Inspiration can come from many places. A book you read, a story you see on the news, a colleague or family member…for some, inspiration simply comes from within. We can be filled with a desire to fulfill a dream and that desire can inspire us to take on challenges and create things we never thought possible. Such is the case with Greg Genter, owner of The Piano Xpress located in the DC suburb of Ashburn, Virginia. Greg always knew music should be his life path – and career path – but it was his desire to make piano students better note readers that became his inspiration for this very successful business model that is nothing short of revolutionary.
Flashback a few decades and meet a young boy with an early love of music and creativity. As he grew to be a teenager, the teaching bug caught him as well. “As a teenager, I began to develop as a teacher. I was not teaching music yet, I was teaching Bible stories. I worked with a group called Child Evangelism Fellowship, where I was trained to run summer camps, backyard Bible clubs, and VBS (Vacation Bible School) programs. I volunteered with this group for five summers during my teen years.” Greg continued to work at summer camps during his college years, and finally, he had an epiphany of sorts. “After my college years, with all my experience in music and in teaching, it was finally time to put the two together and start teaching music!”
It’s obvious this early training at summer camps played a big part in Greg’s career plans and was an inspiration for his future plans. With a friend, Greg opened The Piano Xpress as a summer camp in 2004 with the goal of helping kids become better note-readers, or as Greg calls it “music literacy.” “I was frustrated that my piano students took so long to become strong note-readers and many gave up along the way. I believe that note-reading (I also call it ‘music literacy’) is THE MOST important factor in a child’s success in their first year. It is a new language that they need to learn and the best way to learn a new language is through immersion.” About that same time Greg attended an Education Seminar featuring Roland Clinician Serena Mackey on the benefits of group instruction. And it all started to come together.
So with all of this in mind, Greg set out to start The Piano Xpress with a mission to teach “music literacy” all at once in an “immersion” setting during summer camps. Greg says those first few years were a lot of fun and they experienced a lot of success pedagogically, too. But he admits, they had a lot to learn about the business of, well, business! “We were having so much success with getting our campers to read music quickly, but we did not make any money for the first FIVE YEARS. We never stopped believing, but more importantly, we never stopped LEARNING! In our sixth year, we had learned enough about marketing and business management to make the idea work on a larger scale. Our summer camp has grown by about 500% in the last two years. We had 36 campers in 2009 and we had 169 in 2011.
All the while Greg was dreaming about something bigger – a year-round facility that could effectively teach group lessons by integrating MIDI technology with an effective curriculum. “We opened the year round facility on June 1, 2011. We started with 40 weekly students and a line-up of summer campers waiting to experience The Piano Xpress for the first time.”
What makes The Piano Xpress unique is the commitment to group lessons. While they also offer private lessons to all ages, the majority of the elementary age students are enlisted in the group lesson program. Greg tells it this way “Group lessons offer camaraderie among students. A student is more likely to think that music is fun (or even cool) if he or she is learning alongside of other children who feel the same way. Students in group lessons learn from each other. Learning piano happens over the course of time and over the course of many, many ‘small successes.’ When one student has a small success, all of the other students see it happen and it encourages them to keep believing that small successes are possible for them as well. Positive peer pressure can be leveraged for musical success! Also, students in group lessons have more exposure to ensemble playing and performing. Learning in groups gives the student the opportunity to perform for others in the group every week – normalizing the performance experience and stripping the experience from unnecessary ‘performance anxiety.’”
Greg also believes very strongly that the technology The Piano Xpress incorporates into their programs not only helps set them apart from other studios, but can completely change the way piano education is experienced. Greg chose the Roland HPi Interactive Pianos for their student pianos. “The Roland HPi-6s is a teacher’s dream machine. The keys are fully-weighted, the tone is exceptional, but what I love the most is what these pianos can do with MIDI files.” Greg feels very strongly that the MIDI technology built into the Roland HPi-series pianos helps the teachers at The Piano Xpress avoid the typical pitfalls that come along with most group lesson programs. “Group lessons can be very ineffective if the teacher has to spend the entire class listening to every song that every child has practiced during the week for assessment purposes. If there is no time left to teach, then the students don’t learn and the students don’t get enough of the teacher’s attention! Some teachers force the children in groups to work at the same pace – assigning the exact same songs to all of the children in the group. This ignores the need for individual progress based on the individual’s development and practice habits.”
The instructors at The Piano Xpress use the Piano Adventures Series by Faber and Faber as their curriculum of choice. With MIDI files commercially available for all of their books this allows Greg and his staff to take advantage of another feature on the Roland Hpi-6s – the Visual Lessons. “The Piano Xpress has imported EVERY song we teach into the Roland HPi-6s pianos. We use the Visual Lesson to help the students quickly assess their practice for the week, allowing the teachers to spend more time teaching and less time checking the students’ work. The Roland sound bank is so rich and vibrant; the MIDI files come to life.” The Visual Lesson feature on the Roland piano lets the student record their performance along with any pre-recorded song or MIDI File. After the recording, the piano automatically gives the student an accuracy score and a display of all the right/wrong notes and right/wrong rhythms. The piano even offers applause for a high score. “Using the Visual Lesson feature in the HPi-6s (and a few pairs of child-friendly headphones), ALL of the students can check the accuracy of their songs at the same time. No one needs to wait their turn and everyone can truly work at his or her own individual pace. Thanks to MIDI technology, the teachers at The Piano Xpress are able to spend more time teaching, and the students spend more time learning.” And The HPi-6s “Visual Lesson” transforms the weekly evaluation into an entertaining game. “The children are able to relax and play with less anxiety (which in turn helps them to learn). We try to blur the line between ‘work’ and ‘play,’ believing that the result will be an optimum environment for child-learning.”
I asked Greg what changes he has seen since he and his staff have begun teaching in this way. His reply wasn’t surprising. “The biggest change that I see in the students is retention. Very, very few of our students want to quit. Many of our students have made it through two or three entire books in the last six months because they are simply excited to learn and they don’t feel anxious about the lesson. I truly feel like the students here are unlocking and discovering the ‘magic’ in the music without the anxiety that is so typical with piano lessons. And it sounds like there have been a few surprising changes for Greg, too, “I’m having more fun teaching than I ever have. I am certainly blurring the line between ‘work’ and ‘play’ for myself! Lately, when my friends and family ask me how business is going, I simply (and genuinely) say, ‘I’m having a lot of fun!’”
This low drop out rate is one reason The Piano Xpress has experienced rapid success in growth. Our drop out rate is almost zero! The students that join us seem to stay with us. We have had steady growth over the last six months. Right now we are running about 200 lessons a week. That’s 500% growth in six months! And in an unexpected way, Greg feels the “recession economy” has actually helped them grow! “People don’t want to pay top dollar for anything if they can get the same quality for less money. That is exactly what we promise and deliver!”
So what’s next for Greg and the gang at The Piano Xpress? “I would like to buy a few more pianos, hire a few more teachers and expand to about 600 students per week. I hope to be an inspiration for other teachers. I hope that I am able to offer a more relevant, low cost (and yet more lucrative) approach to teaching piano in the 21st century.”
In addition to staying busy at The Piano Xpress, Greg is also a devoted husband and father with two small children, ages five and two. He still explores his own love of creativity by writing dramatic scripts for the drama team at his church, in addition to composing.
And while his greatest professional accomplishment may be the opening of The Piano Xpress, Greg feels his biggest commitment is to his family and his faith. “My personal accomplishments are always a work in progress. I hope that I will pass on a legacy to my children of hard work, deep faith and humble love.” And that can be an inspiration to us all!
For more information on The Piano Xpress, please visit their website: www.thepianoexpress.com