A guitarist who used to be more focused on making music than teaching it is gaining students while a sad refrain plays at schools across the country.
The couple's music lesson business grew from 79 students to 350 in just two and a half years – thriving during the worst economy since the Great Depression.
While The Lesson Center expanded from one location to three, school arts programs went on the chopping block from Atlanta to Los Angeles. In one Wisconsin community, parents say they would prefer a four-day school week to a curtailed fine arts curriculum.
“All over the country, music programs are under siege," said Robbi Kumalo, who teaches for The Lesson Center and also travels around the United States showing schools how to integrate music into their curriculum. "Music teachers are teaching on carts in schools. It’s the same story wherever you go.”
”All over the country, music programs are under siege."
The story of Jeff Roberts and his small business success began after he spent several years touring with a blues band. Roberts was working at a guitar store when a man brought his sons in to buy an instrument. The customer talked a reluctant Roberts into giving guitar lessons after seeing how well the musician interacted with youngsters.
A fellow entrepreneur later convinced Roberts to open his own studio. Roberts was eating at Billy’s Downtown Diner in Bethlehem when proprietor Billy Kounoupis suggested the musician rent space in the building he owned next door to start a lessons business.
Roberts recalls protesting that he didn’t have the money, but Kounoupis was persistent. “He said ‘I will not let you fail and I’ll make sure you can afford it,’’’ Roberts said.
Roberts gutted the rooms and renovated them with the help of his father. The studio opened in 2004 - about the same time Roberts and his future wife Lori started dating seriously. He added a few teachers who taught other instruments. The clientele and instructors grew incrementally.
“I really didn’t treat it like a business back then,” he said.
The Lesson Center took off when Lori joined him. She is a vocalist and writer also experienced in music promotion, booking, marketing and public relations. The couple met with a consultant who advised them on how to improve the business. Lori’s management and marketing skills proved to be key assets, allowing Jeff to concentrate on teaching music, keeping the books, maintaining the building and renovating additional studios in Coopersburg and Trexlertown.
Lori and Jeff were married in August on stage at Bethlehem’s Musikfest. Lori's daughters Megan, 15, and Emma, 13, were bridesmaids.
Many of The Lesson Center’s 27 instructors are school music teachers who were laid off or are recent graduates who can’t find jobs, Lori said. All are independent contractors who get paid per lesson.
Parents tell Lori and Jeff that, due to budget cuts, group instrumental lessons in schools are apt to be more crowded, resulting in less individualized attention. The Robertses see their business as supplementing what schools offer, not supplanting it. “We’re very strong proponents for music in schools,” Lori said.
Parent Yvonne Shands says cutting music in schools is myopic. Research shows that those lessons help children in other subjects, such as math and reading. Her 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, is an example of students turning to The Lesson Center as schools scale back arts instruction.
The Shands planned to enroll Sydney in the Harmonium program at Bethlehem's East Hills Middle School this year until it became a victim of budget cuts. Sydney hopes to transfer to the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts next year.
“We’re in a position where we can afford private lessons,” Shands said. “What about the gazillions of kids who aren’t in that position?”
The Lesson Center hopes to be able to help some of those students by rolling out a scholarship program next year, Lori said.
One thing Shands likes best about the center is that it provides Sydney with lots of opportunities to perform at venues such as the Steelstacks arts center in Bethlehem and the Allentown Fair.
That emphasis on performance gives students incentive to practice, Lori said. It also attracts more students to The Lesson Center after they hear about the cool places where their friends are singing or playing.
Jeff and Lori Roberts hope The Lesson Center helps bring music to the community long after they're gone.
“We built this so we would have a legacy," Lori said.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.