Would You Send Your Kid to Groove U?

Joel Oliphint

Dwight Heckelman couldn't find the music school he'd wanted to attend, so he opened one in Columbus. For tuition comparable to that of a major university, students study the ins and outs of the music industry, from performance to marketing to production. No English, no math, no history. Just music.

There's a battle brewing at the Northland Performing Arts Center on this last day of February. Ten bands from Central Ohio high schools take turns on the huge stage, performing songs in front of a panel of judges and a crowd of mostly parents and other high schoolers. At the end of the night, the bands are hoping to walk away with the grand prize: a professionally recorded and mastered EP, a music video, booking support and a promotional package. It's the chance to instantly become a real band, hence the event's "Instaband" moniker.

But this Friday night event is more than a battle of bands. It's also an educational laboratory. A banner hanging from the ceiling behind the performers reads, "Earn credit for this." The high school kids aren't the ones earning credit, though. They're here for that grand prize and the chance to turn the heads of judges like Randy Malloy, president of CD102.5FM, and Brian Lucey, mastering engineer of Grammy-winning records by the Black Keys and others. No, the students earning credit are all behind the scenes manning the stage lights, switching gear between bands, selling tickets at the door and documenting the performances on video. They're running this event, and they're all enrolled at Groove U, a new two-year music-career program.

Groove U's first class will finish academic work this spring, then graduate in August after completing a summer internship. With Groove U's guinea pigs nearing the end of their $50,000 education, how does this fledgling school prepare its students for the rapidly evolving music industry, and what motivated Groove U founder Dwight Heckelman to create a $1.3 million music program in a renovated Columbus elementary school?

Heckelman, 43, grew up in the Sandusky area singing and playing bassoon, bass clarinet and keyboard in garage bands, pep bands, stage bands and marching bands-"a typical band geek," he says. As high school graduation neared in 1989, Heckelman told his music instructor he wanted to pursue a career in music but didn't know how to go about it. "Mr. G scratches his big, bushy beard," Heckelman recalls, "and says, 'Well, you can go to school and get really good on your technique and join an orchestra. You can get good on your theory and become a composer. Or you can teach music.'"

Heckelman didn't want to do any of that, so he joined the Navy. Four years later, the music bug was still buzzing, so he enrolled at Bowling Green State University as a composition major. But all the theory and ensembles and auditions were sucking the love of music out of him. "I didn't want to be in that world," Heckelman says. "It felt like this very privileged, snobbish world. It wasn't how I connected to music."

Fortunately, Bowling Green also had a tiny recording studio where Heckelman took classes and began recording other students' work, eventually switching to a recording technology major. He also saw an ad in the school newspaper for a record-label intern, and after persistent phone calls and letters, the Cleveland field office of Capitol Records hired him to work with record stores and radio stations on marketing and promotion for bands like Jimmy Eat World and Everclear.

The internship made Heckelman realize there was a lot he didn't know, and he wasn't going to learn it all at Bowling Green. So in fall 1995, he transferred to Nashville's Belmont University, which offers a music business degree. At Belmont, Heckelman worked as an engineer at a boutique studio and later ran a publishing company while also writing a tech column for MusicRow magazine.

It was at a MusicRow conference on music and technology where Heckelman had what he calls "a light-bulb moment." While taking notes during a panel discussion with label heads and Hilary Rosen, then president of the Recording Industry Association of America, Heckelman listened to Rosen talk about file-sharing service Napster and new "mp3 technology."

"The hairs on my arm were standing up," Heckelman says. "I was freaking out a little bit. The ink is hardly dry on my diploma. I've been out of school like a year. I realized I'm really well prepared for a business that's not going to exist. I'd just spent all this money on my education, and not once in any of my classes had the words 'peer-to-peer' or 'mp3' come up."

Heckelman was angry. His high school music education hadn't prepared him for a career in music, and even now, with music business degree in hand, he was still behind the times.

After a stint doing licensing and marketing for a karaoke company in Columbus, Heckelman decided it was time to take matters into his own hands. In winter 2004 and spring '05, he developed a music industry curriculum and shopped it to a dozen Ohio colleges and universities. Some thought it was interesting. Others thought it was just plain stupid.

Otterbein University liked the idea. "They said, 'We're really into this. We think we want to do this. Give us about five years,'" says Heckelman, who wasn't looking to wait around. Hocking College also took an interest and told Heckelman he could start right away, so he headed to Nelsonville and chaired Hocking's music program until 2008, when Berklee College of Music in Boston came calling. They offered him a position in the career development department.

"Berklee for me is like Harvard," Heckelman says. "You don't say no."

While at Berklee, Heckelman attended a music educator conference the college hosted in April 2009. "I went from panel to panel, seminar to seminar, and it was like I was in 1999," Heckelman says. "I kept hearing things like, 'The music industry is changing.' I'm like, 'Changing? It's changed. We should not be teaching the same things the same ways.' I went back to the office dejected. These kids are dropping $45,000 a year to basically be told the same thing I was told 10 years ago. That's not fair."

Two weeks later, Heckelman told his boss he was going back to Ohio to start his own school.

Heckelman, instructor Andy Dodson and first-year student Aaron Johnson crowd around a mixing board, troubleshooting a technical issue that came up while recording singer and pianist Bobbi Tussey, who's visible through the windows in a room across the hall. Tussey, an Ironton native, won a Groove U high school songwriting contest last summer called 1 Take Wonder. Her performance brought one of the judges, Groove U staffer Sarah Overdier, to tears.

To track down contestants between the ages of 13 and 19, Groove U took its mobile recording studio to concerts, festivals and other special events, where teens performed one take of a song-no overdubs, no edits. Groove U students then mixed the songs and uploaded videos of the performances to YouTube, where fans could vote for their favorite. The 10 songwriters whose videos garnered the most "likes" in a two-week period advanced to a final battle, during which the songs were performed on stage in front of an audience and panel of judges. Votes from the audience and judges determined a first-, second- and third-place winner. Like Instaband, 1 Take Wonder serves multiple functions. The contests provide exposure for Groove U, hands-on experience for its students and even serve as recruitment tools for attracting new students.

On this March morning, the scene with Tussey resembles a recording session more than a class. In fact, it's both. As part of a course called The Creative Process, it's Dodson's job to show these first-year students everything involved in the preproduction phase of a song, from songwriting to genre aesthetics. Dodson, a freelance audio engineer and former studio owner, says he's teaching them how to be "contextually creative on demand."

To do that, they'll produce Tussey's song from start to finish-lyrics, arrangements, etc. Today's goal is get a good demo of the song, which the students later realize needs a bridge. But to help Tussey write a good bridge, they need to know the context. Who are some artists similar to Tussey? By whom is she inspired? Dodson and Groove U want students to think like producers. Pushing buttons is the easy part.

"It's an Adele song," Dodson tells me later, describing Tussey's single. "A big pop ballad about a broken heart. But who was Adele inspired by? Take it a step deeper. What's the chain?"

The students will make playlists of similar songs, all the while communicating with Tussey, who lives three hours away-a hurdle and valuable lesson the students must learn to manage. If they didn't know how to use Skype previously, they will now.

Groove U's 30,000-square-foot building in the Short North, formerly the Fifth Avenue International School, is wired to accommodate any Skyping and recording setups that may be required. After agreeing to a 10-year lease with Columbus City Schools, Heckelman gutted the 1-story building until only some brick remained. For acoustic purposes, a tractor with a saw blade was brought in to give each room in the building its own, separate concrete foundation to help prevent sound bleeding, and walls were custom-built to isolate sound. Every classroom and production suite has a small, wall-mounted box where musicians can plug in, enabling the rooms to become on-site extensions of the two large recording studios.

When planning Groove U, Heckelman made a giant spreadsheet of 238 music-industry programs around the country to see what they offered. Then, in January 2010, he gathered a dozen trusted industry insiders-attorneys, studio owners and CEOs-around a table and said, "It's 2014, and I'm graduating my first class from a brand new school. Why would you hire them? What skills and attributes would you want them to have?"

Based on the feedback, Heckelman came up with what he calls the "essential six." None of the 238 programs had all six items, which he then boiled down to three principles about the music industry: It is relationship-driven, apprenticeship-based and creatively engaged.

Every aspect of Groove U is geared toward these principles. Internships are required. An annual trip to the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin is required. Private lessons on a commercial instrument are required.

"Dwight is a fantastic leader," says advisory board member Josh Antonuccio, who runs a recording studio in Athens, is a lecturer at Ohio University and, for a time, worked with Heckelman at Hocking College. "He believes in the power of music and also in really good industry education." Part of what makes Groove U's education good, Antonuccio says, is the emphasis on real-world experience. "If you take a wilderness survival class, you don't learn from a textbook," he says. "You go in the mountains."

New Albany High School graduate Derek Rassmussen was standing on the patio outside a show sponsored by Myspace at SXSW in 2013. A big, beefy guy came over and asked to bum a cigarette. Rassmussen obliged.

"I asked him what he did, and he said, 'I'm throwing this,'" Rassmussen says. "My instant thought is, concert promoter. So I say, 'Oh, what company do you work for?' And he says, 'I own Myspace.'"

Rassmussen, 22, chatted up Myspace senior VP Russel Vanderhook for a few minutes, shook his hand to leave and ended up on the Myspace VIP list the next night. Waiting in line the following night, he met Myspace marketing director Mazen Alawar, who listed him for the third night, which turned out to be a Justin Timberlake performance. Through a chain-link fence, people offered Rassmussen $500 for his spot.

"Everyone in that line was somebody," Rassmussen says. "It was awesome."

Other Groove U students have similar stories from trips to SXSW. Though they travel to Austin as a group, it's up to each student to figure out the best panels, seminars and concerts to attend. Groove U's 15 full- and part-time faculty and staff don't babysit the students. Heckelman trains them to be entrepreneurial self-starters.

"He gives you a candle and says, 'Go find the lighter,'" Rassmussen says of Heckelman.

The first year at Groove U provides an overview of the program's five areas of study: studio production, live sound production, music business, video production and interactive technologies. After the first-year courses and a summer internship, students specialize in one area.

Five of Groove U's students are there on a full ride. Last summer Heckelman announced a three-year partnership with Columbus City Schools (CSS) in which five CCS graduates are chosen from applicants and given a full scholarship to attend Groove U. "Basically, we get a portion of our rent waived for every [CCS scholarship] student we enroll, up to the maximum of what our rent costs us per year," Heckelman says. "Take our tuition, multiply it by five students-that's about what our rent is."

CCS communications director Jeff Warner describes the partnership as "mutually beneficial." "There are very few opportunities of this nature for students in Central Ohio," Warner says. "It's giving young people access to something they might not otherwise have access to."

Next fall, Groove U's tuition will run $26,998, an increase of about $2,000 from the first two years. Included in that package is a new laptop, software, hardware, Web hosting for a professional website, a trip to SXSW and private lessons. "We make the number as pure as possible," Heckelman says. "Your tuition is going to cover everything you're going to need here. Everything. There's no lab fees, course fees, books. All that is folded in."

Groove U had five students when it opened in 2012 and added a sixth transfer student the following spring. Last fall 11 students were admitted, including the five scholarship recipients, bringing total enrollment to 17. Those are humble beginnings, but Heckelman is supremely confident in Groove U's future. "A couple years from now, I'll have 300 applicants for 50 spaces," he says.

The vision statement on Groove U's website boldly claims, "Within this decade, we will be regarded as the preeminent music career program in the world." Groove U has some obstacles to overcome before that happens. First, the program is not accredited. In fact, a school cannot begin the accreditation process until it has graduated its first class. For now, Groove U students graduate with a Groove U diploma and a lot of experience but not a degree from an accredited institution.

That lack of accreditation also prevents Groove U from extending federal loans to students the way other higher-education institutions can. Though Ohio recently passed legislation that may eventually allow Groove U to extend state loans, as of now Groove U students are on their own in terms of figuring out the $27,000 tuition, not to mention room and board, which Groove U estimates at about $10,000 per year based on its proximity to campus housing near Ohio State.

Most students I spoke with are funding Groove U through their parents' coffers, personal savings, part-time jobs or some combination of the three. Second-year student Aaron Dill delivers pizza on weekends. Rassmussen works at a bar on weekends and teaches music at a local school on weekday mornings.

Jeannie Kim, mother of first-year student and Dublin Coffman grad Aaron Johnson, says she and her husband saved for their son's education for a long time and found Groove U to be "very affordable." They visited Berklee, Belmont and California's Musicians Institute but were impressed by Groove U after meeting with Heckelman.

Johnson, 19, lives at home, but Kim says Groove U is preparing him so "he's not living with us in his 30s."

Heckelman says Groove U schedules classes so students can attend in the morning or the afternoon Monday through Thursday, with no classes on Friday; the block scheduling makes it easier for them to work part-time jobs.

"The students who really want to come find a way to make it happen," Heckelman says. "There are 18-month, zero-interest credit cards."

It's still too early to tell how well Groove U's model is working in terms of students graduating with jobs in the industry. All the students I spoke with made industry connections at SXSW, and a couple of those connections have led to internships. But often students had to turn down unpaid opportunities for financial reasons.

Jobs or not, the students seem happy-tired and overworked from juggling classes, part-time jobs and startup companies, but happy. They're convinced Groove U is preparing them better than more traditional music programs at more well-known schools. Groove U has retained all 17 students it enrolled.

Heckelman, meanwhile, is on a never-ending mission to stay ahead of the curve. He still checks in with the Groove U advisory panel at least twice a year and speaks with individual members often to update them on the program and ask what they've been noticing in the field. He still doesn't receive a salary. (Heckelman teaches one or two music-industry or career-development classes per term at Otterbein, and his wife is a full-time art teacher at Olentangy Local Schools.)

Heckelman and two groups of investors- one a local, family-run business, the other a northern Ohio investment company-had to raise roughly one third of Groove U's $1.3 million startup cost to qualify for a small-business loan from Champaign Bank, and Heckelman says he'll begin courting additional investors to raise money again soon. He wants Groove U to grow, but only so much. The building is made for about 125 students, maybe 150. And that's all he ever hopes for.

"I'm not going to be a 12,000-student Full Sail or a 4,000-student Berklee," Heckelman says. "We focus on building relationships and experiences with our students. How do I get 12,000 students to SXSW? 12,000 internships? Lab space for 12,000 students? Students would get neglected. We visualize ourselves as quality over quantity."