GROOVE U founder strives for 'better way' in music education

When Dwight Heckelman left the Berklee College of Music in 2009 to open a music school in his native Ohio, he said, a number of people thought he was nuts.

"No one leaves Berklee," he said of the prestigious Boston program, where he worked for a year in career development and job recruitment.

But with 20 years of experience in both the music industry (recording studios, record labels) and higher music education (he also founded and ran a program at Hocking College), Heckelman had grown weary of academic conversations about "the future" of the industry and how it is changing.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's the wrong tense,'" said Heckelman, 45. "I was extremely discouraged and got mad. ... There's got to be a better way."

That explains why he spent the next three years interviewing people in the industry in Columbus and around the country about the shortcomings of potential employees, then devising a curriculum and outlining the brand he envisioned for Groove U.

He also leased an old school building near the Short North from Columbus City Schools and renovated it to include recording studios, production suites and other specialized spaces.

"So many schools have a recording studio shoved in the basement of the theater," Heckelman said. "It shows you how to record, but not what a recording studio actually looks like."

In all, the project required $1.2 million — money he raised from investors, a small-business loan and his savings, he said — to open in the summer of 2012. Groove U is a for-profit school, he said, because he would have needed a decade to raise enough money to start it as a nonprofit.

Although his work on Groove U dates to 2009, Heckelman developed his love of music and entrepreneurial spirit long before then. The clarinet player from northern Ohio, who also did audio work for theater productions, knew he wanted to pursue music as a career but wasn't sure how.

"My teacher said my options were to get really good on my technique to join an orchestra, (study music) theory to compose, or I could teach," Heckelman said. "So I did what any sensible man would do and joined the Navy."

After four years in the Navy, he attended Bowling Green State University for a year before enrolling in the prestigious audio-production program at Belmont University in Nashville.

Although he carved out a career for himself, he sensed something lacking in music education — a thought that was reinforced with each new job, he said, and eventually steered him to academics.

To form his "ideal" music program, Heckelman said, he hustled, networked and got creative, all qualities that he emphasizes to Groove U students.

He still spends a lot of time recruiting students and their parents, he said. The school has 22 students, a number that Heckelman would like to see grow to as many as 150. Enrollment might be helped by the school's recent national accreditation, a loan program now offered to students via OhioMeansJobs, and possible future financial aid for students.

Columbus City Schools used to offer scholarships to five graduates of city schools, but the partnership with Groove U recently ended.

Video instructor Peter John Ross, in his first year with the program, said he has seen an immediate difference among the students and faculty members at Groove U compared with other places he has taught.

"There is a total different attention level here," he said. "If I say 'This is important,' pens hit the paper."

Ross said he was considered an innovator elsewhere; at Groove U, such innovation is the norm.

Heckelman said Groove U might have been possible only in Columbus, a city with a bustling music scene that continues to grow. He serves on boards for How To Build a Music City and the Columbus Music Commission, and he has collaborated with music programs at nearby universities.

"There aren't too many places that are as culturally sensitive to building something like this," he said. "The spirit of cooperation is so great. It's like a rising tide hits all boats — let's rock."