Building a piano program over three decades… by Craig Sale

As I complete my 30th year as Director of the Preparatory & Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago, it is interesting to consider how it all started and then how it evolved over time. Piano teaching and marketing are very different now than 30 years ago and yet, as I look it over now, I see much at the core that is the same.

 

In March of 1986, I was selected by Concordia to be the first director of a new venture in community relations. I was excited to have the chance to create my own program based on all I had learned a few years earlier when earning a Professional Certificate in Piano Pedagogy from the New School. I began the program in the fall of 1986 with six students. In the following years, at one point our program’s enrollment reached over 100 students (with five teachers). Our current enrollment of 90 students taught by four teachers seems to be the norm.

Building enrollment

When beginning the program, it was thought that the quality of instruction offered, along with the connections Concordia had with Lutheran schools, would draw students immediately. This was my first learning experience! I was new and my program was new. People want connections and are reluctant to go with “new”.

The breakthrough came in two parts. The first was classic “word-of-mouth” publicity. Once I had established myself with that first handful of students, they began referring other people to me. Also invaluable was the connection I made with a local teacher through my MTNA chapter. She asked me to serve as an adjudicator for the state exam program and, unbeknownst to me, had me judge several of her students so that she could “test” me. Fortunately, I passed with flying colors and I began to get numerous referrals from her which then filled up my schedule. The program continued to grow as I added on faculty members who, like me, were young and motivated to connect with all students through music.

What set us apart

The things that made us unique were our combination of private and group instruction and the unified curriculum. Our teachers have the same pedagogical views, teach the same elementary materials (The Music Tree), and work together as a group. I mentor all new teachers in our program during their first year, observing lessons each week and providing detailed feedback. We often teach each other’s students in our group lessons and can easily teach each other’s students when one wants a summer off from teaching. If a teacher leaves, the difficult transition to a new teacher is minimized. We present annual faculty recitals together and our student recitals are a mix of all of our students.

We are not the type of preparatory program Frances Clark referred to as a “house of ill-repute” in which “no one knows what goes on behind those doors!”.

Unexpected challenges

Over the years we established a reputation as a program with a waiting list. Our retention rate has always been very high, so people could be on our list for over a year. This became problematic in recent years. Because so many of our students continue with us from first grade through high school graduation, we lost our word-of-mouth connection with parents of young students. Without realizing it, we had fallen “off the radar”. So, when several high school students graduated, we found ourselves without students on a waiting list to replace them.

Advertising was tried (for the first time in over 20 years!) with minimal results. We had to discover new ways of connecting with parents of young children. We found that email groups and Facebook groups for parents in the local communities were very active and popular, so we gave them a try. After utilizing these connections to promote our programs and openings, we soon found our teaching loads full again. And, because these new students are mostly of a young age, we continue today to get new students through referrals (and we also get younger siblings!). Social connections continue to change with the times and we will have to stay on top of each new trend as it develops in order to keep our presence known to our market.

Additional offerings

Over the years we have tried various programs to create additional revenues and to use earlier hours for teaching. These have included a MusikGarten program and a Recreational Music Making program. Initially, these offerings were successful but have now been discontinued. I think they would have done better in an independent school/program. These were tough to market and got “lost” within all the happenings at a university. Recently, one of our faculty members began a summer camp focusing on popular music. Now entering its fourth year, it seems to be a success which will be continued.

Our program has also served as a “laboratory” for university students enrolled in piano pedagogy courses. The pedagogy students observe lessons taught in our program and are also assigned a student for weekly hands-on teaching experience (under my direct supervision).

Starting your own program

I think the key to our success was having something unique to offer. Anyone hoping to start a program or school of their own should have a clear picture of how they want things to run based upon what they know about successful teaching. There must be a clear mission and it must be palpable to anyone who experiences your program. Then you have something to present and market.

Our program presents the belief that “there is music in every child” and everything we do in lessons is meant to prove this. Our goal is not to create great pianists but to give the gift of music which can enrich students for a lifetime. I believe the success of our program is directly related to this mission. It is not only marketable – it makes an enduring impact on every student.


Editors Note: Craig Sale’s fascinating article is part of an ongoing series on Community Music Schools. Other posts include Prairie Music and Arts (Julie Baskinger) and New Tampa Piano and Pedagogy Academy (Judith Jain)

 


About Craig Sale:

Craig Sale, NCTM, is Director of the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago, where he also teaches university courses in piano pedagogy.

Sale is an Associate Editor for Clavier Companion magazine and served as Editor for the recently released book, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching by Elvina Pearce. He is the co-author of The Music Tree: Activities 3 and The Music Tree: Activities 4 (published by Alfred Publishing Co.) He has presented workshops for piano teachers across the United States and is a frequent adjudicator at Chicago area events. Sale is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

Sale holds a B. Mus. degree in piano performance from Northwestern University where he studied piano with Donald Isaak, a M. Mus. degree in piano performance from the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign where he studied piano with Ian Hobson and piano pedagogy with James Lyke, and a Professional Teaching Certificate from the New School for Music Study where he studied piano pedagogy with Frances Clark and Louise Goss.

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