How one school in Brooklyn is revolutionizing the way music is taught and preserving the borough’s musical soul at the same time.
By Jake Johnson
The music scene in Brooklyn is dying, supposedly. The borough that defined cool, where the kids moved to open DIY music clubs, snuggle into the warm arms of artistic expression, and scoop up cheap rent; the borough that brought us the hipster darlings like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and LCD Soundsystem; has thrown its own funeral (well, at least Williamsburg did).
But the musical roots of Brooklyn go much deeper than predominantly white hipsters afraid of losing their edge, of the kids “coming up from behind,” the “art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia,” as James Murphy crooned.
Tom Barnes writes for mic.com, “Without Brooklyn, we might not have a reggae scene in this country. American classical music and jazz might look completely different. And hip-hop may never have become the global movement it now is. These contributions are frequently overlooked in discussions of Brooklyn music, but all of them are indispensable to understanding what the borough actually means.”
The list of artists and scenes Barnes parades as hailing from or launched by Brooklyn is hall-of-fame quality: George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland (American classical music); Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Wes Montgomery (Jazz); Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer (Reggae); Biggie, Jay Z, Big Daddy Kane, and Black Star (Hip Hop).
Can it really be that a community with such deep roots in American music is artistically shriveling up and dying? Some folks think so.
Can it really be that a community with such deep roots in American music is artistically shriveling up and dying? Some folks think so.
In his article, “Razing Williamsburg,” Paul Adler writes that nearly a dozen live clubs and DIY spaces closed between 2014 and 2015. “These closings and relocations are especially jarring to a neighborhood once known as the foremost creative mecca in New York City’s five boroughs,” he says.
Tom Barnes adds to the gloomy outlook, “Today…Brooklyn’s vitality as a creative neighborhood is currently in serious jeopardy.”
If this is true, what happened?
The general consensus seems to be that dirty old word, “gentrification.”
“As for ol’ Billyburg, well, it’s done for,” writes Adler. “Old news. Dead and gone. Passé. You know it, I know it, hell, your mother probably even knows it. The signs are all there: the faux-wood-paneled Dunkin Donuts, the SoulCycle studio, the brand new Whole Foods. These harbingers of that dreaded and heavily loaded word ‘gentrification’ have arrived en masse, and just about everyone seems to have taken notice.”
Barnes gives the same woes: “With the ever-present specter of gentrification, artists are gradually getting priced out of areas that used to be hotbeds of creative energy.”
But is the music scene in Brooklyn actually dying? Are the artists leaving in droves, fleeing before a great corporate tidal wave and the dangerous undertow of exponentially rising rents? Or is all this talk about Brooklyn’s dying scene part of an indie-music-driven, “entitled, upper-middle-class bourgeois attitude” that doesn’t understand the multifaceted nature and history of Brooklyn music and how it’s evolving today?
The seven-and-a-half-mile Uber ride from Midtown to Gowanus takes a hell of a lot longer than it should. It’s June, an early Friday morning, the sun is out, and everyone seems to be evacuating. This is confirmed by the fact that I’m paying surge rates.
My overly-aggressive driver, Alamov, speeds east along 30th Street to FDR Drive dodging heavy machinery. It seems the whole city is being torn down and rebuilt. We leave behind the stunning, claustrophobia-inducing high-rises, flying by more modest five, six, seven-story buildings with picturesque stoops. I’m breathing a little easier.
We turn onto the FDR and the skyline opens up. The East River is on my left. Looking south, as we speed past the brick monoliths that make up Stuy Town, Lower Manhattan rises up, the Brooklyn Bridge extending out before it to the east. The city buildings rise and fall like manmade rolling hills complete with their own architectural stratigraphy.
We spill off the Brooklyn Bridge into the “mini” downtown of Brooklyn Heights and steadily progress from skyscrapers to newer, squatter mid-rise buildings with trendy eateries offering things like artisanal fried chicken. That quickly gives way to quaint residential row houses that then melt away into a grittier industrial blend of empty gravel lots and one-and two-story warehouses. The graffiti intensifies, as does the trash littering the streets and the weeds straining their way through the concrete sidewalks.
It’s here…that the kids of Brooklyn are doing something new and exciting in the world of music. And by kids, I really mean kids.
Finally, we hook a left onto Douglass Street and pull up to the three-story, grey brick Gowanus Arts building. It’s here at this building, in the heart of industrial Brooklyn, just a few blocks east of the polluted Gowanus Canal (now a superfund site), that the kids of Brooklyn are doing something new and exciting in the world of music. And by kids, I really mean kids.
The day I Skype Nate Shaw, he’s feeling pensive. “I’m from Minnesota,” he tells me, reflecting on his college days. The death of Prince is hitting him hard. Lots of people I’ve talked to over the last couple days have expressed the same sentiment, but it feels especially poignant coming from a man who lived in the same city as the pop star, had friends who played in the Purple Power’s band, and who has made music his life.
Things perk up as we talk about the business he and his partner, Peira Moinester, started about six years ago, the Brooklyn Music Factory (affectionately called BMF or simply the Factory by staff and parents alike), an innovative after-school music program in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood.
The two are on a mission to radically change the way music is taught, and BMF is the laboratory where they are creating the formula they think will do just that.
Both Nate and Peira are deeply steeped in the world of music. Nate is a former touring Jazz musician turned music teacher turned composer for the likes of Oprah turned music teacher, again. Peira did a tour of duty in the rock world, playing with her band In Flight Radio, then teaching toddlers music, and finally as the founder of a band program for kids.
“What does a musician do when it’s time to pack it in?” asks Nate. “When they can’t travel anymore?” The short answer, he says, is teach. In fact, teaching brought him and Peira together. That and a mutual dissatisfaction with the traditional model of music education.
“Ninety-five percent of teachers buy a book and follow a method,” says Nate. He quickly realized that wouldn’t work from him. And both Nate and Peira share that in looking back at their own musical formation, the most miserable times were the lonely, isolated times sitting at an instrument plowing through scales and sheet music.
“Lessons were torture for me,” says Peira. “Not fun.” Needing to connect emotionally and be with people, she rebelled against her lessons — a fitting onramp to her rock roots.
Anyone who had to suffer through music lessons as a kid can empathize. Later, during lunch at a local burger joint with the school’s faculty, I share my memories of practicing my piano scales in Ms. Ruffer’s musty, dark living room that smelled like poodle hair. It lasted about six months.
“I had the dark, musty old living room too!” says Kathryn, a voice and band instructor for the school (who doubles as the school’s “IT OverLady”). “I remember the smell very distinctly. And then my music teacher in Texas, she, like, hit me one time!”
“Kathryn and I went to a very intense music school in Texas,” chips in Grace, a fellow voice and band teacher (and the school’s “Website Wizard”). “That’s how we know each other. Like post traumatic stress.”
“We have a therapy group,” says Kathryn. This is code for the two of them and a bottle of wine.
Sentiments like these led Nate and Peira to be dissatisfied with the status quo of music education and ultimately compelled Nate to start a music school focused on communally training young musicians and Peira to start her own band program. The two met when Nate’s kids were toddlers, and six years later, after Nate started experiencing burn out, they became partners and the Factory was born.
“What are my fondest memories of my life as a musician?” asks Nate. “Doing it with other people.”
“What are my fondest memories of my life as a musician?” asks Nate. “Doing it with other people.” It was this communal aspect that made music both enjoyable and stretching. “As long as it was fun, I was growing,” he says. “Your chance of success as a musician comes from a commitment to a larger community.”
That’s the guiding principle of the Factory, where you could say that kids are communally trained before they’re classically trained. I decided I had to see it in action for myself.
Alamov’s Uber drives off, and I stand in front of a bright, beat-up red door. The sound of drums floats through the air, bouncing off the buildings across the street, making it hard to pinpoint the exact source — a kind of natural stereo sound. I press buzzer №4 and no one answers. I buzz again and stand awkwardly on the sidewalk, wondering what to do next when a young, brown-haired girl in dark jeans and worn Chucks walks up and opens the door with a key. I follow her in.
The hallway inside the Gowanus Arts building is dark and smells like another century. Signs say follow the music, but there’s no music playing, so instead I follow the girl. We head up old, dark-wood stairs that are just a touch too tall. I trip coming to the second floor landing where the entrance to the Factory is. The girl gives me a side glance, and despite the fact that the huge letters “Brooklyn Music Factory” are stenciled in spray paint on an orange wall in front of me, I ask, like an idiot, “Is this Brooklyn Music Factory?”
“Yep,” she says, unlocking the door to the school. I follow her in.
We go down a short hallway. Kid-high coat pegs and hundreds of pictures of happy students dominate the wall to my right. To the left is a bathroom and then a small kitchenette. Miniature, primary-colored Ikea kids cups are stacked up next the sink and a Keurig coffee maker. You can buy a coffee for $1.
We go through another door into a large, brightly lit room with couches, tables, a desk, two pianos, an organ, and a large stage against the back wall. It’s the kind of space you’d expect from an old stove factory turned hip music school. The walls are bare, exposed brick, and the floors are aged hardwood. The place is all character. Two sturdy, rustic wood beams rise from the floor to a ceiling, supporting a cross beam that anchors the stage lights. This the Factory’s common space, and it’s the heart of the operation.
I’m greeted enthusiastically by Peira, who immediately tempers my nervousness with her warmth. She tells me Nate is in the drum studio and will be out soon, and she introduces me to some of the staff.
Shortly, Nate comes from a door in the back corner of the common room, Studio C. You can always tell when someone is coming because the hinges sound like the T-rex from “Jurassic Park.”
Nate is tall, lanky, and gregarious. He’s a big personality that immediately takes over a room with a confident voice that is both deep and loud. He gives me a spirited handshake and takes me on a tour. Nate tells me they signed a new 15-year lease on the building a couple years ago. It was a huge investment in the six-figures. “When we signed it, we signed it at market rate,” he says. “It was a lot of money to put on the table…which was insane for us to think about.”
Nate points out that the common room is the biggest space in the school, and it’s not even a teaching space. “We knew we wanted a central area where we could have workshops, lectures, gigs, but most importantly where everyone would just hang. To us it has huge value. Other businesses might say, ‘You’re not maximizing every square foot. You could put six teaching rooms in that.’”
This theme of community that will come up again and again over the next two days, and the importance of guarding the common room isn’t lost on me. In a business that sells teaching time, classroom space is at a premium. Every square foot not dedicated to facilitating lessons is lost revenue, but Nate and Peira are putting their money where their mouth is — and rethinking how they make their money in the first place.
Music in the 21st century is a singular event in human history. For much of our evolution, music served as a way to bring people together, to share stories, and to build empathy. Robert Garfias, in his essay “Music: the Cultural Context,” hits on this when he writes, “This in essence is what music is at heart after all, the communication of the inner state of being from one individual to another.” From pre-modern tribes singing around a fire to concert halls in Europe to beat boxes on the streets, music served as an experience heard and shared by a community — whether they liked it or not. But today, technology has massively altered this reality.
“Music and life are inseparable. Music is part of our physical and intellectual formation…We build an autobiography and a self-image with music, and we know, even as we’re building them, that they’re going to change,” writes Dan Chiasson, quoting Ben Ratliff, in an essay for The New York Review of Books, “All the Songs Are Now Yours.”
In the age of iTunes and Spotify, what does it mean to listen to music…
But in the age of iTunes and Spotify, what does it mean to listen to music and build this “autobiography”?
Chiasson writes, “It is now possible for a person to synchronize the outside world to music, to make the world a manifestation of the music she chooses to hear. A record of those choices, lives we live while apparently doing nothing, or nothing of note.”
Gafias takes this a step further, “In Westernized cultures, as in some others as well, musicians are paid by us to sound off and express feelings and thoughts which we believe are like ours. We pay them because we like the way they express how we feel. In such a society they are often outrageous, mad visionaries who help us articulate our subtlest feelings and dreams.”
This sense of identification is increasingly personalized. By putting on your headphones, you can now effectively use music as a buttress against the world and community, forging and reinforcing your individualism in a world that demands your attention otherwise.
This kind of cloistered music consumption used to be relegated to the realm of the depressed, à la John Cusack playing Rob Gordon in the movie adaptation of “High Fidelity.” Gordon sitting in the dark, over-the-ear headphones on, pontificates to the camera about pop music and depression as his latest ex-girlfriend, Laura, gets ready to leave his apartment for good.
“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery, and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
Now, it’s simply the rule of the day. Don’t want to talk to your seat mate on a plane? Effectively shut them out by blaring Fugazi over your third-world-exploited-labor-built iPhone.
Trying to get some work done in your open floor plan office? Blast Pink Floyd’s “Money” into your noise-canceling headphones while crunching the numbers on that spreadsheet.
Need some “me” time? Groove to Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” while doing the dishes as your kids watch the Disney Channel and your spouse browses Facebook.
Music, along with most forms of digital media, has become a vehicle for narcissism — the opposite of its historical and cultural roots.
“Spotify estimates that fully four million of the songs it carries have never been streamed, not even once.”
We can’t even find it within ourselves to support the artists who create this music. For years, album sales have plummeted. And the ethos of our musical age is manifest in our obsession with the single, streamed and forgotten when the moment of inspiration passes — if it’s listened to at all. As Chiasson writes, “Spotify estimates that fully four million of the songs it carries have never been streamed, not even once.”
And it’s not just record sales that have fallen. According to seatsmart.com, “The decade numbers show that concert attendance peaked in the 1990s before declining in the 2000s and increasing a bit again in the 2010s…the overall trend is still downward…This reinforces the idea that concert ticket sales are not going to save the music industry.”
People blame gentrification for the closures of iconic music clubs in cities like Brooklyn, but the reality is that gentrification might mask a perhaps even more demoralizing truth: the majority of the population just doesn’t care enough to keep music clubs open — and in some cases actively works to have them closed down.
“Many people say that you can get a faster police response by calling in a noise complaint than by calling in an assault,” says Todd Patrick, a DIY club owner, in an interview with “Observer.” “I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly seems anecdotally plausible. The police have put a lot of focus on those quality-of-life enforcement, and that focus puts venues in the crosshairs.”
It’s this musical cultural attrition that a school like Brooklyn Music Factory flies in the face of.
“It’s super hard to turn music education on end,” Nate tells me. Yet, he and Peira, along with their faculty, have invested thousands of hours trying to do just that.
The curriculum is innovative. A mixture of both private and band lessons that focus on musical fluency rather than on learning an instrument. Typically, as kids begin to understand the language, they add to their individual work, deepening their investment with the true heart of the Factory — the bands.
From a very early age, kids play games that teach the language of music in fun and interactive ways. “The easiest way to think about it,” says Nate, “is you’re studying French or Italian, and you’re working on vocabulary or sentence structure or how to put it together or accent. In music, we have melody, harmony, rhythm, songwriting, and creativity.”
Nate and Peira call their games BLAM games (Big Lessons About Music), and they are played in groups, each band working together. The faculty at the Factory has developed hundreds of them, from listening to lyrics and acting out the words to memorization to connecting a story with a song. The curriculum spans from preschool all the way to high school seniors.
After BLAM games, the kids move to the bandstand, where they apply the lessons to the songs they are working on. Everybody loves the bandstand, says Nate. It’s also where you have maximum chaos. “By the time you hit the bandstand, it’s a fine point of focus,” he says. “And you have to know what you want to get out of it, even if it’s just five minutes of chaos.”
I spend an afternoon with a band Nate is teaching, the Rockin’ Penguins, and see the curriculum in action. I’m invited to play a BLAM game called Music Mystery Detective with the kids. It involves a drum circle and teaches how to identify variations in beat. The detective goes outside the room, the drum circle begins playing, and then he or she comes back in. Another person plays the criminal, whose job is to change the beat when the detective isn’t looking. The detective is tasked with identifying the culprit. I fail miserably, but the kids are good.
The Rockin’ Penguins are composed of four kids, around eight to 10 years old: George, Owen, Joe, and Livy. Today, they’re practicing their original song, “Unicorns and Dragons at War,” a minor-chorded epic complete with “dragon sounds” created from a jumbled noise-making session on each instrument. They’re practicing for an upcoming gig.
The first band member I meet is Alex, the newly appointed lead singer of the band. “You’re a singer, huh?” I ask. He shrugs it off nonchalantly. “I don’t usually sing.”
Later, during their practice session, however, Nate exclaims, “Alex, dude. You’re just money in the bank. You on lead vocals may be one of the best pivots this band has made in the last 10 months.”
And that’s indicative of how Nate approaches the kids. He has a wonderful way that is equal parts empowerment and subtle adult dry humor. In this way he appeals to both worlds. He’s a walking Pixar film.
The kids match Nate pound for pound with personality. Alex is the kind of cool, unassuming one. He’s tasked with writing out the song format and the goals for the band on a white board. “What do you think would be a good goal for today?” asks Nate.
“Doing it [the song] three times without the grown-ups,” says Alex. “And we could get Brett to do us a backflip. I’ve seen him doing backflips.” Nate agrees these are good goals, but because Owen and Joe are not at today’s practice, they’ll need adults. Also, it’s Brett’s day off, so he’s not doing backflips today.
George is the rebel. He plays guitar and noodles on it constantly when he should be listening. During Music Mystery Detective, he says (maybe a little too gleefully), “I’m a good criminal!”
Livy is the brooding artist. She comes in late to practice, complaining of her girl scout badge. I ask her if maybe it’s poking her. She sighs and says no, it’s just the badge itself. When I choose her to be the next criminal during Music Mystery Detective, she sighs heavily, again. “No?” asks Nate. “No,” says Livy. “I’m just a female in this world.” Later, when Nate says he’ll take the place of Owen and Grace will take the place of Joe, Livy responds with, “Ugh, no.”
These kids are actually really good, and they’re doing something incredibly difficult.
But what can be missed here is that these kids are actually really good, and they’re doing something incredibly difficult. They’re not just doing scales and memorizing sheet music. They’re writing, arranging, and practicing songs together as a band. They’re feeling the music go through them and creating from a base of knowledge about how music itself works at the most fundamental level. They’re also playing gigs in front of people, which can be terrifying, but from a young age, the kids at Brooklyn Music Factory are trained to get comfortable with it.
Bands play a number gigs a year. They spend much of their time preparing for them. Most take place at the school’s main stage in the common room. But others are at public places and festivals. Those are tough for the kids, says Nate. “Not at all like playing our Main Stage where we control the sound and there will be like 75 people, lots of friends and family and people they know.” Additionally, as the kids get older they’re tasked with remembering their gear. If they forget something, it’s a hard lesson. It’s all designed to teach responsibility and confidence, and to wean them off of “helicopter parenting.”
For Nate, the relationships forged in these bands and the gigs they play together are just as important as the musical proficiency they’re picking up. “Our goal here is to try and connect…if you were to have your kids join here, we would want your 7-year-old to have made like 10 new friends in the first year by playing three or four gigs with different people. And by the third year have like twenty people that she recognizes, and by the fifth or sixth year to have exponentially expanded their community of musicians by having all these different performance opportunities.”
It’s this community of musicians that both Nate and Peira believe will keep the kids playing music for their whole life, well after they leave the Factory. They believe that a failed music education is one where the student quits playing, and that a community is the surest path to lifelong musicianship.
It wasn’t that long ago that the band format of music education was novel, the stuff of movies, literally. In 2003, “School of Rock” was released, telling the story of the down-on-his-luck guitarist Dewey Finn, played by Jack Black, posing as his best friend to teach at an elite private school. He awakens a love for music in the kids by teaching them classic rock tunes and entering them in a local battle of the bands contest, which they of course win.
Today, the band format is more common. In fact, “School of Rock” has inspired a franchise of the same name with over a hundred schools in nine countries. And one of them is on the same street as Brooklyn Music Factory.
“It’s a cool program,” says Nate. “It’s straight up band-based. What I mean by that is you go in and learn fifteen AC/DC songs. So, that’s their curriculum, the idea that you can study a single artist. So this [BMF] is a pretty radically different type of program.”
If Nate and Peira are worried about the competition, it doesn’t show.
“At first I was fearful,” says Nate. “Why is the competition moving onto our block, what’s that all about? Then I was like, wait a minute. The fact that there’s alternative methods to learning music, that just raises awareness that there are options. I have beers with Mike the owner, and we’re friends, and he’s a good guy. I think we both are doing well. I think it’s cool.”
In many ways, it’s a school for musician’s kids (the bassist from The Lumineers and Gregg Allman send their kids there) that happens to attract other families.
Where a school like School of Rock is focused more on teaching an instrument and building confidence through stage play, Brooklyn Music Factory’s focus is centered strongly on building fluency in music itself. In many ways, it’s a school for musician’s kids (the bassist from The Lumineers and Gregg Allman send their kids there) that happens to attract other families.
“There’s this fascinating both sides of the spectrum like parents that are crushing it as professionals…and then the other side which is just like, I want to be sure my kids have a good time and play because I never did after my piano lessons,” says Nate. “I’m definitely trying to reconcile how it is that you have both ends of the spectrum that both want the same experience. It’s an interesting challenge.”
When I suggest it might come down to the fact that everybody seems to be having a lot of fun, he stops in his tracks. “It totally could be that…you’re right, dude. I think you could easily be on to it.” Reflecting on the parents he’s friends with who are professional musicians, Nate muses how they want their kids to know the level of joy they’ve gotten from music. “They know what it means to be fluent,” he says. “They know that the instrument is not the focus. That it’s actually the language that needs to be the focus. I also think that they understand that the biggest reward that they got from music was the community that they built.”
It could be easy to think of Brooklyn Music Factory as the indie music school fighting the large monolith of slick-branded franchises. But that’s not the case. Over the last six years, Nate and Peira have evolved from artists to entrepreneurs. Right now the school has one location with 300 families, but they have grand designs to build the curriculum into a national online brand that recreates the deep music theory education and strong sense of community that they value. The staff speaks of it in shorthand as Beyond Brooklyn.
“I think it would be even cooler to try to benefit a hundred thousand people with online curriculum and try to build some sort of online world that feels that same as our community room.”
“This is a fascinating market because you can easily replicate yourself. We could open six more of these all within 10 miles of each other and not be competing with ourselves,” says Nate. “That’s the traditional growth opportunity. But I’m way more excited by the reach of the online community and learning how to build a genuine community that feels nurturing and achieves the same kind of possibility for connection there…I think it would be even cooler to try to benefit a hundred thousand people with online curriculum and try to build some sort of online world that feels that same as our community room.”
It’s clear that BMF is a business. The morning I arrive at the school, the staff takes part in brainstorming sessions to identify priorities and opportunities for the future of the school. Split into three teams, each spends over twenty minutes creating a list of priorities, narrowing it down to the three most important, and then determining the next steps needed to achieve them. Topics range from Beyond Brooklyn to bathroom breaks to better-defined job descriptions.
They’ve also invested heavily in sales and marketing, adopting Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and marketing automation software to scale up their efforts and streamline a number of previously manual operations. Kai, who started at the school as a music teacher, is now almost fully focused on running the operations of these systems. A number of the other staff pull double duty to handle various operational functions for the school as well.
Working both as artists and in a school that has big plans for growth can be challenging for the faculty, most of whom have spent their life honing their art rather than thinking about growing a business.
Max, a band teacher who specializes in bass, reflects, “The skills within the corporate mindset are like so counterintuitive to our skills as artists. BMF was honestly the most challenging working environment…it was my first real job. I feel like so much more of a badass after getting through it.”
Stephen, a guitarist and band teacher who along with his girlfriend Kathryn is taking on a more prominent leadership role in the school, mentions something Max said earlier in the year that really resonated with him. “We’re not music teachers. We’re employees in a startup. That says a lot more about what the actual job description is than anything we’ve ever come up with.”
“That was like a revelation I had like half-way through the year…I’m a co-creator inside a startup.”
“That was like a revelation I had like half-way through the year,” says Max. “That was the only way I could reconcile the work I was doing…I’m a co-creator inside a startup.”
This high-growth mindset is not without its challenges. The staff works long hours and their responsibilities require a huge investment of energy. As much as Max loves working at the Factory, he’ll be moving back to Nashville after the school year ends. The cost of living in Brooklyn, America’s most expensive city, has caught up with him. “It’s an unfortunate defining feature of New York,” he says. For him, it’s simple economics. He’s working too hard to get ahead in the city when there’s plenty of musical opportunity back home at a much lower cost of living.
Losing high-performing talent like Max is a big loss for Nate and Peira. And it’s also why there’s a sense of urgency behind the Beyond Brooklyn concept.
“It sucks, dude,” says Nate. “One of my main motivators for building an online platform is to open up profit sharing in a way that doesn’t have a financial ceiling on where they [the faculty] can go here. They still sell hours. They are like a dentist. That’s what we do. These are incredible faculty members, but they’re limited by the number of hours that they can do their job. I hate that limitation on them in terms of how much they can grow financially. That’s badass if you can create a community like this and a business like this where they can see themselves here for ten years and be able to afford to stay here and even have kids and even raise them here. And I think it’s doable.”
It’s Saturday morning in Park Slope. The sun is out and the temperature is approaching the mid 70s. The humidity, it’s not so bad. It’s a beautiful day for a gig.
Park Slope is a short walk from the Factory. You head East on Douglass Street and cross Fourth Avenue, a main artery that divides Gowanus from Park Slope. Another block up is Fifth Avenue, which is home to hundreds of trendy bars, restaurants, and shops.
Park Slope is known “for its ‘Mommy Mafias,’ babyccinos, grocery store politics, and giant baby-eating rats.” For such a short walk, it’s stark contrast to Gowanus’s industrial grit and artist hideaways. Each street heading east from Fifth Avenue seems filled with postcard-quality brownstones.
Today, the neighborhood is throwing a street fair, and much of the residential streets are cordoned off. A couple bands from the Factory, Clover and The Clockworks and Echo 21, are playing gigs in front of Union Hall, a bar on Union Street.
Rounding the corner onto Union Street, I see a couple canopies set up. A yellow one shields BMF band members and faculty from the sun and a black one covers a sparse drum kit, a keyboard, amps, and a few microphones. A few white plastic fold up chairs are set up in the middle of the street.
Nate introduces me to Seth. His son, Jake, plays in Echo 21. Jake has been in the school for four years, starting out with summer camp and then moving into the band program. When I ask him how he heard about the school, he says, “The legend of the locale. Everybody knew about the music factory…it’s kind of in the air.”
“Honestly, I don’t even know about any others. The kind of rock and roll angle, this was the name [BMF] that kept coming up…”
Another parent, Jennifer, confirms the Factory’s omnipresence. “Honestly, I don’t even know about any others. The kind of rock and roll angle, this was the name [BMF] that kept coming up. We went to a recital, you know where all the other bands were playing. It just seemed really fun, you know. The right spirit.”
Prior to joining the Factory, both Seth and Jennifer’s sons were involved in more traditional music lessons. “He [Jake] wasn’t happy with his previous guitar teacher because the guitar teacher was just about playing guitar,” says Seth. “This place is different. It’s more about the kids and the music — in a sense — is secondary. It’s important, but it’s secondary. At least my takeaway is the music is a vehicle for the kids to release stuff. And it’s about the relationship between the kids.”
As Seth talks, I’m reminded of the challenge Nate mentioned earlier about balancing two types of families in the school: those professional musicians committed to teaching their kids the rigors of music theory and those families that are in it because it’s fun. Clearly, I’m talking with the latter.
Both Seth and Jennifer talk about how as their kids are heading into high school, it’s going to become harder and harder to balance the schedule demands of competing activities.
“Twice a week for rehearsals is actually a lot,” says Jennifer.
“And the Saturday thing is a lot, too,” says Seth.
“I know,” says Jennifer with a small laugh.
I ask if it’s the kids or them that get fatigued with all the activities. They at first balk and say it’s the kids. But after a bit of reflection, Jennifer says, “I guess it’s parent fatigue.”
“We fatigue early now,” chimes in Seth. “We’re working on staying up past nine at this point.”
But despite the prediction of increased difficulty revolving around schedules, both parents admit that they’re thrilled with the growth of their kids, both musically and socially. And it’s this growth that will most likely keep the kids, and them, committed to the program. “I feel like the guys that do the band,” says Seth, “the music is a little more important to them, and they might stay with a band and do a high school band.”
Clover and the Clockworks take the stage to play to a sparse group of onlookers, mostly friends and family. Now in junior high, they’ve been playing together for a number of years, and it shows. Originally started as a country cover band, they’ve branched out to more pop-like offerings, as well as a number of their own songs, but they still stay close to their roots. What stands out most is their beautiful and haunting three-part harmonies. “They make everything seem so damn easy,” says Nate. “Their three-part harmonies are like at a pro level. Their singing is just ridiculous.”
And so is their creativity, which is on display in a country-fied cover of Lorde’s “Royals” that is so wonderfully far removed from the original that it takes me over a minute to figure out what song I’m hearing.
The band moves through their set, and strangers passing by stop to listen. Soon the street is filled with a crowd of 20 or 30 people, some pulling out their cell phones to snap a picture or take a video. The bystanders smile, taking in the simple joy of watching young kids play live music on a sunny day on a random street in Park Slope. The residents of the magnificent brownstones are out on their sloops now, and to my left a young kid is playing soccer in the street with his dad.
Then, somewhere behind me, I hear an old man say, “That’s it. I’m getting my old band back together.”
And that’s when it hits me. The music scene in Brooklyn is far from dead. It’s just moved on to schools like Brooklyn Music Factory and the 300 or so families that belong to it. Here, in industrial Gowanus and the surrounding neighborhoods, BMF is, as others have before them, rebuilding from the ground up what music in the borough will look like for the next generation. And in the process, they’re fostering exactly what is most important to them: community. Inspiring old and young alike to stop and listen to music, together, and to experience again what it could be like to have music as a central part of their life and neighborhood.
Will these kids successfully be the ones coming up from behind? Will they be part of a movement that revolutionizes the way music is taught and approached both here in Brooklyn and beyond? Will they be front and center in a generation that recaptures what it means to have music once again the lifeblood of a community?
To echo Nate’s words, I think it’s doable.
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