Better Than Best: How We Improve Everyday

 Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the Music Academy Success 2019 conference. This is an international organization of professionals from over 200 different music schools who want to share their ideas about how to make the school experience better for everyone. The United Conservatory of Music joined Music Academy Success only a year ago, and this year, we were a finalist for their School of the Year award. 

Being invited to speak at the conference and share the UCM story was a real honor. The environment of joy and positive energy we cultivate truly makes a difference. Since becoming director, I’ve worked with my staff to create an atmosphere that encourages the success of our students. 

I love playing the violin and cannot imagine my life without music, but as a child, learning to play wasn’t always easy. Our lesson structure is built around keeping the interest in music and the passion to keep playing alive in our students, even when they struggle. That’s why we offer such a wide range of instruments to learn and why we use the Musical Ladder structure. We want to see our students thrive. 

In addition to setting our students up for success, UCM is always striving to improve customer experience and employee satisfaction. I want the staff to feel effective in the work they do, and I want our teachers to be happy and get what they need to succeed. I know a lot of our teachers are eager to pursue a steady career in music. Before coming on with UCM, a few of our teachers were working minimum wage at Starbucks or Target. I’m proud that we’re able to help so many talented musicians do what they love: instilling a love of music in the next generation. 

Our mission to constantly improve means that we often experience changes. We’ve recently started an Instagram account for parents and students to follow and stay updated about everything going on at UCM. There you’ll be able to find information on the school schedule and upcoming events, student showcases, and new ideas. 

We still plan to post on Facebook and send our monthly newsletter; the Instagram account is another avenue for us to communicate with everyone and keep you connected to UCM. If you use Instagram, find us by searching “UnitedConservatory.” There are already a lot of great pictures, and I’m excited to show off our students’ successes. 

When UCA first joined Music Academy Success, my goal was to learn from other schools how to make UCM even better. A year ago, I never imagined those schools would turn to us for advice and guidance so quickly. It reflects on all we’ve been able to achieve in such a short amount of time. It gives me a lot of joy, and I look forward to what we will accomplish as we grow into the future. 

Practice Makes Perfect?

 My musical career didn’t start on the violin. When I was very young, I played piano. The piano is a great instrument, but I was never really attached to it. I attended lessons because my mom made me, but when she tried to get me to practice, I was completely opposed. I didn’t start willingly practicing on my own until I was 12, and even then I do not think I would have been as invested in music if I hadn’t switched from piano to the violin. 

Many parents at UCM struggle with the same challenge my mom faced: Their kids don’t want to practice. This is common, even in kids who enjoy going to lessons. They will play for their teacher at school but, at home, picking up the guitar or sitting down at the piano becomes a fight every time. If the stress of getting your child to practice has you considering taking them out of lessons altogether, know that it’s okay if they just focus on their lessons. 

Practicing at home is important for improvement — our students only get around 48 lessons a year — but learning a little is better than learning nothing at all. Keep in mind that everyone learns at a different pace. Musical instruments take a lot of time to master, but being able to commit to lessons is the first step in mastering an instrument. 

There are a lot of statistics about how playing music is great for a child’s overall development, and, of course, musical ability looks great on college applications. The most important thing is whether or not a child enjoys making music. When a student isn’t interested or they’re not having fun, you can hear it in when they play and see it in their stalled progress. 

It is so important for musicians feel a connection to their music. This is especially true in kids who are just starting to learn how to play. At UCM, our teachers work hard to help their students feel passionate about music. We utilize the Musical Ladder System® to help students see their own progress and put on recitals to help them stay motivated. If students start to lose interest, sometimes a different teacher — or even a different instrument — can spark their interest again, like when I switched from piano to violin. 

Sometimes, the best thing for a student to do is walk away from music and try something different. It’s okay; music isn’t for everyone. And if a student decides to come back, a break can reignite their interest in music like never before. We’ve seen it. 

When I was in college, I stopped playing the violin for six months. I was going through a lot of changes in my life. I needed a break. That was a very bad idea, but it 

was the first time in my life I was able to stop playing. When I picked it up again, because I realized I couldn’t live without it, I started playing because I wanted to. It was the first time I really had a choice, and my love for music grew even more when I came back. 

If you’re worried that your child is losing interest in music, or you’re struggling with home practices, feel free to talk to your child’s teacher and get advice. They were all musical novices at one point in time, and they’ll be able to help come up with the right move for your child’s musical journey. 

A Musician's Responsibility: Fostering A Love For Music

Learning music can be difficult. There are challenges and struggles of all kinds,

as well as long stretches where a young musician may feel like they’re never

going to improve. When faced with these difficulties, the only thing that keeps

musicians moving forward is their love of the art. Loving music and finding joy

in your art can help get past those hardships. This is why it’s so important for

our instructors to create a positive environment for their students where they

can foster that love of music.

Music speaks to people on a deep level that only art can reach. As musicians,

our responsibility is to communicate feelings through sound and rhythm.

There’s a message for our audience in the music. That message might be from

the composer who wrote the piece, or it could be your own emotions. The

message could be different for each person who listens to us perform. If your

audience walks away without feeling anything, then you didn’t do your job as

a musician. Likewise, if you are a music instructor and your students walk away

without loving music, you have failed as an instructor.

It’s not enough for kids to just hear about the positive benefits of music; they

must experience these benefits for themselves. A music teacher must be

able to connect with their students to share that love of music with the next

generation.

I have talked to many people who grew up playing music only because their

parents made them take up an instrument. They hated every second and

dropped it as soon as they were able to. The parents at UCM aren’t like that.

They want their kids to find joy in music. If their child doesn’t want to play, they

aren’t going to make

them keep coming to

practice.

Today, kids can

unlock their

phone, open

YouTube, and find

a lesson on how

to play almost

any instrument.

The information

is there, but the

internet can’t give

them a lesson tailored

to their personality and

their individual needs. That’s

something only a teacher can do,

but only once they’ve made a personal

connection with their student and understand

what they need for the student’s love of art to grow.

Regardless of whether or not our students pursue a career in music, our

instructors will be there for them, helping them develop their skills while they

play and experience a personal growth that will stick with them throughout

their life. Even if a student chooses to move on to other passions, our hope is

that they leave UCM with a deeper love of music and positive memories of their

time playing.

My goal is to live up to my responsibility as a musician and the director of UCM by

bringing more positivity to our students, to Fresno, and to the world of music.

The Responsibilities Of A Music Teacher

We don’t give our teachers enough credit. I’m not saying this simply because

I run a music school and teach violin myself — If you’ve ever had a great

teacher , in any subject, you know what an impact they made on your life. This

is especially true when comparing teachers who were not as great to those

who were really special in our young lives. The importance of a great teacher

becomes all the more apparent when considering the discipline of learning

music through private lessons.

My experience with private lessons was pretty negative when I was learning

how to play the violin. This isn’t to say my instructors were untalented, or bad

people. I just rarely had a teacher who was a good fit. I have always learned

more effectively whenever I have been shown, rather than told. Unfortunately,

most of my instructors insisted on telling me why I should or shouldn’t do

something a certain way, instead of showing me by their skill. Because I was

stubborn, I kept doing things my way, making it even worse. As a result, I was a

good violinist, but certainly not as good as I could have been.

I wouldn’t meet my first great teacher until I was 17 years old. Her name was

Faina Podolnaya, and at the time she was teaching in Oregon. I had recently

decided to major in music, and I entered her studio with a violin case full of

bad habits. I also had a lot of fears about pursuing a career in music, but Ms.

Podolnaya worked with me: She helped me find the joy in music, encouraging

me quite a bit. She had the skill and the right answers for teaching violin, and

she was also incredibly empathetic. She knew what a student needed to hear,

and how they needed to hear it. Ms. Podolnaya was one of the best teachers I’ve

ever had, and my favorite by far. Music teachers have to do more than just educate on the details of how to read music or hold an instrument. If knowing the facts was all it took to learn music, we wouldn’t have schools for music, or instructors dedicated to teaching it. Music connects with people at a deep level. It’s an extension of our emotions, a way for us to communicate when words cannot. You can’t teach that in a book.

This knowledge can only be passed along by someone who understands these truths. Great music teachers possess an ability to connect with students and meet them on their level.

At the school, we have many different teachers for each instrument, because

it’s important for students to be able to learn from an instructor whom they

connect with. All of our instructors are talented and passionate about their

art. Our goal is to create an environment that is most conducive for a student’s

musical growth — where students can meet the instructor who will help them

improve their skill — and find joy in music every time they play.

Shaping the Future Through Music

A few weeks ago, our chamber music group played an awards dinner at a local

children’s hospital. This was an exciting event, and it blew me away to see how far

we’ve come in such a short time. A year ago, we didn’t even have a chamber music

program. In December 2017, I put the word out to see if there were potential students who

wanted to learn music for instruments we weren’t teaching, like guitar, voice, and

piano. I quickly learned there was a huge interest in these areas and reached out to

musicians who could teach these instruments at the Conservatory. This started our

explosion of growth. We grew from 100 to 300 students, hired five full-time office

staff, and now have 25 teachers at the school.

As the Conservatory grew, I knew I had to grow myself to meet the expectation

of our students and their parents. My role went from being just a teacher to the

Conservatory director very quickly. I spent a lot of time creating systems to make

sure that everything would work smoothly for our existing students and the new

ones we had joining almost every day. It was a bit overwhelming, but I am proud of

what we’ve accomplished and am excited as we look to the future.

We’ve introduced group makeup classes and have plans to offer group lessons

so kids can learn music with their peers. After the success with our chamber

music program, we’d like to look into more nonprofit opportunities to support

the community. As we attract students who are interested in discovering musical

opportunities, we’ll also look for more teachers. Expanding in size means possibly

opening another branch here in Fresno, so our students and teachers can continue

Bass Girl

to grow. Our mission has always been to help the musical development for kids of all ages. We want any child who wants to learn music to walk through our doors and find a welcoming, supportive community waiting for them. When I picture the future of the Conservatory, I see a place where people can make friends and enjoy making music. We can be more than a place where you take music lessons a few times a week. Thanks to our talented teachers and dedicated students, we can share in strengthening the vibrant musical community of Fresno.

Music is an integral part to everyday life, whether we realize it or not. From songs on the radio to live concerts to movie scores on the big screen, music is everywhere. At the Conservatory, we have the opportunity to shape lives. I, as well as all of our teachers, am excited to be part of shaping the lives of our students through music. It’s a great honor, and we look forward to finding new opportunities to share a love of music in Fresno.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of the Conservatory for many years and to those who joined us in 2018. We’re excited to see what the future will bring.

-Christopher Scherer

 

Winter Recital 2018

We had an amazing recital season this year! Over 100 students participated, for over 7 hours of recitals! We divide our recitals into 50 minute segments so that students and parents are able to see others performances and become inspired. We had so many performances from all instruments and voices, am looking forward to next semesters recital in May and June!

Piano Lessons

A lot of parents ask what is the best instrument to get started with? I would say piano. It is the easiest and and most responsive instrument you can start with. When first taking lessons here at United Conservatory of Music Fresno, kids will be exposed to many genres of music. The instructors tailor the lesson for the individual child so they will be engaged and interested.

We have many students ages 4-8 who begin learning piano, either from scratch or with prior experience from another instrument. And our teachers work hard to be able to provide the best quality education. Students come from as far away as Madera, Kerman, Sanger, and we have many from Clovis as well.

Music can be a fun and rewarding experience, don’t be worried if they don’t practice at first, eventually kids will practice. Our Music Ladder System will keep track of their progress, as they earn wristbands and trophies every three months.

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Memories of Snow

Chris Scherer

Winter is strange in California. All the songs and movies paint winter as an icy wonderland, but here in Fresno, it hasn’t snowed since 1998. Fresno isn’t the only place I have lived where we never got a white Christmas. I was born in Los Angeles, but I spent the early part of my childhood in Seoul, South Korea. Seeing snow in that city was a big deal. I remember one year when we woke up and were amazed to find a white blanket of snow covering the ground outside. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen snow, but the memory sticks out in my mind. There wasn’t a lot of snow, but my brother and I were still excited to run out of the apartment and make a snowman. It lasted for about an hour before the sun came back out and melted everything away.

The next time I saw a lot of snow was after my family moved to the United States. We were living in Boston and the winter was so bad, we got snowed in. My brother and I had to dig ourselves out so we could get to school in the morning. The experience was a big shock to us. This was during our first year living in America, and it was one of the many times I realized that living in this new country was going to be even more different than I had imagined. I was 7 when we moved back to the United States. My brother and I both had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was so young that I wasn’t fully cognizant of what was going on. My brother was 10, so his experience was different because he had more memories of our life in South Korea. Though I was still very young, I do remember being struck by how different everything was. The people were different, the food was different, and even the schools were different. When I went to school in Seoul, the students all sat according to an alternating boy-girl seating chart and focused entirely on doing school work. When I walked into my first class in America, I was shocked to see all the kids sitting on the carpet, reading books together. Of course, the language was different, too. Though I took English classes in Korea, I wasn’t great at it when we moved, but I learned soon enough. It was my mom’s hope and dream to come to America.

Back in the early ’90s when we moved, Seoul was a very different place than it is today. Once we were in the United States, my mom had to raise my brother and me as a single parent, and she worked hard to give us the advantages provided by this country. My identity and the trajectory of my life were shaped by this move. Everything about who I am as a person, a musician, and an instructor stems from the fact that I moved from Seoul to Boston. The last time I visited Seoul was in 2013, and after I saw how much the city had changed from when I was a kid, I started to think about how different my life would have been had my family stayed in South Korea. I wouldn’t have the friends and colleagues I know today, and I wouldn’t have the conservatory were it not for moving to the United States. I know my life would be less fulfilling if I wasn’t able to teach music, and though the transition had been difficult, I wouldn’t change a thing.

–Christopher Scherer

The Path to Music

How do you become a musician?

When I was growing up, practice was a battle of wills between my mom and me. She won some battles; I almost won sometimes. I began playing cello primarily because I knew I would never be better than my sister at violin. She worked harder- a lot harder – so she was always going to be better. I wasn’t really happy about practicing. In my defense, I was in first grade, so … yeah, Mom won.

Leo’s Student Jacob earned his Songbird Wristband!

Leo’s Student Jacob earned his Songbird Wristband!

I played cello throughout elementary and middle school, but I didn’t actually enjoy playing until I had a group of friends who played instruments too. We played in quartets and played chamber music together, and finally, around the same time, Mom’s perseverance started to pay off. I started to enjoy because, finally, it started sounding good, and I was having fun. I continued to play throughout high school and college, but it never occurred to me to pursue it as a career.

After college, I spent a few years in the military, and when I returned to Fresno, I reconnected with my high school orchestra teacher, John Morrice, who invited me to join a community orchestra. The timing of his offer was, shall we say, inconvenient. I had inadvertently broken my cello, and it was still being repaired. The loaner cello I had was really, really, really bad. But I ended up playing in the orchestra, and this really, really, really bad cello turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

My stand partner in the orchestra was an older gentleman named Jim Warwick. Jim was an emeritus professor of philosophy from the University of Colorado. He was a good cellist and a man with a very giving nature. After a few months of watching and listening to me play, he gifted me his cello with one single caveat: “If you take further studies in music, I will gift you my cello.”

 

“It’s been 10 years since Jim gifted me his cello,

and the course of my life changed in

unexpected ways”

Leo and Chris with Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channels Hotel Impossible

Leo and Chris with Anthony Melchiorri, host of Travel Channels Hotel Impossible

This was not a small gesture. Jim’s cello was an award-winning instrument and had tremendous value. Cellos of this type routinely sell for the same price as mid-level luxury vehicles, without the depreciation. Unlike cars, cellos go up in value as they got older. When I met Jim, what I did not know was that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and he wanted his cello to be used to further a young cellist’s career. In my case, it would start my career. And to accept his gift, I went back to school and got a master’s degree in music from California State University, Fresno.

It’s been 10 years since Jim gifted me his cello, and the course of my life changed in unexpected ways. I began teaching music privately out of my home, having around 40 private students. At the same time, I invited other teachers to teach siblings of my students in the other rooms of my house. About four years ago, my ex-fiancée introduced me to Christopher Scherer. Our partnership would eventually lead to the foundation of the United Conservatory of Music, Fresno. This past January we had about 90 students; by the end of this year, we will have well over 300.

Yes I did give my mom a hard time about practicing- obviously I’m not angry about it! Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have considered being a musician, but today, not only do I teach in a wonderful school, I get to work in a community of music teachers in Fresno. Music has always been here before, and it will be after me. I really never expected to be a musician, let alone encourage others to be a musicians. But at UCM we are doing just that, hiring musicians to be teachers, teaching the next generation of patrons(!), and with a few of those students … musicians … although their path to music may be more surprising than they imagined.

 

-Leo Kim

Music lessons for kids

I entered my 30s in June 8th of this year. Every two years of my life something happens so unexpectedly, to the point where I am now just open to all possibilities everywhere. If you had told me in 2016 that I would be a director of a music school I would have probably laughed. Nowhere in my life plan was something like that in my imagination. I started piano at age 5, and didn’t get too far. I wish I had kept it up as I had great piano teachers, but like many youngsters I was more interested in Legos than practicing. A lot of our young kids display so much talent right from the beginning it is easy for them to get distracted. Thats why we have something like the Musical Ladder System to help kids to be able to earn wristbands and trophies to keep them focused. Aside from that we have special prizes kids can earn for doing a good job in the class and earning stickers! Especially for our young kids it helps them to be able to stay interested so that they can continually improve, whether they are a young 5 year old future rockstar guitar player, or a 12 year old pianist, or a 60 year old taking voice lessons, we have something that can engage them and keep everyone having fun.

Rockstar Guitar Child
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Group Piano Lesson

Private Lessons or Group Lessons?

Private lessons are a great way for a child to get started in their musical journey. Here at United Conservatory we often have kids as young as 4 start in piano, guitar, voice, and many other instruments. With private instruction you or your child will receive individualize attention, a special curriculum designed just for you in mind, and a teacher that knows your personality and your goals and will help you to reach them.

Group lessons can be quite fun! In our school we have hour long classes held in the weekends for our group programs. It is a fun experience where kids get a chance to interact with each other and learn from their peers. It is certainly a valid method of learning the instrument, if you are a beginner, in an engaging way. While it won’t have the individualized attention of a private class, it is a great approach to learning.

For our serious students who take hour long classes we recommend that you take part in our chamber music program. It is a great way to learn and showcase your skills, and play with people your age and grow in your musical skills.

Both of these methods are valid, and proven methods of learning an instrument and we encourage parents to try all the various methods!

The Joy of Music: My Life with the Violin

I’ve been playing violin all my life. When I was a kid, my mom took me to see a show at a music school. We saw a kid playing the violin on stage, with everyone watching him. I remember thinking he looked very serious, but he also seemed like he was having a good time. It was really cool, and when my mom asked me if I wanted to play the violin too, I decided to go for it.

Today, I can’t imagine my life without the violin. I love the beautiful sound of the instrument and the way it allows me to express myself. It’s a powerful thing to be able to relay your thoughts and feelings through a medium that doesn’t use words but can say so much through sound. This is why I am so passionate about teaching at the United Conservatory of Music.

Years ago, a friend of mine, Leo Kim, and his fiancée recommended I come out here and start teaching music. I’d finished with my master’s degree and wanted to keep playing the violin in my career. Leo and his fiancée broke up before I was ready to move, and there was a moment when I was unsure whether I should still move or not.  But Leo offered me an opportunity to stay at his house while I started teaching in schools, and I knew this was not an opportunity I wanted to miss. Teaching in schools evolved into teaching out of the house, which became a studio, which evolved further into the Conservatory it is today.

I enjoy working with kids of all ages. It’s amazing to see their growth and the joy on their faces as they learn music and discover something about music they never knew before. Throughout my life, I had many talented instructors, but I didn’t always feel like they were the best teachers for me. At the Conservatory, we have many great instructors so that we can make sure students are able to learn from a teacher they connect with in one-on-one sessions. No matter what instrument a student wants to play, I want the Conservatory to foster a community that is fun and supportive, where people can come together and fall in love with music.

It’s important to make learning fun, especially for kids. Yes, playing an instrument is hard work, but there’s no reason students shouldn’t enjoy their lessons. Learning an instrument like the violin can be trying because you don’t know that you’re progressing until many years later. If kid’s aren’t enjoying the experience of learning and playing music, they quit, even if they’re getting better. This is really tragic because not only do they miss out on the joys of music, but they also lose the chance to learn many life skills that come through music and art.

It felt like a big risk to go down this path with music, but I knew this was what I wanted to do, no matter what the chance of success may be. I only have one life and I want to spend it doing something I love. As I look at where I am today and at the students I have the privilege of working with, I’m glad I took that risk. The violin is still my life, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to share the joy of music with others.

-Christopher Scherer

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Goals

Jade takes violin lessons and recently received her Song Bird Trophy!

Jade takes violin lessons and recently received her Song Bird Trophy!

So just how will you know if your child is making progress in music lessons? Well we have our Musical Ladder System to help! Say your child began taking guitar lessons or piano lessons, of course you want them to practice and improve. Practicing is not the most fun word ever created and it’s definitely not a favorite activity of music students, but we inspire our students to achieve more through this system. This music teaching system is being used by music schools across the US and Canada to inspire music students to practice more and enhance their love for music. Similar to karate belt tests, every 90 days or so students have a test with their private music instructor. When they pass they receive really cool color wristbands with the name of the level they passed. They also receive a certificate and at some levels a trophy. More importantly when our students have a test coming up, they practice more, their parents are proud, their teachers are proud, and everybody wins!


Lets keep making music!

Musical Ladder Picture

What Should You Expect in Your Childs First Lesson?

That is the question that I believe is in the minds of a lot of prospective parents. It is an exciting moment to come in for your first private music lesson! Our most popular instruments for beginners is piano, voice, guitar and violin. For kids ages 4 we recommend that they start with piano, as it is the easiest instruments to get started with and kids can get an immediate feedback from what they do on the keyboard. The most important thing is that your child has fun, and enjoys this new world of music and art. Kids ages 4-8 will rarely practice on their own, (speaking from personal experience) so don’t be discouraged if they are not practicing in the beginning. It is a process and continued exposure to music, and weekly lessons will excite them to continue their musical journey.

Lets Keep Making Music!

Piano Lessons are one of the best ways to get exposed to music!

Piano Lessons are one of the best ways to get exposed to music!