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Think learning to play an instrument is mere child’s play? Think again. By Bryan McGonigle

Jennifer and Steve Spungin of Salem School of Music

Where a carpet business once stood on Pleasant Street in Salem, the walls are now filled with music. Steve and Jennifer Spungin celebrated the opening of the Salem School of Music in May with a day-long extravaganza and high hopes.

“It went great; it was a pleasant surprise, even with the rain,” Jennifer says. Some people who attended hung out for hours-enjoying vaudeville-style guitar machine entertainment from musician Erik Royer and other fun activities-and several people registered for classes on the spot. “It really validated our thought that this will be a great hangout.”

The Salem school is an expansion of sorts. The Spungins own and operate the Marblehead School of Music, which they opened in 2007. Steve was a professional musician and gave lessons out of their home to supplement their income, and Jennifer was a teacher in Boston for several years who had created a drop-out prevention program for the schools. The pair decided the logical thing to do would be to combine their specialties and teach people how to rock out on the North Shore.

“I was in between tours and giving private lessons at the house, and the kids were filling up the house,” Steve says. “We wanted to be more local, and it became inconvenient to be teaching out of our home.” The school also provided an opportunity for other professional musicians to teach, Steve adds, because many musicians in bands have to work regular jobs and only play music on the weekends. “We had no idea what the demand in Marblehead would be,” Jennifer says. “It grew rapidly and filled a niche we didn’t expect.”

The Spungins credit the success of their Marblehead school-and their optimism about their new Salem school-to their out-of-the-box approach to teaching music. “We’re really trying to find top-notch musicians, but [they] also have to be able to teach, and that’s a whole different set of skills,” Jennifer explains. The teachers each have their own style, and the Spungins have a conference for each student where they figure out which teacher would best match that student, a strategy that the Spungins say works great for everyone.

The Marblehead School of Music currently has about 200 students and gives about 200 lessons a week. During the summer, there aren’t as many private lessons, but there are special programs including a music camp, a week-long intensive program where students work on a specific project.

“We try not to be a typical music school, a place where parents just drop their kids off to take lessons,” Steve says. The school offers specialized programs for kids ages two to five, using music-related games and stressing the value of practice and parental involvement. The school’s “Little Drummer” program for young children helps them to transition into comprehensive lessons. With older kids, the school stresses musical writing to teach them a language to go along with talent development and also uses group workshops to foster the kids’ sense of musical collaboration.

The Spungins also rent Abbott Hall in Marblehead for performances. “We try to get [the kids] to play music with each other, and it’s very social,” says Steve. “It’s basically a party where kids play music.” The couple also purchased the Salem building with that idea of collaboration and social music in mind. The building has several recording rooms where students can work together on everything from practicing to recording. “That’s one of the reasons this space was great for us,” Jennifer says of the Salem school building, sitting with her husband on the sofa in the school’s lobby. “It allows for more community activities. The school in Marblehead is great for private lessons, but this allows for Friday night jam sessions.”

The Marblehead school attracts students from all over the North Shore. Twenty percent of the school’s clientele comes from outside of Marblehead. The Spungins are hoping that the new Salem school will not only attract new business but will also be more convenient for current students who live closer to the Salem location.

Susan Weinstein of Marblehead has two sons who are enrolled in the Marblehead School of Music. Tali, who is 12, is learning the drums, and Noah, who is 8, is learning the electric guitar. With her children involved in several extracurricular activities, Weinstein says studying music is a daily challenge. But Tali and Noah stay focused and practice regularly, and she has noticed a lot of progress in their music, which she says is a result of the school making the lessons fun and engaging.

“I think that they’ve learned to love playing because they take lessons from guys who are extremely supportive and encouraging and are wonderful teachers,” Weinstein says. She adds that the school has been extremely accommodating to her children’s schedules and goals, and the teachers focus on her kids as individuals. “Steve and Jen have these great teachers,” Weinstein says. “They’re kid-friendly, with a nice balance of being supportive and encouraging yet requiring kids to learn techniques.”

In today’s tough economy with family budgets tightening, music schools are becoming an affordable source of recreation and enrichment, and enrollment is up. “A few years ago when recession hit, I noticed an increase in music lessons, especially in the summer” says Tom Moore, who owns The Fabulous School of Music in downtown Beverly. “Nobody wanted to go on vacation or spend a lot of money. There’s been a huge enrollment of adults. They’re entertaining themselves as opposed to going out to be entertained.”

The Fabulous School of Music currently has more than 200 students and 16 teachers, and much of the time their studios are filled. Moore has added ensembles to the school’s schedule, including a “rock school” that teaches kids to play rock music and allows them to perform on weekend afternoons at the Pickled Onion. Moore says the kids have been attracting large audiences.

Moore credits his aggressive online promotion strategy with the school’s rising success. In addition to focusing advertising online, the school is active on Facebook and Twitter and has an interactive website where students can become members and comment on blogs.

Farther up the shore, Donna Cannatelli co-owns the West Newbury School of Music with her husband Joe. They opened the school in 2005 when Joe, who owned a recording studio, wanted to teach music and not simply record it. Today, the school has 12 teachers. Donna, whose background is in accounting, handles the books. Business has been great, Donna says. Their schedule is often booked solid from the time kids get out of school to the time they close.

Like the Spungins’ schools, the Cannatellis’ school promotes social learning. “Every parent has not only said to me that their child practices more, [but also] they see an advancement,” Donna says. “We treat them like rock stars; we let them use the studio equipment if they want to. They just thrive on it.” The Cannatellis have made music an inclusive family business. Their 29-year-old daughter Danielle works at the front desk, and their three-year-old daughter Angela studies theory and plays four different instruments.

The West Newbury School charges per week so that parents can make sure their kids like the music lessons before making a commitment. Lessons are $25 per half-hour lesson, and there are no administrative costs. Also, students are not charged for lessons they miss. And like the Salem and Marblehead schools, the West Newbury school offers summer sessions and week-long camps for the kids. Students study their music in groups and get to pick a name for their band, then design an album cover and t-shirts. In October, the students perform at the town’s Apple Harvest Road Race.

Summer group participation costs between $150 and $200, consisting of either eight one-hour sessions or a solid week from 9am to 2pm. Cannatelli says it fosters advancement at a time when many kids who participate in band during the school year aren’t practicing. “Summer comes, [and students stop playing] altogether and put their instrument in the closet and have to relearn everything,” Cannatelli says.

But it’s not just the kids who are learning how to rock. A growing number of music school students are adults, many of whom are doctors and lawyers looking to develop or hone their inner musician. “I find that the adults understand and appreciate the instructors’ time and really put a lot into it,” Cannatelli says. “Kids do pick up faster but sometimes tend to take their lessons for granted, but adults are fabulous.”

Judith Thompson of Essex is not someone you would normally think of when talking about music lessons. She is 70 years old and attends Marblehead School of Music, taking piano lessons. Thompson studied piano as a child and has played it as a hobby since, but she lives by the idea that it’s never too late to learn new skills.

Thompson knew how to play classical music, but she wanted to learn jazz. So she went to the Marblehead School of Music two years ago and has been honing old skills and learning new ones since. “It was kind of like riding a bike,” Thompson says of picking up piano lessons again after decades. “It wasn’t that I hadn’t played. I had always played but wasn’t a serious musician. It was mostly for entertainment, and once in a while I would play for children’s choirs.”

Thompson told her instructor Ken that she wanted to be able to play piano by ear but didn’t think she would be able to. Ken told her she can learn that skill and made sure she did. And she says he pushes her just enough to keep her moving forward. “I like the fact that he challenges me to do something I’ve not done before,” Thompson says. “When I first started with him, I played ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ which I’ve played many times. He asked me what I wanted from lessons, and I said I really wanted to learn something new. That’s when he started me thinking about jazz and learning new rhythms.”

Thompson would like to take her new skills and play for audiences more, perhaps in a volunteer capacity. She is a retired nurse executive and spent much of her career in elder services, and she already volunteers as a driver for North Shore Elder Services. She would love to put her new musical skills to use playing for elderly people. “No matter what kind of music you play or what instrument you play, it’s a great way to entertain yourself, and it’s always something I’ve turned to when I’ve felt bad and when I’ve felt good,” Thompson says, adding that her husband and children have been very supportive of her new musical journey. Her biggest fan is perhaps her 93-year-old mother, who Thompson said is thrilled that she has reignited her passion for music.

But whether it’s a 70-year-old woman learning to play to the piano or a three-year-old studying music theory, it’s clear that music instruction is one subject that appears to have no age limit. And with plenty of schooling options on the North Shore, residents around these parts should have no excuse for saying “I wish I had learned to play an instrument.”