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Featured Teacher: Karl Sloman (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2

Karl Sloman is the owner/operator of four music schools operating under the Wizdom Academy name in Ontario, Canada. I was introduced to Karl through TIP member John Favicchia, who had just done a string of clinics for him and was inspired by his use of technology and very unique approach to education. After a few phone conversations, I decided to fly up to visit Karl’s schools and see what he was doing. I think you’ll find his outlook and work ethic to be inspiring and thought provoking. You may not agree with all of his ideas, but there is no questioning his passion and drive. As the interview is quite long, I’ve decided to stretch it out over two issues.

This month we’ll focus on the school and Karl’s unique, and VERY thorough curriculum. Next month will focus on his use of technology and his work with disabled students.

How long has your school been in business?
The school was established on 16 December 2003 in London, Ontario Canada.

How many students are you currently teaching, both personally and in your schools?
My personal student list is 12 students ranging in age from 6 to 45. In the schools total we have a student body of 350 students playing all instruments and vocals.

How many teachers do you have on staff, and what is their average number of students?
I have 28 instructors on staff. The average number of students is 13 if you go by statistics. However, I do have a number of instructors who have fewer students because of other jobs. Hence, the average would be about 20 students per teacher.

How has your military background been helpful in getting your business to this point in such a short period of time?
The military has a dramatic effect on the way I view the world. I served in both Germany during the cold war and Bosnia as a peacekeeper. Both situations made me fully aware of how difficult it is for many people in the world and just how well off we are in Canada and the USA. With that in mind it has helped me be thankful for what I have and in turn I find I work harder because I do not take anything for granted. Hence I work 7 days a week in my school because I love what I do and to ensure we are successful and because I know many people have to struggle a lot harder to just make ends meet.

In real terms I learned discipline and the art of training people. The military training system is the best in the world which is why I modeled our education system at the Wizdom Academy on their concepts and methodologies. In the military if your training is sub standard it means you may make mistakes, if you make mistakes people die. In the music world if you make a mistake the consequences are not as dire but it could be the end of a music career. So we take music as seriously as training for war, because our students deserve it.

One other element that the military taught me was administration. Many companies fail due to poor administration. I have found you can be a great musician but if you have poor administration you will be hard pressed to be successful. The military stresses administration because you have to ensure soldiers are fed, watered, clothed, armed and in general looked after. Your students are the same thing, if their needs are not looked after they will look elsewhere for lessons.

Please explain about the curriculum you’ve developed and the process behind it.
This is a big question. We are very proud of our curriculum and feel it is one of the most progressive and extensive anywhere. While serving in the Canadian Army I was employed as the Chief Standards Officer for the Air Defence (Canadian Spelling) Artillery School (ADAS) where I was responsible for the analysis, development, conduct, evaluation and validation of 33 Engineering and Artillery courses. After coming home from Bosnia as a peacekeeper, I turned my attention to writing a world-class music curriculum based on my experiences while at the ADAS. At the time, I felt that no one (at least anyone I had known) had really spent time analyzing how to instruct music from a performance orientated approach complete with standards. I found most music instructors at best had a quick outline of subjects to instruct but lacked detail and structure, and at worst taught by “flying from the seat of their pants”. There are superb resources out there by companies like Hudson Music and Vic Firth and I wanted to coral the information into a definitive method for instruction. The curriculum we have developed ensures that there is the maximum of flexibility afforded the instructor while still meeting the needs of any student. In fact our school is set up on the concept of having the student choose their music while we provide the technical instruction to allow them to achieve their goals. This approach is only really possible with a curriculum developed in house.

The curriculum consists of 3 major tiers of documentation consisting of the Occupational Specification (OS), Course Training Plan (CTP) and Student Homework Guide (SHG). Although it may appear complex to the novice, we found that our instructors take to the curriculum very quickly and are very enthusiastic about its completeness. Not only does it make their jobs dramatically easier but many teachers, students and parents wish they had been taught in the fashion laid out in our documentation.

Please talk about your decision to write out your whole curriculum rather than use established method books.
Established method books are great but I find they have limitations. There are many who will not like what I am about to write but I believe it to be accurate and the truth.

Every student learns differently and each has his or her own likes and dislikes so why would we think that one approach can meet all their needs. I am a Progressive Rock Drummer, if I could play drums all day it would be to Dream Theater and Rush… that is me. You the reader might think I am crazy, and feel that Tony Williams and Miles Davis are the only true musicians and that is the style of music that you wish to play. The point is none of us have the exact same requirements or likes. Method books, no matter how good do not take this into account, but a curriculum does because it is scalable and can be used to meet any student’s needs. I find method books are often a cookie cutter approach to instruction and work on the principle of one size fits all. All the books I have read have sections that are really useful but seldom are they complete to the point that I use all the information with students, this means I have to purchase numerous books to meet the needs of a single student and in some cases this puts the student and parent off the lessons especially if they are on a tight budget). In addition, many use dated methodologies in their approach, which is understandable because they were written decades ago and only have updated certain portions or the books without performing complete rewrites of the material. We rewrite our books from scratch every 18 months, ensuring the latest information is contained in each book. Also many of the method books that are written deal with older styles of music. In fact I am looking at one right now, the songs it has include, When the Saints Go Marching In and The Yellow Rose of Texas, less than inspiring for the average 15 year old who enjoys Lamb of God or Green Day. I have personally studied from method books on guitar, bass guitar and keyboard, and for me I found them to be too narrow in scope.

Having our own curriculum and writing our own books allows us to tailor our program to the student’s individual needs and provides the flexibility to react to market and music conditions. Our books give an overview of common music education requirements based on our standards. Thus, at our entry level all our students study the following generic topics (each of the following is a chapter in the Student Workbook): Music Theory, Performing in a Band, Maintenance of their Instrument, Tuning, Ear Training, Practising, Memory and Memorization, Musicality, Fills and Solos, Physical Fitness and Health, Attitude, Parts of their respective instrument, Rudiments/Scales/Chording, Reading and exercises. Our students select all of the music they play, so if they want Blink 182, Blink 182 is what they get. Our school has gone from 2 students to 350 in less than 5 years and each school turns a profit within 3 months of opening. The reason? There are lots, but one common student response is that they like the fact they can play the music that they want to play, and the parents are delighted that their child is getting a structured music education based on an actual curriculum with the books supplied for free.

Finally, when you have your own books you can adjust them as new technologies become available. For instance if a new video, let’s say Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer is released, I can immediately integrate that into the curriculum and it instantly becomes standardized instruction throughout the school.

Watch for part two next month, which will deal with Karl’s use of technology and his work with disabled students.

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