GROOVE U built on tenets of networking, experience, creative engagement

By Allison Ward

Between acts on a stage at the recent Independents' Day festival, Dino Capoccia assembled drum sets, tuned instruments and checked microphones.

During the performances, the 20-year-old made the rounds, sharing his name and phone number with sound engineers working the event in the Franklinton neighborhood and chatting with other musicians about the possibility of recording them.

All in a day's work for a Groove U student.

Capoccia was required to volunteer at the festival for an "experience" course at the two-year music-industry school in the University District near the Short North.

That Saturday afternoon provided a perfect opportunity to both engage in the community and network — two skills he'll need to hone if he wants a career in music production.

"They stress that it's all about the contacts and not only your talents," said Capoccia, a 2014 graduate of Olentangy Orange High School who is in his second year at Groove U.

Indeed, relationship-building is one of the three tenets on which Dwight Heckelman has built the for-profit diploma program he introduced in 2012. Also emphasized are experience over credentials, plus creative engagement (in the musical process and branding).

"You have to be creative in how you approach your career," Heckelman said. "It's not a business anyone recruits you for."

Re-create 'Billie Jean'

Concert posters for bands such as Twenty One Pilots and the Decemberists hang in the hallways of Groove U. Throughout the school day, music routinely emanates from one of the 12 production suites, two recording studios or three video rooms.

Another possible source: a private music lesson, which is required of the 22 students enrolled.

The 30,000-square-foot campus is housed in a building on Forsythe Avenue that Groove U leases from Columbus City Schools. On a recent school day, Barrett Hoffman pounded a bass drum with a pedal while sitting in the live audio room of Studio A.

Several of his second-year classmates listened in the control room as they fiddled with a massive soundboard.

Their assignment for their studio recording course: re-create Michael Jackson's smash hit "Billie Jean" — vocals and instrumentation — without post-production editing.

"There are a million variables in how that sound happens," said instructor Eric Van Wagner, who, when not teaching, works as a freelance audio engineer. "They're learning the subtleties."

Each of the 10 teachers at Groove U has a four-year degree and has worked in the industry, Heckelman said. Many, like Van Wagner, still make a living in music.

To keep pace with the ever-changing industry, instructors are required to change lesson plans annually.

"If I look at a project list from this year and it's the same as last year, we have a problem," Heckelman said. "Tenure is something that doesn't work here."

Van Wagner, who previously taught at Otterbein University, has been with Groove U since its inception. The school, he said, is more flexible in its lessons and overall structure than music programs at traditional universities.

"It's not difficult for me to say, 'We're not going to have class today because we're going to the Schottenstein (Center) to 'load in' the show," Van Wagner said, referring to roadie work. "Not being associated with a larger school allows us to be real-world and relevant."

Specialized program

Flexibility in the curriculum means no chemistry or statistics classes at Groove U — a huge draw for students, including Christina Mihalopoulos.

In touring other colleges in the area, the 2016 graduate of Hilliard Darby High School was disappointed because she figured she would spend two years taking general-education courses.

"I didn't want to wait," said the 18-year-old singer, who is in her first year at Groove U. "I have a step up on the people who have to wait two years. Those programs are not that specialized."

Come spring, she said, she will help organize Instaband, an annual Battle of the Bands for Columbus-area high schools. During her second year, for an acoustics class, she and her classmates will outfit one of Groove U's production studios with equipment and technology and work at area music festivals.

To test their networking skills, students attend South by Southwest, a large annual music conference in Austin, Texas.

Just three weeks into the program, Mihalopoulos had to produce a list of eight internship possibilities. In her second year, she'll choose a specialization: production, business, live, video, interactive or an independent study.

"It's less of academia and more of a proper, real-world training," said Brian Lucey, owner of Magic Garden Mastering, an audio post-production company in Los Angeles. "Dwight has a good grasp on the practical nature of education and balancing that with what's needed on the academic side."

Coursework, though, is heavy: Students spend 22 hours a week in class. They have summers off from classes but are required to complete internships.

Lucey, a Columbus native who has worked on the albums of Grammy Award-winning artists, was one of several industry leaders tapped by Heckelman to advise him as he opened Groove U. He remains on Groove U's advisory panel, which has about a dozen members.

Attending such a school — Groove U is one of only a few such specialized programs in the nation, Lucey said— can help students set themselves apart in an "extremely competitive industry."

"I've been supportive since the beginning," he said. "They keep getting better each semester."

Graduates in careers

Groove U took a huge leap in legitimizing itself this summer when it received its national, institution-level accreditation through the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools. The accreditation put the school a step closer to being able to accept federal financial aid, making the annual tuition of $26,999 more manageable for students.

"The first few years of the program, we were talking about how this is going to be great," Heckelman said, "but we have to have students in real-world successes."

Four years in, Groove U does.

The program has graduated 23 students, including 11 in August. According to a survey the school administers six months after graduation, 100 percent of its alumni are making a living in the industry.

Aaron Dill is the head booking agent for Skully's Music-Diner in the Short North and manages his own production company.

The 2014 Groove U graduate said his parents needed some convincing — especially because he would be a member of the school's first class — but after they toured the building and met Heckelman, they were sold.

"The good part of Groove U is they actually take a lot of time getting you involved with people in the industry," said Dill, 24, who lives in the Short North.

The curriculum, he said, allowed him to try out various aspects of music to help him choose the right career path.

"For my music-business class, our final project was, we put together a live concert," Dill said. "We were booking a national act, getting local support, booking a venue — and I fell in love with that side of music."

Sky Young, a 2015 graduate of Groove U, has worked at more than 20 festivals over the past two years.

He manned the silent disco stage at the Breakaway Music Festival during the summer; has been a volunteer coordinator for Domefest in Pennsylvania; and this year ran the main stage at Floyd Fest in Virginia, which featured Gregg Allman.

The Philadelphia native, who hopes to eventually organize his own festival, said taking a chance on a new school in a different state has paid off.

"I work strictly in the music industry — it's my career," Young said. "That's what I wanted coming out of school."

award@dispatch.com

@AllisonAWard