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Studios are not just in living rooms anymore


Sometimes the world brings people into your life who ignite your energy and restore your passion for teaching. Last February, on a sunny morning in Austin, Texas, last February, I met two such individuals, Wendy Kuo and Klondike Steadman, the executive directors and owners of The Orpheus Academy, a music school with 410 students employing more than twenty teachers who teach piano, guitar, strings, and voice.

We began our time together with breakfast at a La Madeleine near their music school. Wendy and Klondike's eleven-year-old daughter, Mei Yin, joined us. A serious classical guitarist, Mei Yin had recently changed schools so she could practice all morning and attend school only in the afternoons. This allowed her to have after-school time to enjoy her friends and other activities. I immediately knew Wendy and Klondike were people who understood the need for balance in life.

The Orpheus Academy website states: "Discipline is the art of remembering what is most important to us every day and taking action on those dreams." Wendy and Klondike did just that. As recent music school graduates, Wendy with a master's degree from the University of Houston and Klondike with a doctorate from the University of Texas, they were teaching at home and in various locations in Austin. As Klondike put it, "We went to each location, taught our students, and went home."

Together, they began to envision working in a more communal setting with world-class teachers in a way that would not only continue their own training and enable them to train others, but would also bring engaged, eager students and parents into their lives.

Every afternoon for two years, Wendy and Klondike scheduled time for a walk. Its sole purpose was to give them dreaming time. Out of that dreaming came The Orpheus Academy.

Over the years, Klondike and Wendy worked off and on with a business consultant. They finally decided to work with him full time to ensure that the financial side of the Academy stays focused. "The best advice he gave us from the start was to work from a place of abundance, not scarcity. Dream big and make it happen."

In a thriving Austin neighborhood near the University of Texas, they found a location that shared space with a faltering yoga studio. They applied for both a hefty bank loan and The Studio Fellowship Award from the Music Teachers National Association. In writing the applications for both, they had to flesh out not only a business plan but also the philosophy and day-to-day activities for their school. Klondike even used this proposal as part of his final dissertation project.

When MTNA awarded them the Studio Fellowship, the bank took notice of this recognition and granted them the loan. Wendy and Klondike then set about making the studio space work for their idea of offering private lessons, musicianship classes, and performance opportunities all under one roof. They did much of the work themselves, including some difficult soundproofing and wall moving. In 2003 The Orpheus Academy came into the world.

With the story of Orpheus's founding still fresh in my mind, Wendy and Klondike drove me to the school, which now includes the space eventually vacated by the yoga studio plus a lovely annex. An outside cabana includes picnic tables, a huge blackboard for drawing, and space for students and parents to relax. 

I entered the school to the welcome of one of the office managers. From the vantage point of her airy and high-tech space, she schedules lessons, manages the school's website and marketing, and points lost students and parents in the right direction.

The school's waiting area let me know The Orpheus Academy is above all a community, one with shared goals. The entrance wall (and, I later learned, each classroom) displays the five Milestone bracelets each student completes toward their yearly "Musical Journey Goal." Klondike explained that each level of the journey is designed to stimulate creativity and develop independence in every student. "Some students may focus entirely on classical music; others may wish to include composition, improvisation, different styles of music, or other musical goals, but all work toward either a big concert or recording each year."

Wendy pointed to a nearby rack of student-made CDs. Step two on the journey includes making a recording for family and friends. As students polish individual pieces, teachers record their performances at their lessons. I admired the homespun artwork that decorates these many CDs, and watched two students check out their friend's performances from the school library.

Other steps along the journey include giving a home concert for family and friends; playing in a public recital with one or more original compositions; performing variations, or improvisations, or chamber music in a public recital; recording a multi-movement work; giving a recital with chamber music and original compositions or arrangements; making a set of recordings, videos, and website materials for the purpose of attracting work as a professional musician; and giving a full-length benefit concert to support a favorite public charity.

Sharing music with the outside community is also one of The Orpheus Academy's goals. Wendy and Klondike believe that music is not only a gift we give to ourselves, but also to the world. It allows us to make a difference in people's lives. In 2001, Klondike founded the Educational Outreach Program for the Austin Classical Guitar Society to provide expert private guitar instruction free of charge to low-income high-school students. This program continues to provide quality music instruction, with students regularly giving public concerts as soloists and in ensemble. The Orpheus Academy routinely hosts recitals that benefit a charity. Most recently, they raised $1,000 for CASA of Travis County, an organization that speaks up for children who have been abused or neglected.

And I hadn't even met the teachers yet! Over two more days, I had the distinct pleasure of observing and interacting with many of the twenty-one Orpheus Academy teachers. They hail from several different countries including Peru, Taiwan, Korea, and China, as well as from all over the United States. Many of the teachers are full-time and salaried, a rare fact in most music schools. Wendy pointed out that it isn't prudent for anyone to teach forty hours a week, so salaried teachers choose an additional area of work, such as outreach, or event coordination to fill out their schedules. Some teachers, due to their outside lives, prefer to work on an hourly basis. A few are still completing advanced music degrees, which brings up another amazing fact: all of the teachers at The Orpheus Academy have at least a master's degree in music, and several, including Klondike, have doctorates. In line with Wendy and Klondike's wish to continue their own training and to train others, all new teachers at Orpheus have the opportunity to further their growth by observing and working with the more seasoned instructors. 

What I loved most about my observations over the next two days was the fact that every teacher has a distinct teaching style, a way of working with students that is entirely his or her own. Yet, the school curriculum is an integrated one. As a community, Klondike, Wendy, and the teachers have created their own curriculum and teaching materials, a method based on the principles of Kodály and Dalcroze that uses Sound to Symbol and moveable Do. The children I observed read music with a depth of understanding and musicality that I have rarely witnessed. In addition, Klondike's invitation to his teachers to include their own country's music in the curriculum, plus the inclusion of Kodály folk tunes, inspires the students with a wide range of high-quality and emotionally satisfying music.

While teachers sometimes come and go, depending on their lives, every teacher who passes through The Orpheus Academy leaves behind the influence of his or her work with both their students and with the curriculum and organization of the school. The vast majority of the teachers stay, however, ensuring the program's structure and continuity.

Because of the school's proximity to The University of Texas, the students at Orpheus also come from all over the world. One lesson found teacher Georgia Sears' studio jam-packed. The young girl's grandmother had just arrived from India, and her whole family sat in on the lesson. Another lesson included Peruvian-born teacher Valeria Diaz working with a boy from Russia. Mijung An from Seoul, Korea, taught a seamless lesson to a young Chinese girl; they sang and played the songs to one another in music's universal language.

In speaking to parents at one of The Orpheus Academy Parent Education Classes, Klondike suggested that it is not the benefits most music educators tout as the reason to study music—increase in IQ, spatial reasoning, and language skills—that matter most. Instead, it is the ability of music to bring us the deeply human experience of life. "Music is a primal language that goes beyond what we can say in words. When inevitably faced with life's tragedies or life's joys, music is a language we can use and that we are giving our children to use to reach those parts of ourselves we cannot reach any other way."

I left Austin and the inspiration of The Orpheus Academy reluctantly. Yet I carried with me the certainty that teachers like Wendy and Klondike and the faculty at The Orpheus Academy, many of whom were taught by the legendary pedagogy teachers of my lifetime, are finding the discipline to dream big. More and more teachers in this generation are creating communities like The Orpheus Academy, ones that combine the energies of teachers, students, and parents to bring the sustenance of music to the children of today. 

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