HOW MENZIE PITTMAN OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC CENTER BUILT THE ULTIMATE SUMMER LESSONS PROGRAM
On a Sunday in August, a 16-year-old guitarist took the stage before a packed house of 250 concertgoers. He shredded through a pitch-perfect rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” featuring long, tremulous notes and fingertapping embellishments. Afterwards, a band of youngsters plugged in. They barely looked old enough to hold down a paper route, but they blasted through an inspired cover of The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” without breaking a sweat.
Menzie Pittman, founder of Contemporary Music Center in Haymarket, Va., waited for the performers as they walked offstage. “You are so good,” he said, as if praising The White Stripes themselves. “You are so good.”
“These kids don’t know how good they have it today,” said a guitar teacher. “I’d love to play in a place like this.”
That place was the posh Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. The occasion: the final performance for Contemporary Music Center’s Rock Camp. The preparation: two weeks of learning everything from ensemble playing to creating a Facebook page, an educational format that pushed students to take total ownership of the process.
“This is the real deal,” Pittman said. “That’s the difference, I think, between our program and people who say, ‘We’re gonna do a rock camp thing. Dump your kids off, whatever.'”
And that afternoon, nobody dumped their kids off. So many parents came out that Pittman ran into last-minute ticketing problems for the second show, which was held later that day.
“If you’re not coming back, please hand in your ticket stubs,” he announced. “We need those stubs. Both of these shows are completely sold out.”
The capacity crowd was a reason for concern, but also celebration. This marked the fifth anniversary of Contemporary Music Center’s Rock Camp. Participation skyrocketed from 35 to 63 students. The final performance found a new home at the Hylton theater. More manufacturers offered support in the form of donated gear. NAMM’s Jennifer Paisley- Schuch came out to emcee the event. And enrollment in the retailer’s private lesson program increased 46 percent from the previous year, according to Pittman, a spike driven in large part by the group programs.
“There was an excitement building that was hard to deny,” he said after the final performance. “Importantly, there was one other factor that also added to our growth, one that I think speaks directly to the quality of the CMC experience: We had some families in 2011 try other programs, and this year, they returned to Contemporary Music Center. They now had a direct comparison, so it wasn’t us telling them.”
BRANDING A PROGRAM
Pittman began his career as a drummer and drum teacher. He took over Contemporary Music Center in 2001 when he bought out his two original business partners. Still, he’s a teacher at heart, and his company reflects that. His two northern Virginia stores, located in the relatively affluent towns of Haymarket and Chantilly, house enormous teaching studios and cozy showrooms of carefully stocked combo gear. Revenues can be broken down as 44 percent lessons, 34 percent retail and 22 percent rentals, according to Pittman. (The company’s a Music & Arts rental affiliate dealer.) Anywhere from 600–750 students pass through weekly.
Pittman launched Rock Camp so kids could experience the same joys he had as a gigging musician. In its relatively short life, it’s become Contemporary Music Center’s marquee program and follows a similar model to such pioneering camps as Skip’s Music’s Stairway to Stardom and Alta Loma Music’s Rock Project. Students, ages 6–18, gather at Contemporary Music Center during the summer to learn the ins and outs of playing in a band with a professional coach. Tuition is $650 per person.
“Lessons are profitable for us,” Pittman said. “The maintenance of running the program is demanding, though.”
Not surprisingly, the program isn’t the only game in town. Pittman’s surrounded by several other rock schools, one of them being the Bach to Rock chain.
“The ultimate takeaway for us, in a word, would be branding,” he said. “You can definitely copy the format, but you can’t copy the quality. You can’t copy the vision of what we’re doing.”
That vision revolves around delivering the most authentic experience possible – and producing authentic musicians. Many of the 12 groups in the final performance sounded like bona fide rock bands, despite the occasional flubbed note or out-of-tune guitar. Postcards From Mars, a band of high schoolers featuring Pittman’s daughter, Summer, even tackled the intricate four-part harmonies on fun.’s “Some Nights.” The kicker: Bands only had 40 hours to rehearse.
“From day one, you have to get the bands to begin to own the process,” Pittman said. “Since students only have two weeks, everything is on steroids.”
THE REAL DEAL
Rock Camp delivers that authentic experience by steering clear of teaching methods that don’t, well, rock. Students are thrown into groups on the first day and forced to react to one another musically, as opposed to spending lots of time on cerebral processes (e.g., technique and theory). The first two days are especially frantic. Pittman and the program’s coaches use this time to identify a band’s strengths and weaknesses.
“You have to find out what they don’t have and get away from it, then find out what they do have and try to figure out how to make that work,” he said. “You look for extremes.”
Kids aren’t given time to think. “I just want them to react to a particular idea,” so they can be evaluated, Pittman said. “I believe technique eventually takes care of itself. If we get a kid emotionally invested in the experience, technique will follow.”
Bands usually have what he called an “oh wow” moment within those two days. This marks their first musical triumph. At the recent camp, a young singer’s approach to AC/ DC’s “Back In Black” was too workmanlike. Pittman and the band’s coach kept pushing him to add some grit to his voice. Finally, he belted out a Brian Johnson-esque growl. The rest of the band loved it, and the entire energy changed.
“That’s when they start to realize that they can really own it,” Pittman said. “And once they can play a tune and get all the way through it, the rest of it’s pretty easy.”
Creating bands of self-conscious tweens with changing voices can pose other problems with lead vocals. Once, a singer didn’t step up at all. Pittman made everyone sing and clap to The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week” in unison for an hour and a half – an exercise that wore down their defenses. (“That day turned the rest of the camp around,” he said.) Occasionally, a band doesn’t gel by the third or fourth day. Pittman said he’s solved this dilemma by sprinkling in a rock-star student from another group. That player’s excitement spreads, and band members get remotivated.
“Our job is to absolutely convince them that their musical part is a piece of cake no matter what and that they can do the part standing on their heads with no problem,” he said.
Pittman likened his role in the camp to Walt Disney’s role in his eponymous company. “I try to visit every park, so to speak,” Pittman said. “I try to give each band at least two days if possible.”
But a bigger part of his job is finding the right instructors to translate his vision. Mining his company’s private lesson program of 55–60 teachers and hitting up local colleges has yielded the most talent. “They have to have a youthful energy because everything in Rock Camp is done on a higher octave,” he said, noting that the camp had seven instructors this year.
A COMMUNITY AFFAIR
Rigg Wagner’s grandson Zachary played drums, congas and keyboards at this year’s event. Wagner, a local resident, was so taken with Rock Camp that he lent his truck and trailer to haul gear from Contemporary Music Center’s Haymarket store to the Hylton on the morning of the performance.
“I just like Menzie’s style of teaching,” Wagner said. “It’s amazing to me that all the kids in two weeks’ time can become a band. It’s unbelievable.”
He wasn’t alone. Out of Pittman’s 15 assistants for the event, eight were volunteer parents. They helped with everything from tuning instruments to serving as the camp’s street team. Getting parents involved has been good for business, too. Pittman noted that he’s starting to see younger siblings of former students enlisting in Rock Camp, boosting its enrollment. Parents trust him, and they’re charged up about getting their kids in the program.
“It’s not as if [we’re catering to] people who have never played and saying, ‘Hey, you should take up an instrument,'” he said. “It’s families that have two and three kids that have gone through the system. It’s a very high-quality customer who will pay for education, who will pay for the experience and who will understand what the experience will bring them.”
Along with recruiting volunteer parents, Pittman also called on vendors for help. This year, bands got their photos taken in front of a 10-foot backdrop after performing. The backdrop plugged sponsors and “gave total legitimacy to the autograph area,” Pittman said.
“The manufacturers realized that every picture that’s going to be taken and published on Facebook will have their logos flashing in the back.”
Plus, Contemporary Music Center used the final performance to introduce Bedell Guitars to its clientele. Pittman recently picked up the line, which will serve as one of his company’s main acoustic brands. (Epiphone is Contemporary Music Center’s flagship line.) During the performance, he gave away a donated Bedell in a drawing, along with a Pearl snare drum and JamHub unit.
Maybe Rock Camp’s most critical partnership was with the Hylton itself. The venue’s manager gave Contemporary Music Center a roughly 35-percent discount on the facility after she learned about the program. “Hylton is only two years old,” Pittman said. “They are trying to build a community reputation. Her big thing was, ‘We really want this community event here, where it should be.'”
Burgeoning rockers in northern Virginia won’t get much downtime after the performance. Many will reconvene later this year at Contemporary Music Center for more rehearsals. Only then, the players will monitor themselves through headphones, not speakers.
Last year, Pittman found another way to get more students in his company’s system. Inspired by the JamHub silent practice device, he launched Sessions. Students in this winter rock camp meet for one hour weekly over 12 weeks. Tuition is $138 a month – the same price as hourly private lessons – or $414 for all three months. But the program differs from Rock Camp in one critical way: Practice is nearly inaudible to passersby. Bands play through a JamHub unit with drummers bashing away on Roland V-Drums, making it possible to rehearse during normal business hours without disturbing other students. Pittman even credited Steve Skillings, JamHub’s founder, for helping create Sessions.
“The program has a studio kind of quality to it because you’re doing it with headphones,” Pittman said. “The kids develop a larger social network because they’re getting to know each other for 12 weeks.” This also gives bands more time to develop chemistry and take on challenging material.
For Pittman, Sessions completes a 360-degree loop with Contemporary Music Center’s lessons program. Sessions feeds Rock Camp; Rock Camp feeds new private-lesson sign-ups; and private lessons feed both programs. Sessions also offers another opportunity to brand the company’s educational offerings and get parents on-board. Going into the winter season, interest in Sessions is already up 100 percent, according to Pittman. “So we have a feeder system that is a little stronger than individual lessons,” he said. “After our families tried Sessions and realized the benefits of the program, they were excited to move to another experience – Rock Camp.”
And at the end of Rock Camp, parents were excited to get their kids started all over again. After the show, Pittman couldn’t get offstage. He and a few teachers were nearly invisible within a crowd of parents, who praised the program and everything it did for their kids.
“The community really got it this year,” he said. “The community looked at it and said, ‘I want some of that.’ I have to laugh because now I can’t go into the grocery store and shop without a 20-minute conversation with somebody.” MI
MENZIE PITTMAN ON ROCK CAMP EXPENSES
- The biggest fixed expense would be the payments to teachers. I personally believe you get what you pay for, and Contemporary Music Center is known to pay instructors very well but has high expectations.
- Your second biggest expense is the show, and the show defines the whole experience. In my first years, everyone said I was crazy for all the extra things I felt were important. I knew from my experience and background of 20-plus years of performing that there was only one way to do this — and that was just like the pros do it.
In the early years, I found whatever funky outdoor places I could to hold the concert, and it always worked out well. However, this year, as we noticed registrations on the rise, we took the gloves off and tolerated the expense of the Hylton Performing Arts center. It was worth every penny. What we were able to provide in experience was off-the-charts in comparison. So, the risk paid off.
- Every year with the show, we strive to take it up a level. The expenses climb but so does the excitement and the experience for the musicians. That’s hard for bean counters to get their heads around, but not artists. It takes the full Contemporary Music Center staff working all week and summer with a dress rehearsal, photographers, outside professionals, all the clinicians, parent volunteers, the 20-plus person staff of the Hylton, multiple meetings, cooperation with manufacturers, and hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to pull this off.
- Unfortunately, it is easier to promote a program once it has achieved some success. Promotion is expensive but critical, and promotion reflects your style. This year, I developed a logo specifically for Rock Camp. I have never loved the generic name “Rock Camp,” but no matter what I called it, everyone always defaulted to calling it Rock Camp. So if you can’t beat ’em, at least craft a good logo.
At Contemporary Music Center, retail serves lessons, not the other way around. Students pass through a showroom at the Haymarket, Va., store to get to the teaching studios. The showroom features a cherry-picked selection that’s targeted specifically to students’ needs and tastes. Pittman acknowledges that he wants to expand his retail business but only with laser-focused products.
“I’m not going to grow retail as my first business,” he said. “It’s about getting the rivht tools in kids’ hands first.”
Lately, he’s psyched up about Bedell, which he picked up this summer as one of his major acoustic guitar brands. A deep, deliberate selection of Epiphone acoustics and electrics also hangs on the wall.
“Epiphone has been one of the best decisions I’ve made because of the depth of the product and its reputation as a manufacturer,” Pittman said. “So that took a little while to get done, but for us, it marked a big difference in whether or not we were a legitimate retailer.
“I think we’ve got a good product mix. Our customers say, ‘That’s a good product mix.’ They’re not quite as quick to go online or to a big-box store.”
Another reason local customers might forgo big boxes for Contemporary Music Center, particularly when buying drum kits, is the company’s service.
The way Pittman sees it, a lot of music retailers oversell and undeliverer when it comes to service. His company takes the opposite approach.
“Service is not being polite from behind the counter,” he said. “That’s not service. That’s courtesy.”
In contrast, he will personally deliver and assemble drum sets when customers buy from his store. He’ll give mini lessons to new players. Sometimes, he’ll even offer the same service to Contemporary Music Center students who buy their drums elsewhere. And ironically, Pittman’s starting to attract customers who buy from him but take lessons at a competing studio.
“What’s really funny is they come from other stores where they study, but they’ll purchase from us because they know we’ll set it up for them.” – Z.P.