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Swallow Hill Instructor Jeff Rady leads a rock ensemble in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music's Yale Avenue location, fall 2018.
Swallow Hill Instructor Jeff Rady leads a rock ensemble in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill Music's Yale Avenue location, fall 2018.
Kit Chalberg

Swallow Hill Lays Off Staff to Avoid "Total Collapse"

Like every other Colorado venue, Swallow Hill Music was forced to temporarily close its brick-and-mortar facility in Denver. That means no classes, no concerts, no jam sessions at the forty-year-old arts institution.

The organization — which offers on-site instruction and educational programs in schools around the metro area; runs two concert halls where a mix of national touring acts and up-and-coming locals play shows; and hosts community jams — is on the brink of "total collapse," CEO Paul Lhevine told supporters in an email he sent out March 23.

In the note, he outlined how Swallow Hill plans to survive coronavirus closures and economic uncertainty. Over the past week, he and his team were forced to lay off all of the teachers, hourly workers and a third of the organization's administrative staff in order to keep the nonprofit alive. Those still employed at Swallow Hill took massive pay cuts.

In the wake of the news, some teachers built personal websites so they could take their teaching online through the closure — and perhaps beyond.

Some of the teachers already had private businesses, through which they have long offered music instruction in person and online. But many others scrambled to set up their own online shops, quickly learning to work with students on technologies like Zoom, Dropbox, Google Drive and more, and figuring out how to accept payment through Venmo and deal with their own taxes.

Swallow Hill Lays Off Staff to Avoid "Total Collapse"EXPAND
Swallow Hill Music

Laid-off teachers are gathering in a Facebook group and have organized online meetings where they share skills, business tips and more. Swallow Hill has set up a page on its website where some instructors have listed their private offerings and links to their personal websites.

"The vast majority of teachers are trying to do some stuff at home, and so that list represents a small number of those who are actually teaching," says voice teacher Molly Zackary.

She hopes the Swallow Hill list will be updated to include new offerings from more instructors. "Hopefully people will continue to check back in, and if people have relationships with teachers from years ago, they need to check back in with them directly," she says.

But some teachers say they're frustrated that virtual classes weren't already an option. "People had been saying, maybe let’s move to online options, since Swallow Hill is so awesome," Zackary says. "That’s been pooh-poohed by admin."

At the moment, the organization's lucrative summer series at the Denver Botanic Gardens is in question (the Botanic Gardens is also shuttered). Without that income, the board and remaining staff would have a huge task resuscitating Swallow Hill.

"With this small team that remains, we have begun the task of planning for how we reopen our doors and breathe new life into all of our programming — from group classes and private lessons to concerts, community jams and community outreach," Lhevine wrote supporters. "Our goal is to ensure when this crisis is over, Swallow Hill will once again be able to open our doors, bring our teachers back to work, and invite our community to come together as the music community that means so much to so many."

Zackary hopes to return to Swallow Hill soon, but she's aware that the costs of setting up a home business will make it necessary to do more private classes online, even after the statewide shutdown is lifted.

"I love Swallow Hill so much," she says. "I’ve been there for ten years. I feel like one of the huge factors that keeps me working there is this very strong sense of community."

And it's that very community that Lhevine is going to be relying on to keep the nonprofit going.

"We will be reaching out to our members and donor community to help be a part of supporting our organization more broadly, that we in turn can stay strong in the future," Lhevine said in his message. "We need a home for our artists and teachers to come back to."

Here's Lhevine's full note:

To our Swallow Hill community,

We are so grateful for every member of our community – from our students and patrons, members and donors and volunteers to those who have worked tirelessly over the years to make Swallow Hill the vibrant community that we all love and cherish. Our teachers, in particular, lie at the heart of who we are and what we do and we hope this message brings to light all we are doing to make sure we all have a home to come back to.

Last week was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Each day brought news worse than the day before. The week culminated with a set of decisions that had to be made to avoid the total collapse of Swallow Hill. To those ends, we laid off our teachers and all hourly workers, as well as a third of our administrative staff. Furthermore, those few staff members that remain are taking a deep reduction in pay during the closure.

With this small team that remains, we have begun the task of planning for how we reopen our doors and breathe new life into all of our programming – from group classes and private lessons to concerts, community jams and community outreach.

Our goal is to ensure when this crisis is over, Swallow Hill will once again be able to open our doors, bring our teachers back to work, and invite our community to come together as the music community that means so much to so many.

In the days and weeks to come, we will roll out ways to support our teaching community. For the time being, please check out this webpage where you can learn more about how to connect with them and their online lessons.

Our decisions have hit our teachers the hardest and have been the most heartbreaking for us. Our business model is such that, while we are no longer able to pay our teachers during this time that they aren’t working at Swallow Hill, we will be in a position to begin to pay them as soon as they return to work.

We will be reaching out to our members and donor community to help be a part of supporting our organization more broadly, that we in turn can stay strong in the future – We need a home for our artists and teachers to come back to.

What we do know is we have an amazing family, and together we will come back when this crisis is over – and together we will rebuild Swallow Hill.

Please stay healthy and strong.

Paul Lhevine, CEO Swallow Hill Music

To donate to the organization, find out more about Swallow Hill's online offerings and connect with its teachers, go to the Swallow Hill website

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