When her son was three years old, Skye Barker Maa found he had an aptitude for piano. She wanted to harness his enthusiasm into a hobby, but upon searching for a tutor, she ran into several roadblocks: Very few tutors in her neighborhood would take a child his age, the limited number of tutors in the area all had massive student waitlists, and the diversity she craved in instruction wasn't readily present. That's when she decided to create the public tutoring school Neighborhood Music
Maa's background is varied. She moved to Colorado just under thirty years ago, when she was nineteen. She spent much of her time climbing the corporate ladder, but after giving birth in 2008, she became a stay-at-home mother.
"I fell in love with parenthood, which was unexpected," Maa reveals. "I thought I was a corporate go-getter, but that was sort of all over when I met my son. Within six months of resigning and saying, 'I'm going to be a stay-at-home mom,' I had started this business, and I was still in the middle of my MBA, and I started and ended that program three months pregnant."
Virtually the only qualification Maa was missing to start a music school was music experience itself. She has never played an instrument and doesn't have any plans to — though if forced, she would choose piano.
In 2012, using her business mindset and creating connections with the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music, Maa turned her Central Park basement into three small studios and brought in three tutors. It was open two days a week, but within a month, that more than doubled. There were suddenly 55 students taking lessons four days a week from seven teachers in her basement.
Within three short years, Maa found she could no longer run the venture from her home. Neighborhood Music moved into its first commercial space in 2015 with a roster of over 200 students. Now the school is settled in Stanley Marketplace
in Aurora. Accommodations include twenty studio rooms, and the floor of the hallway in that section of the Stanley is covered in a piano-key mural by local artists Jerry and Jay Michael Jaramillo
Alec Wenzel has seen the school grow over the last six years.
Upon enrollment, children and parents go through an interview process — usually separately, to account for different goals for training. The student is then assigned to a tutor. Thirty-minute sessions are held Monday through Friday from 3 to 8 p.m., with the occasional Sunday session. Classical, jazz, rock and contemporary genres are the main distinctions among tutor styles. Eighteen instruments are currently offered, including harp and voice. Neighborhood has even taught master classes in grade schools around the area. The music school currently has a presence on twelve campuses.
"We have some teachers who happen to be really good at teaching Coldplay to nine-year-old boys," Maa says. "So we know if you're a nine-year-old boy who wants to play contemporary rock...then you're going to go to this teacher. I want [the school] to be a moulin rouge of teachers. What we're always looking for is what's your different personality and skillset that appeals to that different personality and skillset of that student."
Alec Wenzel, a guitar tutor, strives to meet those varied needs. He's been with Neighborhood Music since August 2015 after graduating from the University of Denver with a degree in Jazz Studies, specializing in guitar.
He considers himself a "general" guitar teacher, since all guitar styles share the same base. He approaches each lesson with a music theory tint to help his budding musicians understand the mechanics behind the riffs of contemporary rock or the smooth improvisations of jazz. The lessons differ from pupil to pupil; sometimes curriculum is based on a song the student wants to learn, while other times technique is the goal. Either way, scales are mandatory practice in his classroom.
"My ultimate goal is that you're not dependent on me to teach you the riff," says Wenzel. "You should have the tools to learn how it works and why. So we're looking at this [piece of music] as a template to apply in other formats."
Wenzel was not a tutor when Neighborhood Music was based in Maa's basement, but he's taught in both its subsequent spaces. He agrees with Maa: The Stanley Marketplace location suits the school better.
"[We got to] purpose a space that was sort of a blank canvas, as opposed to try and build something out of what already existed," Wenzel explains. The space includes soundproofing in all studios, alongside COVID precautionary equipment likes ultraviolet lights, plexiglass barriers and a plethora of cleaning supplies.
Students are assigned a tutor based on their strengths and interests in music.
Maa found transitioning to digital services at the start of the pandemic more rewarding than expected, with Zoom sessions replacing in-person interactions. Maa also increased staff meetings from three per year to bi-weekly "fireside chats." But the biggest change came in the least expected way: The children began increasing their weekly lessons.
Looking back, Maa understands why that occurred: "We were the only thing still happening," she says. "These kids were in theater, soccer, chess club — and all of a sudden their life was gone, but their music teachers were still here. That one-on-one private-lesson environment is really therapeutic. A lot [of students] increased lessons because they still needed the outlet. They also weren't distracted in the way they normally are. ... Suddenly they were coming to the table after school completely engaged. Then we had this entire new universe to work with them in."
Even Neighborhood Music's front-of-house employment saw growth over the last year and a half. What was once a three-person, part-time team has morphed into a seven-person, full-time staff.
More tutors were also needed to meet the demand, and Maa sticks to hiring referrals to keep a friendly environment among her staff.
Curriculum varies from each student and tutor pairing, offering diversity in instruction.
Katia Kotcherguina was hired in May 2020 through a referral, and didn't meet Maa in person until the following July. Originally from Russia, Kotcherguina lived briefly in Mexico and then in the States from age ten on. Her specialization is opera, and she teaches a mixture of American musical theater and art song (a type of music that typically involves one piano and one voice sung in opera style).
Voice proves to be one of the most difficult instruments to teach, especially while navigating an airborne virus pandemic, as projecting one's voice heightens the chance of germicidal spread. Masks are required inside the Neighborhood Music space, so Kotcherguina still utilizes Zoom at times to keep everyone safe.
Despite any difficulties surrounding the way she has to instruct for the moment, Kotcherguina is grateful to have found Neighborhood Music when she did.
"My day job when COVID hit was not music-related," she says, "so to come here in the middle of a pandemic where my peers and I are so burnt out in the performance industry, and to walk into an environment with so many kids who are so excited about music and they genuinely love it...that's the really inspiring thing. It’s really amazing to see them perform and see them grow and do master classes. I'm very proud of them and the work we do for them."
Neighborhood Music is waiting to resume its rock band program until COVID guidelines loosen.
While 2020 was a beast to tackle, 2021 has proved to be different in almost every way.
"For the first time since 2012, we had churn," Maa says. "I took all these teachers after college, and most of them I had for eight to ten years. ... The generation of teachers that ate Brussels sprouts in my house, there's only two of them left."
This year has focused on handling the growing pains brought on by the pandemic. "Twenty twenty-one is a different business to manage," Maa explains. "When you grow, there's always going to be a painful period...where you have to adjust to the growth and then sustain the growth. People survived 2020, then in 2021 they just don't know who they are or what they're doing anymore. I see that across the industry, not just where we are."
Next year will mark Neighborhood Music's ten-year anniversary in a (hopefully) post-pandemic world. Maa thinks about what lies ahead constantly now. In-person recitals are returning this winter on December 9 and 16, and Maa finds herself "getting itchy-scratchy about the next innovation." There are no plans for a Neighborhood Music birthday party just yet, but that isn't off the table.
Stagnation doesn't sit well with Maa, and Neighborhood Music is evidence of that. A new location for Neighborhood Music's theater program opened in April. Maa has also been expanding to include film and fashion programs — which also have roots at the Stanley — for the same demographic.
"I ended 2020 with Neighborhood Music, and I started 2021 with seven businesses," she recounts. Now she's even a co-owner of newly opened Sky Bar within Stanley Marketplace. Neither she nor her team show any signs of stopping any time soon.
As for her son, who's thirteen now, he's played piano all around the world in places like Austria and Italy. Those accomplishments make the best memories for Maa.
"We're pretty firm believers in what we do, and we're very passionate, but it is a job, and it gets on you like everything else. But when you're at a recital and you watch a kid be like, 'Oh, my God, I just did that,' that's a pretty important moment," she says. "Watching them pop up and be like, 'I just did something really amazing, and I'm gonna bow' — that is always special."
Neighborhood Music is open Sunday through Friday at Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas Street, #130. Learn more at the Neighborhood Music website.