The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Simply Music Teacher – Ray Nelson

Found in: Simply Music Community

Ray Nelson is a great example of getting back what you give. As a pioneer of Simply Music in the Midwest, as a highly successful teacher, as a mentor to the community of teachers he helped grow, as a Senior Teacher Trainer, and now starting all over again as a pioneer across the globe in New Zealand, Ray has thrown himself into the fray and seen the benefits of an all-or-nothing attitude. As his colleague Lois Anderton says: “I have followed his suggestions and I am making my studio one of “no regrets.”

Gordon: Tell us about your musical background, how you heard about Simply Music and how you got on to teaching the program.

Ray: I started piano lessons at the age of 7 and so music was a big part of my upbringing and I pretty much played piano all the way through school, and was in some church bands and had a chance to play other instruments. In high school I also played French horn in the marching band and the concert band and I played piano in the jazz band.

I pursued a music degree after high school, and graduated from Northwest University in the Seattle area. I was involved for several years with my home church directing musical choirs and programs, as well as teaching a number of piano students. A few years later, I joined YWAM, a Christian missions organization, where I met my wife, while on staff at the University of the Nations in Hawaii, in the School of Worship. We were both a part of developing/training musical teams in churches across the world.

After my years with YWAM, we moved to Oregon and were involved in youth ministry for several years. In 1997 we moved to Kansas City to do further biblical studies, and I began teaching music at a local piano store, which soon developed into a full-time music studio. We started a family, and I continued to teach over the next 13 years, at several performing arts academies – “The Culture House” and “Trilogy Cultural Arts Centre”, the latter which I became the musical director.

Over several years I continued building my studio to around 70 students, and was teaching six days a week most of the year, all in private traditional lessons. I began to experience burnout, and was at the point of seriously considering giving up teaching all together, as I had lost my passion for teaching. I was so tired of seeing students quitting and giving up on music, and finding the traditional methods boring and difficult. I was ready to just throw the towel in and give up teaching music as a profession. Around 2006, while on vacation, I came across an advertisement in a local paper for a free informational session on Simply Music. I looked into it, but didn’t act on anything until a few months later, at the urging of my wife (and desperate for some other way to teach music!) I took a serious look into Simply Music.

After talking to Neil Moore and several other teachers, I became convinced that Simply Music was for real, and not just a quick fix scheme to learning the piano, but a totally new approach to music education. I made the decision to switch my whole traditional studio over into Simply Music, and became Licensed in early 2007.

It’s quite a leap of faith isn’t it? If you’ve been doing something with so many students in a particular way and all of a sudden this brand new radical thing comes along.

I was looking for something else out there to put my energy into and that would really make a difference in the way my students felt about their music and the way they learned. I really wanted to find something that would be different and that I believed in and that would reignite my passion for teaching music again. My wife was my big encourager. She said, “Ray, you really need to do this, it looks great, and you’re just getting burnt out as a teacher, you need to find something else that is going to revitalize your teaching”. So I did that and I haven’t looked back. It was a big head transplant as you can imagine, taking a whole traditional studio, and some of these kids I had been teaching for 10 years, and moving them into the Simply Music program.

G: How did you deal with that transition with your students?

R: well I had 98% of my studio that went with me, which was great! I had to have several meetings with the parents and the students as to why we were doing this, that it’s a new language, and we are not moving backwards, we are moving sideways. We are going to be picking up a lot more tools that you don’t know. Obviously those groups that had a lot more traditional experience went faster, so they were more accelerated, but they loved it, they really loved it. They could see there were a lot of things that were benefiting what they were doing. My first year of teaching Simply Music I taught just private lessons, because that’s what I had done up to that point. So I decided to do this in stages. I moved my whole studio into Simply Music and l kept the private environment.

I think towards the end of that year I had a few shared lessons and I loved it, so in my second year of teaching Simply Music I decided to switch my studio all over into groups. I had to have a lot more conversations with parents and families, and several more meetings, as to why I felt the group environment was a superior learning environment. I continued teaching six days a week. A while later I enrolled in several mentoring programs, that Simply Music offers to teachers: “Teaching From the Future” and the “Reinventing Expression and Leadership” programs, As a direct result of what I learned from these two outstanding programs, I decided to cut down to four teaching days and kept my studio enrollment around 110 students! I would say that those 2 programs are the key to where I am today as a teacher and leader, and have had a profound impact on me making the decision to move to New Zealand, as well as learning to take better care of myself as a teacher. Today I run a requirement-based group run studio, with fantastic results!

I was the first Simply Music teacher in the Kansas City area. After teaching Simply Music for several years, I had grown my studio from 70 to 110 weekly students, and decided that I need more teachers to cope with the demand!

And I was still the only music teacher at that point in Kansas City. We really needed to start bringing up some other teachers because I can’t handle all this, Kansas City is a little town of you know 2 million, so there’s plenty of other students out there. So I started promoting it in the teaching community. A lot of it was just through people I knew or people I knew that knew other people, and in about another 2 years time we had a bunch of other teachers on board, so I formed a local Kansas City Simply Music Teachers Association. We now have about 16 members, all within the Kansas City metro area.

And I was kind of able to work myself out of a job when a year ago the opportunity came up to move to New Zealand. My wife is from New Zealand, and so we always knew we’d be here some day again but we didn’t know when, and so when we felt like it was the right time I had enough teachers in place where I could sell my studio, which I did, to 5 different instructors in Kansas City. The timing was right. I had enough teachers on board, as well as several upper level instructors to take my more advanced students.

Now Kansas City is having its first conference this month! I am so excited to see how this group of teachers has developed, and their enthusiasm and passion for teaching and sense of community. I feel so lucky to have had the privilege of working with this high quality group of teachers. If I could have hand picked them I would have!

There’s something about the kind of standard you establish from the beginning, whoever is the first person in an area sets the precedent for everyone else’s standards. So it seems to me that you’ve probably set that up for yourself, you attract the right kind of people because you’ve created that high standard and high quality of teaching.

I’ve got a quote from Marty Simmons “I run my studio very much like Ray runs his studio”. I think that’s evidence of that. I think it’s really important in an area like that that whoever takes up the mantle of leader creates the kind of standard that other people can rise to.

Yes, I agree. If you’re a level 5 leader, 5 being strong, you want to attract other level 5 leaders rather than just level 2 or level 1.

Marty’s great. She’s actually taken over the leadership for me of the Kansas Simply Music Teachers’ Association. She was one of my Moms – I taught her daughter who had never had piano before, up thru level 7 as a Simply Music student.

I think that also teaching Simply Music has given me a love and a passion for mentoring, and so part of my goal in moving to New Zealand is not just to teach, I want to mentor other teachers. I love to train and coach and share ideas together as teachers. And so in the next season, I want to be a part of that next level as well.

In New Zealand here I hope to help other teachers get off the ground and see them be successful in their studios too. And so teaching Simply Music has given me my passion for teaching again.

The whole group dynamic, I never thought that it would have worked the way it has worked, I’m a huge advocate of it! I just love being a part of this international body of teachers where you don’t feel like you’re on your own. In traditional environments you’re teaching pretty much the same methods as everyone else out there but you just feel like you’re on your own and like everybody’s competing against each other. So I really love the support and non-competitive attitude that SM teachers have.

Its been encouraging to see here in New Zealand the openness to this method, you know at first I didn’t know walking in, I always say it’s an Australian developed method and there’s somebody coming from North America, what are they going to think, some big American guy’s got some great idea or something.

It’s been neat to see older folk have a renewed passion for music that they never thought they could learn. I have a lot of retired people that I teach now. It’s neat to see kids find an avenue to learn music in a way that’s not frustrating them. They get frustrated when they learn music at school here, and it’s okay but it just doesn’t tickle them much, it doesn’t do much for them. In New Zealand its very big to get music tuition at school.

So with me being set up down here and offering something that’s totally different to that it’s been good to see the response so far. People realizing there’s’ another way to learn, and you don’t have to go through that channel of grades and exams and auditions.

Here in New Zealand I have my studio location in a commercial space, and that’s a new experience for me, I’m downtown, very visible and representing my own business, and its been a good experience for me to connect into the business community and be a part of several business chapters, which is a great way to connect with people.

It’s hard work any time you make a change and start over again, but it’s been worth it.

It sounds like you’ve had the opportunity with Simply Music to contribute some of your own particular skills and your own particular interests. I attended a blues presentation you did at one of the symposium, and also of course you were involved with a worship program using Simply Music technology. Obviously these are things that are part of your background and it’s great that you have the opportunity to share some of your particular expertise with the wider public.

Yes I would love to be a part of curriculum development. Ernest Amstalden and I are going to be teaching a worship workshop in Kansas City this month and we have talked about developing a worship accompaniment program for Simply Music. I also have a real passion for the blues and improvisation, and to see that also developed further into a multi-level blues program for Simply Music. The whole area of improvisation and contemporary worship styles has been a big part of my musical journey over the years. Coming from a traditional musical background as a kid, and developing into the creative areas of my musical playing today has been a great journey, and I would love to be able to pass that on to teachers and students alike. I would love to be able to help Simply Music teachers have the freedom that I’ve learned in my playing, both in the context of playing in bands and groups over the years. I have really enjoyed having the opportunities over the past several years, to teach at the SM symposiums, and of course I always learn so much myself from all the teachers, and the community that we all share together. That is a real gift that we as teachers can share in together. I enjoy giving in that way cause I receive so much back as well, and am a better teacher for that.

With so much of what you’ve done with your background and your interests, your background in church music for example, and your interest in sharing your skills and your experience in making that change from private students into groups and how much you’ve loved the groups, that sense of community is coming through. I get the sense that community music making or sharing music on a community level is important to you.

Yes it is. I play a lot in groups and bands and that’s a community right there, and being able to share that with your classes, that whole sense of community. Music is an individual thing, but it’s really to be shared with others in a shared context. And I love that about music in general and the more we can share together the more I feel like the learning curve goes up. That’s what I’ve learned the most over the years when I’ve played with other musicians. That’s where I’ve been challenged the most.

To me there is a 3rd dimension added, playing with others. It’s greater that the sum of its parts. To me that’s what’s exploited the least in music education.

There’s such a shortage out there of piano players that can accompany. Can you accompany the singer that’s going to sing a song tonight? Oh no, I need my music and I’m only used to playing the melody, you know. And I think one of my passions also is to mentor the next generation of piano players. The way music is done out there in the real world you’ve got to have freedom to express yourself and improvise and follow and listen with other musicians. I think Simply Music is a great context to do that thanks to the tools you have. My heart’s in the worship and the blues and just to help kids to get those skills that they can use. And it might be a hobby for them but they’ll be able to go so far with it and do so many things with it if they have the ability to accompany and to play.

Have you had the opportunity in New Zealand to share music with others?

I have. I play at the church I’m part of, I play in a worship band, and my wife’s family’s very musical, one of her brothers is the worship pastor of the church we go to, one of her other brothers is a semi professional guitarist here in New Zealand, who also teaches, a lot of her relatives are musicians in their own right so we’ll get together for a family reunion, we might have five keyboardists, two guitarists and four drummers in the room.

So how do you envision a world where everyone plays, as we say here, what would a world like that look like?

It would look like this: what if we had a open market on a Sunday, which they do here in Cambridge and businesses are welcome to put out little booths, or people can come in with their produce but it’s like an open market. What if we had a keyboard set up outside of my shop and students would feel totally comfortable playing in front of people they don’t know as people walk by, they wouldn’t be self conscious, and not only kids but 65, 70 year old adults, not be self conscious, just to sit down and play on the spot not worried if there’s one person watching or 50 people watching. To me a world where everyone plays is where people know how to play piano lets say, are comfortable whether they are at a family reunion playing in front of people that they know or they’re on the street playing at a market venue playing in front of people they don’t know and they can play comfortably anywhere any time they want to and for all ages.

So a world where everyone plays is where we, so to speak, get on the rugby field and participate, nobody’s on the sidelines saying I wish I could play. Everyone is able to get into the game. No grades, no theory tests, no exams, we’re not being graded on our performance, we’re just playing.

That spontaneity, nobody’s self-conscious, they are just having fun, and that’s what I like about the shared group environment too, you can really begin to break down the walls of being self conscious about playing. You get used to playing in front of people every week you know so again, music I believe is to be shared with the world, not to keep it to yourself.

I love music. I have a passion to see other people enjoy music. I have a passion to see other teachers enjoy teaching and I just really enjoy seeing people from all backgrounds and cultures, expressing their musical gifts and having fun sharing that experience together!