GROOVE U: Music That Works

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New College Focuses on Jobs in the Music Industry

By Cynthia Rosi  

COLUMBUS, Ohio (January 1, 2012 — Wires hang down from the ceiling in the darkened old lunchroom at the former Fifth Avenue Alternative Elementary School, but there’s an irrepressible spirit of enterprise in the new leaseholder.

Dwight Heckelman, 40, primary catalyst at GROOVE U, took over the building at 1300 Forsythe Avenue on April 1, 2011, after Columbus City Schools axed the elementary school due to falling enrollment. Heckelman hoped to get his music college classes up and running during 2011, but two charter schools also competed for the building, and the district made a final decision later than Heckelman anticipated. This means GROOVE U incoming students will likely begin in the fall of 2012.

Years of working in the music business as an artist, entrepreneur and teacher showed Heckelman a gap in the market. He noticed a need for students who are serious about music to learn skills to allow them to compete in a cut-throat industry. Although GROOVE U graduates walk out with a diploma rather than a degree, Heckelman aims to have the equipment, personalized instruction, and internships that will provide his grads with the hands-on experience they need to excel on a difficult career path.

“We’re a two-year career college,” he affirmed. “Students major in one of five specializations – or more than one.” In his musical career, Heckelman says proficiency counted most, and no-one asked to see his degree from Belmont. “What they have always asked me for is portfolio work, and who do you know that can verify that. That’s always got me the job and employment.”

A 1998 Nashville music industry conference planted the first seeds for GROOVE U in Heckelman’s psyche when he covered panelists for MusicRow magazine. “They were talking about a new technology called MP3 and the thing called Napster,” he recalled. “My first response was fear and my second response was anger.” At that moment he realized: “I’m super-prepared for a job that doesn’t exist.”

Heckelman began to think of ideas for a music program in 2003, and pitched them to a dozen schools in Ohio before Hocking College in Nelsonville took it up. Heckelman grew his program from an initial estimate of 10 to 128 students, and Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts recruited him in 2008. While attending a music industry conference for educators as part of Berklee, Heckelman discovered attitudes hadn’t progressed since Nashville. “I was going from panel to panel and discussion to discussion and felt I was back in 1998 again. There’s no uncertainty how things run anymore. We just have to teach to them.”

Once Heckelman discovered the desire to open a school that teaches to the new technology, he assembled an advisory panel which identified essential components of the music industry: live music, production, business, video, and multi-media. This defined the core curriculum. “You are all music, all the time here. If there are people who are on the fence, I point them to other colleges and programs.”

Funding for GROOVE U comes from angel investors, Heckelman’s pockets, and loans backed by the Small Business Administration. When construction workers complete the $1 million renovation, the building will feature two audio studios, video studios, 12-16 production suites, and rehearsal rooms. For every hour spent in lecture, students will spend four hours in labs learning hands-on skills. Plan to pay $25k a year for a spot, but that includes every fee, two internships, all private lessons, studio time, and your laptop.

Heckelman aims for an initial class of 70 students, capping enrollment at 200. “That is all I have designs on. Can we become a Berklee where we accept one in four?” Heckelman hopes one day to have Grammys lining the walls. 

An enthusiastic batter for the city, Heckelman sees the lower rents here as ideal for students who can’t afford Los Angeles or New York prices. “Columbus doesn’t have to make any apologies. We have awesome projects going on here that are just as good as those coming out of Los Angeles and New York City. The Black Keys album was mastered here. There are only about six schools in Ohio that offer something like this. It made a lot of sense to put it in Columbus.”

Heckelman virtually bounces with a sense of forward motion and hope for how Groove U will benefit the community. He’s planned summer classes for wannabe adult rockers in recording and releasing albums, and a walk-in resource library, for starters.

But there’s no getting around the neighborhood’s loss of a local K-12 school, usurped by the building’s new career-college purpose. The decision to award the lease to a fee-paying institution, instead of a charter school looking to expand, upset vice president of the Columbus School Board, Stephanie Groce, who did not seek re-election when her term expired at the end of 2011. Groce voiced her disapproval in the Columbus Dispatch (October 26, 2010). 

Groce told the Short North Gazette: “It’s a taxpayer funded building. I don’t have anything against GROOVE U. We have kids who need buildings, who are doing a good job. That was one of the nicest buildings that we had vacant.”

Pearson McWane, a retired engineer who moved into neighboring Hunter Avenue in 1973, recalls a history of community involvement at the Fifth Avenue Alternative Elementary School, where the original building dated back to 1898. “When I moved into the area, we had five elementary schools,” McWane said. “We started to have community meetings and potlucks. We discovered there wasn’t much money for the playground,” and so the neighborhood found grants through the Community Development Act. 

Not only did locals help raise money for the adjacent park, where the cornerstone for the original building sits, they also established a college scholarship fund for its children, which began paying out four years ago. Former 5th Ave students who graduate in the Franklin County system can apply for grants in the region of $1000-$2000 through the Columbus Foundation, said McWane. “Everybody is going to send their children to Everett in Victorian Village now,” McWane stated. The scholarship will transfer to Everett students.

Although teachers have not been announced for GROOVE U, potential students are meeting with Heckelman and another instructor. He expects candidates to demonstrate their commitment to music. The two-year program at GROOVE U will completely immerse students in music and the business of music.

“We all look to music as art, but we don’t consume music as art,” Heckelman noted. For that reason, GROOVE U will teach students not only the art of music but also how to view, and sell, their work as a commercially viable enterprise.

GROOVE U has workshops scheduled for spring 2012. The first academic term begins in the fall.