Adventures In Charity
Today is a sad day for me.
A disclaimer, the story I’m about to tell is not intended to pull on your heart strings, ask for your donations or support, or pose as a tool to create ill-feelings against individuals. I am going to use real names and describe real events, because it is in my best interest to be transparent, and just as importantly, if I am not specific, I exempt myself from issues of libel. And the looming threat of libel makes me unable to write about anything that cannot be proven.
This message is being written here, in public, because I do not want there to be any speculation on what has happened, what is happening, and what my future intentions are. It is important for me to have a personal statement for both the press and students of Alphabasic Music Center.
Over the years, I have enjoyed many fruits of my labor as a recording artist. For a while, after lots of grinding and uphill climbing, I lived a life where my responsibilities were mostly limited to doing whatever I wanted to do. I reached the point where my purpose in the world was to write records and perform songs from them around the globe. It paid my bills, and most importantly it allowed me to keep doing it.
But I was unhappy and unfulfilled. I was living a life that was beyond the most fantastic goal I had ever imagined as a teenager, and not really enjoying it. That was because I felt like I wasn’t doing anything that mattered. A police officer, a nurse, a janitor. I viewed all of these professions as superior to mine, for they were making a tangible difference in the world. So at many times in my career, I’d dump my savings into a charity. Sometimes as an anonymous donation, and other times as an active member. But it still didn’t mean much to me. Landing a music license in a big film and donating half of that money didn’t really make me a better person. I needed something that my hands were on constantly.
In August of 2012, I had just gotten home from a great tour. I landed some big composing jobs and was ready to find a new path. A friend of mine, Nissa Sampson, was frustrated with her job as an office manager and teacher in an expensive suburban music school, and was living down the block from me in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. Glaring at me from across the street was a giant vacant storefront, smack dab in the middle of a lower-middle class neighborhood that lacked any quality music education. Even if there was quality music education, it would be unlikely that 80% of the people who lived here could fit it into their budgets.
By the time the idea to open a non-profit music school clearly entered my head, Nissa was on board as a partner. We both had a wealth of friends who are talented music teachers who were on board as well. The month of September was a crazy one. I learned how to do everything from mounting drywall to cutting custom window frames. Another non-profit, “Keys 4/4 Kids” (where you should absolutely be going if you’re buying a piano, by the way) generously donated 2 pianos of our choosing to our cause. In 3 weeks, we turned a dilapidated, vacant storefront into a modern, friendly music school. I built a studio in the back and moved most of my gear there, so I would effectively be in the building for the majority of my time.
I expected, at best, to not have a busy schedule of students until October of 2013. If we weren’t sustainable by then, it would be time to either merge the business into something that works or chalk it up as a good deed that didn’t hit the spot. But by March, we had more students than I could even keep track of. It seemed like every time I went into the waiting room to hang out, I’d be introducing myself to a new friendly student or parent who had nothing but praise for our organization. I think my sense of accomplishment bloomed when hearing the younger guitar students play songs rather well just a few months after watching them get handed a guitar for the first time and holding it so awkwardly that it was humorous.
More importantly, it was the first time in my life when I’ve seen music students excited to take music lessons. It wasn’t a boring thing their parents were forcing them through, but something they were racing to. They would often show off their new skills immediately after the lesson. Some of them would be in a hurry to leave so they could go home and practice!
And that’s it. Success. My grumpy kid-phobia had gone away, and any doubt I had about dedicating half of my time to this path deteriorated.
And all of this was without ever asking for a hand out. We received no government assistance, no financial donations from others, and were at the brink of being completely sustainable on our own.
But nothing is without its problems. The real estate company that owned our building didn’t really share our vision, nor were they expected to. But the building, essentially, was falling apart. The roof leaked during storms, there was mold in the rear kitchen, the ceiling lighting didn’t work properly, and worst of all, there was nasty sewer gas in the basement. My initial idea was to list these things, and have the owners drop rent by a few hundred dollars. The business would be perfectly balanced, and any growth could lower lesson costs and maybe even hire someone to work the front desk. But the owners didn’t want to budge, and were confident they could rent the unit to someone else for the price we were paying (which may actually be true considering the thousands of dollars we put into it).
But, just as I was scrambling to build a workshop program and setup Yoga classes on Sundays to help make up the remaining couple of hundred bucks in rent, I got a break. The storefront of the building I live in opened up, was bigger, had giant rooms with windows, and was about 40% cheaper. We figured out a way to move that would only suspend 1 day of classes, and that was on my radar for June. In fact, I had planned on having an opening party at the new location where I’d give an active demo of my Treefield visualization system.
In that location, the business would be set. At our rate of growth, by the end of the year we’d be surpassing other small music schools in the amount of students we had, and our prices would be lower, perhaps even free to those on public aid.
I was as enthusiastic as ever. I had negotiated a lease for the new spot, and instead of complaining about our current renting situation, I was getting our customers excited about the new one. Nissa, on the other hand, didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic, and we had to have a meeting about her intentions with the business. Differences were easily resolved, and the green light was set.
It was a few weeks later, she surprised me by telling me that she decided she was quitting the business. She refused to sign any agreements or papers regarding her decision, and she expected some of the foundation’s assets to be given to her as payment for her time and money put into the business. Obviously it is far more complicated than just walking away, especially for a non-profit. I explained that her decision, in the legal realm, was akin to buying a new car, abandoning it in a parking lot somewhere, and then asking the dealership for a refund. This was 8 days ago, and that was basically the end of her correspondence. I spent 5 days contacting her asking if she still intends to teach her students with no response at all. This week was spent trying to gain access to files and business information in her files, contacting students about the changes, and finding someone to substitute for her.
I dreaded yesterday. I didn’t know any of our Wednesday students or parents personally, and the parents weren’t exactly thrilled that their children are being subjected to the sharp side of this drama by having to switch teachers. But, I felt like I was handed another gift. An old friend and music teacher Morgan Krauss came in and made these young children feel comfortable, and perhaps even taught them better than Nissa had. Despite the looming uncertainty with my business partner, I was relieved that Alphabasic Music Center was still capable of doing its job: Music education.
Today I woke up and headed to the gym for my morning training. On my way down the block I noticed something off when passing the school. I was shocked to find that most of the furniture, a piano, and countless other things, including gear I use for my live shows, was gone. It became apparent that in the early hours of the morning, my partner had secretly rented a truck and removed these assets from the school. I still haven’t itemized everything that is missing.
The worst part of today, was finding out that Kyle, our best and most valued teacher (and also Nissa’s boyfriend), was not only helping her do this, but has quit with no intention of giving us time to replace him or even telling his students.
I understand greed, and at times fear it. I knew it could possibly included as a pawn in the outcome of this business, as it could be with any. But what I do not understand is why this was handled so recklessly. I made it clear that I harbor no ill-wishes on anyone and intend to do everything I can to make the business dissolution as easy and painless as possible for everyone involved. I just have no explanation for this, not even a theory.
For those of you who are enrolled in the school, I give you my deepest and most sincere apology. I used my best judgement in my attempts to find you a good long term education, and I failed. I cannot express enough gratitude for your business and trust, and I would do anything in my power to keep you. Any tuition for this month, whether you got lessons or not, will be refunded out of my own pocket. There is no arguing it, it is already done. If you paid in cash or believe that we owe you lessons or a refund, email firstname.lastname@example.org, it goes directly to me now, and I’ll promptly see that you’re refunded.
What happens next?
Our head piano teacher quitting was the nail in the coffin. I simply do not know a teacher at his skill level that can jump in and save the day. In fact, if this has taught me anything, it is that hiring teachers who I do not have a long, trusting, personal relationship with is no longer something I will do. It breaks my heart to see children hungry for education and it being denied to them for greedy or personal principles, and I refuse to allow it again.
With Kyle and Nissa gone, over 40% of our students don’t have a teacher. At this point the business is far from sustainable. I could personally keep it limping along for another month, but I cannot afford to renovate another building and move everything. Financially, the legal costs of dealing with Nissa’s unannounced departure from a non-profit are devastating. I’m not even referencing litigation, I’m just speaking of figuring out a way to defend myself to the IRS when explaining how a large portion of a non-profit’s assets are sitting in someone’s apartment without any sort of transfer agreement or receipt.
I have many expensive and lengthy steps required in order to dissolve the business. Due to the closely inspected nature of a not for profit structure, it makes more sense to close our doors, deal with this mess, and start over fresh.
I cannot give you a time when this will happen at this point.
As for students who wish to continue lessons elsewhere and need a referral, I will do my best to find you a program that is comparable, or work something out for private lessons with the teachers that remain at our school. I will be contacting each and every one of you personally in the next week.
Thank you so much for your trust and support. It breaks my heart to publicly announce that Alphabasic Music Center, despite it’s success and impact, must close its doors. I will remain committed to the community as long as I reside here.