill set from teaching lessons and you're not at least modestly fascinated and intrigued by the skill set that this job requires, this job will burn you out in six months and you'll say, "That's the stupidest thing I ever did, I'm going back to being a teacher."

And that's fine, because if you're a teacher and you're great at it and you're making enough money to pay your bills, you're doing really well. I'm not here to like sell this entrepreneurial model to everybody. I think the most important thing to do at the outset is to kind of do a self-analysis and to make sure that you find the skills of running a business to be intriguing to you. I mean, not to ramble on too long about this, but I was in bands for a long time, throughout my 20s and early 30s, and always in my head I thought that being in a band was the best, and that if I had a chance to make a go of it as a touring musician, that would be the best life for me. The reality was, I did not find that lifestyle as fascinating as I find the entrepreneurial lifestyle to be. That is a personality quirk that I have and I think you have as well.

Tim: Definitely.

Abraham: Those are skills to kind of analyze yourself at the outset, and make sure that they line up with what you're trying to do. Because, otherwise, I could talk your ear off about how much fun I have running Piano Power and it might not relate to you at all.

Tim: Yeah, that's a fantastic answer to that question and I'm really glad that you brought it up. Because there's absolutely no point going into a business if you haven't got a passion for it, for trying it out, and I think for ongoing learning. Like, I'm always listening to business podcasts...

Abraham: Yeah, me too.

Tim: ...reading books, yeah, just trying out new software that will help me automate a task, learning about hiring people overseas that can help you with things as you're doing. In some ways, I think we might well be on a bit of a similar level in regard to the kind of business thinking that we've got going on. Because I'm at that stage of hiring people to help with the podcast and various things in the business and it's so important to...and I still don't necessarily do it all that well, but to try and focus what I'm good at and to pass on those tasks which other people can do to help because that's the best way to build and scale a business. That sounds like you're doing exactly the same thing. So it's great. A really, really fantastic conversation. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing all those gems. I hope we've inspired some people.

Abraham: My pleasure. And I would be happy to do it again anytime. You are a pleasure to talk to, and I agree that we are on a similar path in a lot of respects. Hopefully, we can keep in touch.

Tim: Yeah, very cool. Now, being in Chicago, are you gonna be around next July when the NCKP comes to town?

Abraham: You're gonna have to help me out with that one. What is the NCKP?

Tim: Okay, so the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, which is one of my favorite events to come to in the states. It happens in... It's about an hour out of town, opposite direction to the lake. I'm trying to remember the place. Can't remember. Anyway, I'll find out for you. I'll send you the details.

Abraham: Yeah, please do.

Tim: Yeah, I tend to come, it's every two years, and sometimes hang around Chicago. So let's make sure we hook up and have a meal or something like that.

Abraham: Absolutely, that would be great.

Tim: Sounds good. All right, now, where do people go to find out a little bit more about you?

Abraham: Pianopower.O-R-G is the place. Yes, pianopower.org.

Tim: When I saw that you've got this great setup with your mic and your headphones, I asked if you did a podcast. And lo and behold, you do, so tell us about that quickly.

Abraham: How about that? Yes, my podcast is called "Nerds On Tour." That is "Nerds on Tour" and it is available on iTunes. I talk with musicians, some of them famous, some of them not so famous, about money, motivation, and the rest of life. So, essentially, the non-musical aspects of life that actually keep them going. Sometimes we do get into the financial weeds a little bit, but other times it's really just a matter of their own workflow and how they put food on the table. I've talked to people like John Doe from the band X, I've talked to Lita Ford who was a hair metal star back in the '80s, and I've talked to some indie folks as well. It is just fascinating to see them as people who are trying to put a budget together instead of triumphant rock stars jumping off the top of a PA.

Tim: And smashing equipment. Brilliant. So that was "Nerds On Tour" on the iTunes store for those podcasts, listeners. Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Abraham. Let's definitely keep in touch. I appreciate your blog posts as well from a couple of weeks back. We'll make sure we link up to that in the show notes, and all the details will be, as usual, in our show notes at timtopham.com/episode67. Thank you very much. We'll expect you soon.

Abraham: Oh, thank you, Tim, and America will survive the Trump presidency.

Tim: All the best over there, you have fun. All right, we'll catch you later. Thank you.

Abraham: All right, thanks.

Tim: See ya.

What surprised you about Abraham’s travelling studio?

What did you love about his approach to hiring? Was there anything you disagreed with or would do differently?

Are you tempted to start your own travelling piano school?

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.