If you travel on 45th just above Stone Way, you might’ve seen the Off The Wall School of Music “Free Piano Lesson” sandwich board on the sidewalk and the giant banner on the side of a blue house on the corner of 45th and Midvale. I’ll admit, when I looked up the music school, I balked at the website’s claim, “You can learn a song in 15-20 minutes!” See, I’ve been taking piano lessons for the last four years and the skeptic in me wondered how on earth someone could learn to play a song in such a short amount of time. So, I contacted the owner, Chris Marx, and he invited me to the school to show me how his teaching methods have helped many students—-both young and old—-learn to play piano.
The school is in an old bungalow that Chris salvaged last January. When he bought it from the bank, it had been a squatter’s paradise, and anything that hadn’t been firmly nailed down, mostly kitchen appliances and fixtures, was long gone and the place was rotted through. So, it took more than a fresh coat of paint to transform the place into the music studio it is today. His beautiful grand piano that he had trucked down from his native Bellingham sits in the living room area across from a red drum kit. The kitchen has a fridge, but rather than the shelves being stocked with dishes and food, he’s got rows and rows of piano books, a printer, and a copier. In another room behind the kitchen, there’s an old upright and an electronic keyboard, and Chris told me he even had a few pianos in the basement. As a trade for lessons, one of his students helped build the deck in the back over the summer.
So, the secret behind the success of the school? Well, it really isn’t a secret, but more of an appealing approach: each lesson focuses on having fun, and he encourages that using different techniques. So often, he’s heard from students that they gave up taking piano lessons because it was boring and tedious, so throwing “fun” into the mix keeps students coming back for more. Rather than focus on the drudgery of practicing scales and cadences and arpeggios, the school holds a contest in which students learn how to play all of the chords in 30 seconds or less (the current record is 12 seconds).
We sat down at the piano and I noticed a strip of blue painter’s tape below the keys, beginning with Middle C and up to B. Chris opened a Beatles songbook (in my lesson he demonstrated “Across the Universe”) that featured the notes marked on the piano. There were chords for the left hand, but, he explained, those aren’t discussed right away. What’s important, according to Chris, is learning the melody and building on a simple foundation into a full-fledged song. Chris said, “If they’re focused, kids and adults can learn that in about 20 minutes.”
“It doesn’t all have to be reading notes,” Chris explains. “A lot of it is coordination. You build as you get more coordinated. Kids who are focused, it will take them maybe 5 times to learn the right hand, and maybe 5 times with introducing the left hand. You don’t have to introduce everything all at once. The important part is that they’re having fun, which is what a lot of teachers lose. If the students quit music, then what’s the point of learning fingering? You have to get them hooked first and then introduce them to some of this other serious stuff that takes work, but not until they’ve had a lot of success.”
The school has almost 100 students (comprising roughly 40% adults, 60% kids) and Chris teaches 6 days a week, while his team of 3 teachers each teach one day per week. Most of the students take weekly 30 minute lessons ($25 per lesson), while some of the adults come every other week, or even once a month.
Chris took private piano lessons growing up, and then studied music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. After he finished school, he taught for a year in Boston. He returned to Washington State, and prior to opening the studio in Wallingford, he taught in Ballard for 5 years. He bases a lot of the school’s curriculum on a dueling pianos approach, which he found to be a really entertaining way of learning.
Chris explains, “When I was growing up I wanted to be a jazz piano player and I realized that there is a really small number of professional jazz piano players making money in Seattle. So I was trying to figure out how could we take this dueling piano stuff and apply it to teaching. Dueling pianos is different because you get requests from the audience and there’s a lot of room for improvisation. I always ask kids to write down their to-do list of songs they want to learn. If they do their work, they get their prize.”
Among the prizes of small treats and learning how to play their favorite Mario Bros. song, students also prepare to perform in a school-wide recital, held at the end of every semester at 88 Keys in Pioneer Square. The recitals are far from ordinary, as most kids sing while playing and there are dueling pianos and drummers on the stage during the performance. Audience members also participate in the recital by dancing, clapping, and there’s a shouting contest between the adults and the kids. If you’re interested, click on this link to see some of the performances from the last recital in April 2010.