Jennifer Eklund is the brilliant mind behind Piano Pronto, and her method books offer a new and exciting way to learn the piano, regardless of age or skill level. Not only does she arrange some incredible sheet music, but she’s passionate about equipping piano teachers with plenty of resources and support through the Piano Pronto Community.
Jennifer began as many pianists do: as a teacher. We wanted to sit down and discuss how she transformed her lesson experiences into a full-blown business, and in the process, give you some advice if you have similar aspirations.
When did you begin teaching piano lessons, and what made you want to continue?
As an only child, I spent a lot of time on my own playing “school” and always had a passion for teaching (even just my stuffed animals)! When I was a sophomore in high school, I had reached an advanced level as a pianist. My teacher asked if I would be interested in taking on some students of my own with the help of her mentoring me about the ins and outs of teaching. I gladly took her up on this offer, and quickly grew my student load to about fifteen full-time students. I always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and having a flexible job like piano teaching was very rewarding for me.
I continued teaching piano lessons throughout my college career, since I was able to make my own schedule around my class times each semester. The added benefit was that I made it through two degree programs debt free because teaching was a lucrative endeavor that didn’t take up 40 hours of the week and allowed me to still focus on school. Working with students was always inspiring, and teaching came naturally to me. There was never a question in my mind that I would do anything else as a career. That is, of course, until my second-wave career as a publisher came into play.
What inspired you to create your Piano Pronto Method Books?
Like most piano teachers, I was always skipping around in the books that were available on the market, and constantly shuffling materials in order to fit the needs of my students. But, like most teachers, the thought of writing my own books seemed too overwhelming.
When I was a junior in college I moved to Stockholm, Sweden for a year to pursue my music studies at the conservatory. I ended up not enjoying “conservatory life” and instead went out and got a job as a Pre-K instructor at an international preschool. During the spring semester at the preschool, the principal asked me to create a piano program for the students. Being far from home, and without my usual teaching materials, I found myself with a conundrum. There was only one music shop in Stockholm, and the method books were all in Swedish, and not really to my liking. So I bought a copy of Sibelius notation software and started creating materials for the students.
The program was popular with the students and parents, and I discovered that I had a knack for writing and arranging music that beginners enjoyed. When I returned to California to finish my bachelor’s degree, I continued to work on the method materials that I had started writing in Sweden. I road-tested the music and the written materials for about six years with my own students, and eventually published the first edition of the Piano Pronto method books in 2008. The title came about because my goal as a teacher was always to get beginners sounding great very quickly in the early weeks of their studies—hence the “Pronto” in the title.
You have a Masters Degree in Musicology. What role did your education play in your teaching and your business?
Fair warning, the folks in the ivory towers will probably not want to read this answer! My education was most influential in the sense that it taught me discipline in terms of having goals and meeting them in a timely manner. I thoroughly enjoyed my studies, mostly because I love learning about all aspects of music, but I feel strongly that as a business person I am primarily self-taught.
Hopefully, things have changed, but when I went through both my degree programs (finishing my bachelor’s in performance in 2001 and going back later for my master’s in 2010), there was little to no focus on the business of music and what students were supposed to do once they got their diploma. I went to school with countless talented musicians who ended up working in entirely different fields after school was finished simply because there weren’t enough options and opportunities to make ends meet.
When I entered into both my degree programs, I was working concurrently as a teacher, and I had a firm plan in my mind as to what I was going to do once school was finished. I can’t say the same about most of my classmates and therein lies the problem.
For young people thinking about pursuing academic degrees in music, my strongest advice would be to have a plan before starting the program.
Teaching is one of the best (and in my mind, the easiest) ways to make a living in music, so if you are not the type of person who would enjoy teaching as a career, it may be best to look into another field.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from running Piano Pronto?
I’ve learned that you never know it all. There is always something new to discover when running a business, especially a publishing company. I frequently look to leaders in other industries to help better my own business practices. In the publishing world, it just isn’t enough to have talent as a composer. In fact, the tenacity to learn about things like marketing, networking, finding your tribe of followers, and so on, actually plays a much bigger role in the level of success that you will ultimately achieve.
I started my publishing company because teaching piano had become rather routine and I was looking for a new challenge. I knew nothing about what it took to actually take a publication from concept to a finished product that I could hold in my hands. Along the way, I’ve had to learn a lot through trial and error and finding my way through a crowded landscape competing against established companies that had been around for eons.
There’s a lot of nuts and bolts in this industry that people never even consider when they crack open a book on their music stand: paperweight, binding styles, layout, and design, etc. I found myself out of my comfort zone and had to learn and perfect things like using professional- grade layout software, web design, honing my social media outreach, and much more. These challenges, while frustrating at times, strengthened my sense of resolve as a business-person, and the thing that I enjoy most now running this business is the fact that the market landscape is always shifting and bringing new challenges to my doorstep.
Why do you think your method books have been so successful?
When I published the first edition of the Piano Pronto method books in 2008, I was exhausted after spending a large chunk of years writing the books. It was at that point I realized that the real work begins after you finish the writing. I was completely overwhelmed by the task of figuring out how to introduce a new set of method materials to a market of teachers that were very used to existing materials and reluctant to try something new. I believed in my voice and what I thought was a unique new spin on method materials, but frankly, I was tired, and decided to set the books aside and went back to the halls of academia to pursue my master’s degree.
After completing my master’s degree, I had a renewed sense of energy and decided to come back to the publishing world. I slowly, but surely, started to learn more about marketing, started a blog where I would give away free pieces to teachers, and wrote articles about my experiences as a teacher. This daily effort eventually started to pay off, and more and more teachers started to gain trust in me and began using my materials. From that point, it’s been a nice snowball effect, but one that still requires daily attention in order to stay relevant.
What I’ve learned is that there are a few key elements that will bring you success no matter your industry.
The first is to find your niche and focus on it entirely. The old adage that you can’t be everything to everyone is so very true, no matter what industry you are working in. As a teacher, for instance, I was known for focusing on teaching pop music which gained me great popularity. While I had the skillset with my training to be a typical classical piano teacher, I found much more success with hobbyist students who wanted to play the piano primarily for fun. In the publishing world, it was largely the same niche: creating materials that will keep students walking into your studio. As a writer, I’m constantly networking and talking with teachers about what their students want to be playing and tailoring my writing style around these needs. I like to think of Piano Pronto as a grassroots type of company that is constantly listening to the needs of the customer base. It is this personal connection with our customers, and then the ability to create materials that meet these needs, that has played a vital role in our success and staying power.
Secondly, I remind teachers all the time that critics are critical. This is perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve learned, especially as a publisher. I once had an executive at Yamaha tell me at a business meeting when I had first come back to the publishing world that I had a terrible website. This was back in the days when I had a hardcoded website that I was managing after learning to code a bit in Dreamweaver software. I went home and cried for a couple of days and thought about throwing in the towel. After I ended my pity party, I decided to start learning about how I could make a better website. That meeting with the critic was really a critical moment in the trajectory of my success. It was at that point that my attitude shifted and I decided to start taking every critical word as an opportunity instead of going on defense, which is so easy to do when somebody has something negative to say about your work. To this day I am always listening to the market and making adjustments as necessary.
Your ability to adapt and expand your skill set as a teacher, a writer, or publisher will help you stave off stagnation and keep your business moving forward.
Another critical moment I had was a meeting with a large publishing house that was interested in my materials. For years I had dreamt of being accepted underneath somebody else’s umbrella. In my mind, having somebody else do all the leg work of distribution and marketing seemed like the easier path. At this meeting, the executive had edited one of my most popular pieces to fit the voice of that particular company.
The original piece had some easy syncopated patterns in it and was intended for late beginners. Their edited version had removed all of the syncopation and in my eyes had sucked all the fun of out the piece in order to fit their mold. I played the edited version there at the office and the executive’s response upon me finishing was, “well, that was rather dry wasn’t it?” I walked out of that meeting realizing that my voice mattered and that if I wanted to keep my compositional voice intact that the legwork of running a publishing company needed to be my responsibility.
Finally, I wake up early (like before the sunrise) and never stop trying to improve my skills as a writer (my niche). It sounds silly and simple, but being successful is all about hard work and a daily effort to be better than you were yesterday.
What advice would you give to music teachers looking to start their own businesses?
Without sounding like a Nike advertisement: just do it! There’s a caveat though: just do it, with a plan. Most small businesses fail because of a lack of planning and/or a lack of funds. I’m happy to say I’ve never run up debt on either of my businesses and I think this is hugely important. Side hustles seem to be all the rage these days, and I think that’s awesome. Piano Pronto Publishing was my side hustle before the term even existed.
I ran my publishing company as a side project in tandem with my teaching business for about seven years. I let my “day job” as a teacher financially support my publishing business. I worked crazy amounts of hours running after the publishing business goals in the morning hours and then teaching students in the afternoons and evenings. Eventually, the publishing company’s income equalized with my teaching business, and I was able to retire from teaching to pursue my career as a publisher full-time. Looking back, this was absolutely the right way to do things. I could have stopped teaching earlier on in the process, but this would have been a much bigger financial risk, and it’s one I’m glad I didn’t take.
No matter if you’re a teacher or a writer I’d advise people looking to start new businesses to look beyond their industry and start learning from business leaders in other fields.
I’ve always been a bit of a financial junkie and got in the habit of reading lots of business and marketing books as I concurrently sharpened my skills as a musician and writer. The business of piano teaching, for instance, is actually a much larger piece of the equation than the thirty or sixty-minutes that you spend with a client each week. Now with the advent of podcasts, there are droves of knowledge just waiting to be discovered. A lot of the side hustle industry stems from a larger and growing movement known as F.I.R.E.
A quick search of this term will yield a plethora of blogs, podcasts, and internet forums. The beautiful thing about the F.I.R.E. community is how well the career field of music fits into their ideals of creating a niche career that brings you both joy and financial independence.
How important is it for teachers to find a community?
The internet, and social media especially, has done worlds of good for the teaching industry. When I started teaching in the 1990s, the opportunities for me to meet with other teachers was limited to monthly meetings with local teaching organizations. I continually found that I had little in common with the members who seemed to be on a different path as teachers. Now, with social media in the picture, teachers have the opportunity to discuss everything under the sun and share ideas with other educators from all over the world at all hours of the day.
I started a popular forum on Facebook called Piano Teacher Central back in 2013, which has grown to be a bustling group with thousands of teachers, becoming a virtual water cooler. I also run a smaller group for Piano Pronto teachers where they have the ability to ask all their burning questions and get feedback from myself and other teachers using my materials. This forum is the primary way that I have built a supportive and loyal community around my own brand. People like to feel a connection with others in their field and having these community forums helps to stave off the burnout and loneliness that sometimes seeps into our lives as teachers.
Don’t forget to grab Jennifer’s exclusive piano arrangements at Musicnotes.com, and for all things Piano Pronto, visit her website here!