Focus on Independent Music Schools: Prairie Music & Arts – an interview with Julie Baskinger

Editor’s note: Julie Baskinger was on faculty at The New School for Music Study prior to relocating to Wisconson. In a recent conversation with Julie, I learned about her valuable and exciting contributions to a thriving community music school.

 

Julie Baskinger is the Program Director and 2nd-in-charge at Prairie Music & Arts, a successful and popular not-for-profit fine arts school in Sun Prairie, WI. Located just north-east of Madison, the area is a thriving hub of hobby, amateur, and professional artists of all kinds! Both Madison and Sun Prairie boast beautiful performing arts facilities that bring in a variety of musical acts ranging from Broadway shows to artists such as Simone Dinnerstein. The Sun Prairie High School has one of the nation’s top jazz and band programs with students frequently being invited to NYC to perform with their ensembles. Julie was pleased to return to her home state in 2008 and was thrilled to land a position at a then-small music school to work with a fellow Lawrence University alum, Kari Engleson. Both Kari & Julie share a love for piano pedagogy, and it shows in the work they do daily at the school.


 

Questions and Answers:

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div>When was PMA founded?
PMA was founded in 1999. At the time, it was just two women teaching piano out of a small rental space in downtown Sun Prairie. Since its inception, the faculty has grown to roughly 15 individuals. We’ve added lessons in voice, guitar, ukulele/mandolin, and all string instruments. 
How many students enroll annually?
Enrollment fluctuates with the changes in economy. At its peak in 2007, there were nearly 200 students attending lessons. Unfortunately, the economic collapse in 2008 hurt the school as it did many other businesses, but we found a way to overcome it by being creative with our lesson schedule and classes.

How so?
Well, we found it more practical both financially and educationally to set up all of our students on one of two lesson tracks: Partial-Year lessons or Year-Round lessons. Partial Year runs from the beginning of September through the end of June. Year-Round lessons includes our flexible Summer Accents program, which includes lessons, camps, and workshops. I can share more about that later on. By setting up all of our private-lesson students on one of these plans, we are able to ensure cash flow for the business. But the even bigger point we make to families is this: It makes the families hold to a long-term commitment for lessons. As many of you know, it’s impossible to see real growth and progress as a student and musician if you only take lessons for three months. By making the students take for at least 10 months, it’s very easy to see how much is accomplished over that period of time. It’s made all of the difference for us, and I believe the parents and students see the value in this as well.

 

What about for people just starting?
We offer a one-time ten-week package of lessons as our introductory offer. We only offer it at the beginning of September and again to start around January 1st. We wrap the 2nd offering into a “holiday promotion” as people often like to give music lessons as gifts! Once a student has completed the 10-week package, we ask them to sign up for one of the longer-term packages.

Have you been successful in filling some daytime hours at the school?
In some regards, yes! It is very hard to penetrate the home-school market here as most families are very protective of their groups and do not like a lot of advertising from extra-curricular organizations. However, we do have several home-school families to take during earlier hours, and they’ve enjoyed us enough to pass on the word. Daytime hours seem to get a little more popular with each passing year. We’ve also been successful getting local business people to take lessons either before work or during their lunch hour. It also depends on the teacher. If the teacher is willing to promote earlier hours, it’s nice to have them to offer new clientele.

How do you promote the school, and what has been the most effective way to promote the school?
Ooh – hard questions! Especially when, as a non-profit, we do not have a large budget to devote to marketing. I’ve managed to do a couple of things over the past two years that seem to help: 1) Drop off postcards and flyers at area businesses. I’m not afraid to walk into a coffee shop, for example, and ask if I can leave some materials in their shop. I’ll always offer an exchange, such as “I’ll leave some coupons for you in our lobby.” In the case of the coffee shop, we do open-mic nights for free with our students – a nice way to give back to the business and community, and a nice way to get our students to volunteer their talents. 2) Social media such as Facebook. Someone has to be posting our new program offers, start dates for classes, coupons or discounts, and even just great articles about education or music every single day! We’ve also offered FB contests – “Share this with the most friends, get them to “like” our page, and we’ll give you a free guitar lesson,” or something like that. People love FB contests where they can get free stuff. 3) Get out in the community and perform! We try to get our students out performing all the time at Farmer’s Market, at the airport at holiday time, and in the schools during their talent shows, for example. Being present in the community often is enough to get the word out. We also offer a $15 “recommendation discount” to all families provided a friend signs up and mentions them as a reference. We try to have a press release in the paper about our upcoming recitals, concerts, etc once every three months. New this year – we will be having a guest Jazz Concert Series in our large performance space, which will hopefully draw in folks from Madison as well and go a long way into promoting our school even more.

Your title is Program Director. What have you specifically helped launch at PMA in terms of programs?

The first program I helped launch was a series of Musikgarten classes at Rock Lake Community Center in Lake Mills, WI, which is about 25 miles east of Sun Prairie. I was living there at the time, and I found the community was really craving some activity for very young children. There were no music teachers in the area at that time as well. I started a series of three classes at the Activity Center, and it’s been thriving ever since! This year, we will have our largest enrollment there since 2008 – about 18 young children between age zero and five! 

As I mentioned earlier, our enrollment numbers were very low just after 2008. I began to look around at the talent within our own faculty and devised a series of group classes. I re-invigorated the beginners group program by using a new curriculum (Piano Adventures for the Very Young), but giving it a catch title called “Friends at the Piano.” Parents loved the adorable title, and it’s been very successful – we typically have two classes of four children each 12-week term. We also had a young woman who was a show choir specialist, so I suggested we begin a show choir program for elementary-aged children. As you know, a child’s voice is not fully developed until teenage years, but children love to sing! Show Choir was a perfect way to get kids singing with their peers, and doing light choreography, staging, and costuming. This is probably our most popular program for this age group! I also encouraged Kari to start an Honors Program for Pianists based on Marvin Blickenstaff’s Peps program. The students in this program range in age from Grade 4-12. We divide them into three groups based on age and level. They meet once a month for a masterclass on Thursday evening, and they meet in small or large groups once a month for 1-3 hours for content and ensemble class. It’s been a blast! We have these students attend a professional music concert each year, volunteer a performance in the community, and we have them play a fancy, formal recital offsite on a grand piano. This will be our sixth year having this program, and we have 17 students we plan to nominate and go through the audition process in the fall. Since I became a Director in 2008, we’ve also added a Drama program, Art classes, and bi-weekly String and Jazz clubs! It’s always busy here!

 chaseinmusicclassKids in Art Class 3Show Choir 1

How do you maintain the quality of teaching?

This is something we are going to improve upon this fall. With the NSMS cooperation, we are going to implement something akin to Piano Progressions, where we basically have a set, leveled curriculum for all of the piano students. We will have them go through a formal adjudication session with their “not-teacher,” take a theory test, and play a set of technical skills and etudes for a different “not-their-teacher!” Now that’s just in the piano department. Across the school, we try to have something called “Practice Incentives” once a year. Last year, we held a Harry Potter House Cup competition, where each faculty member had their own “house” named after their favorite musician or composer. We set up metrics such as practice minutes per week, new scales or chord progressions learned, flashcards completed, theory pages down, listening assignments completed, etc. Each teacher kept track of each student’s points every week, and we tallied them up using a percentage formula so everyone was on equal playing ground, regardless of student numbers. I’m happy to say my house, House Granados, won! I got to wear our house colors at the spring recital, and I have the house cup trophy in my studio – at least until next spring! 🙂

Is there anything you wish you had known when you got started that you know now? Or things someone who is thinking about doing this should know?

You definitely need to know your market area and what your market area demands. I do a lot of comparative research as there are four other schools in our country that operate similarly to us. We keep our prices about a dollar or two below our competitors, but we also boast our non-profit status as it allows us to pay our teacher more AND provide scholarships to needy students. We also have the benefit of being able to obtain grants for programs that let us do great things for those in need. For example, we got a grant one year to have Musikgarten classes at the Children’s Hospital in Madison for the children who were there for long-term illnesses. We recently got a grant to expand our Jazz Club program so the students can start taking lessons from professionals and so they can collaborate with the High School. If I could summarize what I wish I had learned, it would be this: Take a marketing class and an accounting class! These are courses that should be required of any music major, regardless of degree path. You have to know how to put your studio or school out there, and you have to know how to manage your money!

I love the environment I get in a school setting like this. I enjoy collaborating with my colleagues, I like the fact the students come to us faster than I would be able to go get them myself, and I love having a big space open to many possibilities in terms of programming. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t change it for anything!

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