Kyle McKenna grew his studio to more than 100 students in hardly three years, rapidly becoming a sought-out music teacher in the greater Salt Lake City, Utah, USA area. He’s had no choice but to turn away students even though he was doing different work just three years ago.
“I really felt like I would be able to make an impact teaching music,” Kyle said.
“From a business perspective, I feel like there is so much we could have and should have done to spread the word, but it just kind of grew without us doing much,” he said. “The natural growth is the way you want it to be anyway.”
Kyle’s studio got “a lot of referrals” from current students talking about it with others. A “simple” website has done “wonders,” Kyle said.
“It feels great,” Kyle said of being such a sought-after piano instructor. “There’s definitely a lot of talented people out there, especially in Utah.”
“It’s been our life the past three years,” said Kyle, whose wife is Michelle Jones McKenna. “It’s something I cherish a lot because it makes us unique.”
Kyle spoke on building a studio that is thriving.
“Most of the businesses that succeed are copying a business in some way,” Kyle said.
Kyle reached out to folks who worked in music for a living, which he described as “one of the best things that … every business person should know.”
“I was desperate for information,” he said. “I called up anyone I knew who did music for a living, and if I knew someone who knew someone who did music for a living. … It opened my eyes to what was out there; some things that work in music; some things that don’t.”
“Basically, I think it comes down to networking,” Kyle added.
Kyle allows students to pick out the songs they want to play; provides means of playing that isn’t commonly seen with piano instructors; has made great achievements preceding his in business and music teaching; has unique insight he was willing to give about being an artist entrepreneur; and has done other noteworthy, far-beyond-the-call actions. Perhaps this type of uncommon conduct results from philosophies like these by Kyle:
“It may sound weird, but I love that (music) is a medium for learning how to grow and learn and express yourself,” he said. “It’s a way to stretch yourself … it teaches … about how you personally learn. I love that about it. Especially teaching now. It’s so fun to kind of deconstruct the learning process and the skill development process.”
Tailoring to students’ interests
While Kyle said he is “not trying to put down other teachers out there,” he said that some teachers are “really just not making it about the kids’ experience.”
“A lot of students, they just crave the experience in music; they are looking up stuff on their own,” said Kyle, whose calls his studio Kyle McKenna Piano Studio. “Tons of students are spending hours on YouTube, looking at piano tutorials, or they are working on composing their own pieces, and they deserve to have a teacher who cares about that and who is willing to take some time to explore that with them and help them see the connections to other elements of music and to take it a step further.”
This means that Kyle has looked up the popular songs in American culture and analyzed them, which is perfect for lessons he gives students about music theory.
Kyle searches and assesses those songs in films, video games, on the radio and on YouTube.
“That’s where it gets fun,” Kyle said, adding that he strives to be “connecting the dots” for students.
It is also fun for Kyle to talk about various types of chords with his students since, for example, songs on the radio originate from “just a few chords,” Kyle said.
“With those three or four chords, they can play 80 to 90 percent of the chords on the radio,” Kyle said. “Most have the same kind of building blocks.”
Kyle’s efforts to emotionally connect his students to their learning means that he knows of a lot of video games.
Kyle and the teachers he employs solely teach piano.
“Piano’s just a great foundational instrument,” he said. “I love all the different types of music, but piano is a great one to share.”
Some of Kyle’s students like to sing while they play, he said.
“I just realize that of all the things we can give to the rising generation … one of the greatest things (is) the study of music,” Kyle said. “(It) is so integrated into the development of so many good attributes; so many good characteristics like hard work; learning how to learn; being disciplined; understanding how to develop good habits; how to break bad habits. It’s cool.”
Walk-on to Div. I captain
Kyle was a scholarship-earned captain of a Division I collegiate team – in just three seasons, after starting on a walk-on, as a 21-year-old sophomore who had not done the sport for three years.
His freshman year, Kyle missed running, and then when he went on a Latter-day Saint mission he realized he “really” missed it.
And I did not need to prompt Kyle with any specific question for him to say it’s “not easy to do music and cross country” together. But he did just that a Utah State University.
The key was “just a lot of miles,” Kyle said.
Drawing a parallel, he said “if you want to get better at piano, you (play piano),” he said.
One summer, Kyle ran more than 100 miles per week.
Kyle appreciated working with USU distance coach Steve Reeder, a 35-year Aggie distance coach. (He passed away in Jan. 2016 in Star Valley Ranch, Wyo.)
While noting that he did not wish to speak poorly of his music education at Utah State University, Kyle said the program offered “every little direction or help as far as possibilities for a career in music.”
“One thing I do remember is of the professors saying that there will always need to be a need for good piano teachers,” Kyle said. “I’m glad where we live in a time where people value music.”
How Kyle communicated his studio evolved.
“I actually wanted to make it sound like, ‘yeah, I own my own business,’ so I used to tell people I own a piano studio,” Kyle said. “(Now) I say I am a piano teacher … now it’s like, the more I’ve done it, I’m so grateful that I do it for a living. So I will take that title of piano teacher any day.”
How Kyle’s path to his success today started was an essential matter.
“You have to pick a major and I always enjoyed music,” Kyle said. “Studying music, it was really fun; it was like, ‘I get to do this all day long; this is incredible.’”
However, Kyle knew he would graduate one day.
“The one thing that is tough about music is that it is not a defined career path whatsoever,” he said. “College professor (is) probably about as clear cut as you can find. … there are the things that come to most people’s minds, which is professional musician, and some people think teacher, but not usually as a profession.”
As he neared graduation, Kyle would get asked what he would be doing for a living.
“I grew tired of not knowing how to answer the question ‘What are you going to do after you graduate?’” Kyle said. “So, somewhat out of desperation, I just started responding with a smile, ‘I’m going to be rich and famous … or at least rich.’”
Kyle taught throughout college and enjoyed it. But he didn’t consider it as an option for a career.
Kyle even looked at other career paths for “quite some time.” He taught Latter-day Saint seminary part-time. “I applied at some random business jobs that I thought I would be able to get,” he said.
It means that Kyle “was kind of forced to a point where I had to say ‘OK, am I going to drop music, or am I going to see if I can do something with this?’” he said.
Because “it seemed wrong to study (music) in college and (it) have no path in my future life,” Kyle said. “That just seemed wrong to me.”
So Kyle looked more into the “teaching thing,” not having been able to learn about it.
“It amazes me that I had not met anybody (who taught) before,” he said.
Before he found his success, the idea of teaching seemed “radical” to Kyle.
“It seemed so avant garde, but it was a new possibility,” Kyle said.
(He ruled out being a professor – even having a doctorate meant for “little choice” at where you will live, Kyle noted, saying he “didn’t like the idea of being forced a certain direction.”)
So Kyle did the stuff that people let them get overwhelmed by, or at least incorrectly believe is too hard to do. He ran numbers. He pulled spreadsheets.
Then he asked: “Would people be willing to pay that? Am I worth that?”
Kyle also talked with folks who were self-employed and did as much “due diligence” as possible to see if it was possible.
“When all was said and done, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to starve; I didn’t want to go into music and just scrape by; I wanted to provide for my family,” he said. “There are some people who say they will do music no matter what; that they will be a musician no matter what.” Michelle was a big part of “crunching the numbers” and “just talking about it,” Kyle said.
“It came down to I would have to charge a whole lot more than I had in the past,” Kyle said. “The number actually scared me at how much I would have to charge.”
Kyle and Michelle “dove in.”
“I did a bunch of research: different areas, different states … different demographics … areas of the world … pockets around the U.S. that have a lot of young parents, and where there is also a medium to high per-capita income,” Kyle said.
Kyle had as few as five students – after having another 11 he left in Logan, Utah. The McKennas ended up close to where they grew up because they “knew (they) had connections there and we knew there was a really high interest in music,” Kyle said.
Kyle is proud to offer “stability” for his students, besides events that give students experiences they would not normally have. Over the holidays, Kyle as his students play at assisted living centers.
“It’s easy to fall into regular piano-recital type stuff,” Kyle said, remarking that he tries to “fight that stereotype of students only practicing by themselves for an hour each day before going on “the bench’” before a teacher.
“I don’t want them to see music as something that they take lessons for, and they quit,” Kyle said. “It’s important in music to make it a group experience. It needs to be about other people, not just you and the teacher.”
Kyle has his students work in small ensembles or duets or trios, as Kyle brings them together monthly. They listen to performances together to help them “learn to identify themselves as musicians.”
It’s important because “kids love being social,” Kyle said.
“That’s why sports do so well; (kids) go there because their friends are there,” Kyle said.
The assisted living centers “opens their eyes to something more than they do for fun” or because their parents tell them to play, Kyle said.
Kyle wants students to realize “I can use (piano) to help people; I can use this to teach people,” he said.
Kyle acknowledged that “it’s hard to learn another instrument because it is like learning another language,” Kyle said.
In lessons, even Kyle being “serious” about them, about providing “an experience that is beyond the standard piano lessons,” has been helpful to his success, he thinks.
And, “one thing I am told a lot is that our lessons are just more fun,” Kyle said. “It’s not just about having fun, but I think that fun should definitely be a part of music lessons. As simple as that sounds, I don’t think that is sometimes the case.”
Also, Kyle hires some of his more advanced students as “teacher assistants,” giving them a “mentorship role.” Kyle became so successful that he didn’t have time to teach everything he wanted.
“It’s one thing to have an adult play something; it’s something else for an elementary kid to hear a junior high or high school kid,” Kyle said. “It’s one of their peers, in a way.”
And when Kyle learned music, he had to do a lot of theory and he found his work to be a “disconnect with what (he) did on (his) lesson: “Those don’t have to be separate,” he said. So, he has created lessons speaking to the problem.
On his students and instruction, Kyle also said “I hope to really give my people an experience … that they remember the rest of their life … I want to build on what my teachers did, (on) what I feel like a typical person gets.”
Kyle trick business-wise has been to learn from “trial and error.”
“I’ve tried to read as many books and listen to as many podcasts as I can,” Kyle added. “That is something I obsess about sometimes, just the business side of it.”
Kyle said that most musicians are “notoriously bad at being business people.” He pointed to history, saying that Johann Sebastian Bach was “very good with his money and able to negotiate deals,” whereas Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart “was poor at managing his finances.”
“It’s a hard thing, too, because music is so emotional and sometimes subjective and such a personal thing in some ways,” Kyle said, noting that some musicians have a “fear of becoming a sellout.” “I think sometimes musicians have a hard time charging for what they do and feeling like they can get paid … it’s what they love (yes, in hardly three years), so how could they charge to do what they love?”
Kyle doesn’t expect all of his students to be “prodigies.”
“Not by any means,” he said. “I don’t expect that most of my students will go on to study music in college, although I have had some, and that’s been fun.”
To keep up with inflation, Kyle has raised prices incrementally.
Many artists will not make money off their work, either because they fail in trying or don’t try to. Kyle said that in arts in general, certainly including music, “it’s never been a better time” to be an “artist,” especially an “artist entrepreneur.”
That’s because there are “so many opportunities with technology; with the Internet,” Kyle said. “The internet opens up where you can see what other people are doing.”
Kyle himself indicated that he was able to use the internet to learn a pathway to become a full-time music teacher without an advanced degree.
“The Internet made this so much easier,” Kyle said. “I just Googled ‘music schools.’”
He thought one had to be a “performing musician or you wanted to teach at a college,” he said. But “the idea of creating something, starting something” resonated with Kyle.
And Kyle thinks that artist entrepreneurs specifically “is something that the world needs.”
“It’s something they should be following their passion that way and committing to that full-time,” he said.
To build his studio, Kyle also spoke online with folks familiar with artist entrepreneurship and reached out to people in his personal network.
“I think one of the best things you can is connect with other artist entrepreneurs,” Kyle said. “It opens your eyes to what options there are; what possibilities there are.”
Kyle also gave credit to folks who have made music before him – or, as he called it, “all the composers we’re building off.”
“Innovation is only five percent innovation,” he said. “The great composers all studied what came before them. … and then they went a step further.”
“So in terms of being an artist entrepreneur, then (find) what does work and what is successful … and then find your own twist on it,” Kyle said. “It’s not just creating something out of thin air.”
Kyle quoted composer Igor Stravinsky, who said “Good composers borrow, Great ones steal.”
“It’s how you do it in the arts … not plagiarizing … but learning from and really making (your own product,” Kyle said. “Knowing the idea so well that they become your own.”
When it broadly comes to bridging a gap between one’s passion for art and doing what they must to make a living, Kyle said “I really enjoy the playing, but I also sharing the music with people.” He also said it has to “intersect with what you like.”
“Some people love to perform. That love starts them thinking about pursuing a career in music, and they often turn to teaching because it is easier to get started making money that way than performing. But performing and teaching are not the same thing,” Kyle said. “If they don’t also love teaching, they will not be happy and they won’t end up being good teachers. I enjoy performing, but I enjoy teaching and sharing music more.”
Kyle also loves seeing the kids that are his students, and enjoys when they learn a song they heard on the radio or saw on television.
Even as a child, Kyle liked to be at the start of something. For a few summers, he sold snow cones – he hung posters around town, taping them to light poles and using other methods.
“I don’t know how much of that was even legal,” Kyle admitted. And he was cognizant of learning a lot from it and to apply the methods and practices he learned to starting a business.
Kyle used his music talents to woo Michelle.
“It definitely came into play,” Kyle said with a laugh. “I’d use it any chance I could; why not?”
Kyle learned a song Michelle liked, played it for her, and played it again at their wedding.
The song was “Out of My League” by Stephen Speaks.
It has been good for Kyle to set “boundaries” in the studio, he said. He doesn’t work on weekends, Saturdays included.
Kyle has also been salvific in my life. He invited me to Thanksgiving dinner (I had nowhere to go); paid for documents I needed for a hearing over custody of my children, as I forgot my debit card; enabled me to meet a deadline by providing his home late at night after my laptop crashed; and contributed financially as I faced extraordinary life circumstances.
Photo credit: Mike Johnson