Music lessons: Changing lives one note at a time

By Pat Shaver

At West Music, every part of the store is a possible performance venue.

The nearly 3,500 musical students companywide are encouraged by some of their teachers  to go out into the middle of the retail store and perform while customers shop.

“We want our students to be able to share their music. We encourage students to play on the floor; just to have eyes on you is good practice,” said Debbie Yarrow, West Music conservatory director.

Ages of the students who learn at West Music range from one month to 100 years old, said President and CEO of West Music Co. Robin Walenta.

“We try to orchestrate it so there really is something for everyone,” she said. “We focus a  lot on the early childhood area. We believe if a child starts learning at a young age, the chance of them becoming a lifelong learner is significantly higher. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start playing at a more advanced age.”

Along with music lessons, West Music, based in Coralville, provides repair technicians, delivery crew, music therapists, road representatives, classroom consultants and customer service consultants. The company also has locations in Cedar Rapids/Marion, Ottumwa, Urbandale, the Quad Cities and Cedar Falls.

Ms. Walenta offers a piece of advice for people considering learning a musical instrument.

“Just do it,” she said. “I know that slogan is already taken. The statistic is that 86 percent of people wish they would have learned a musical instrument,” she said. “We’re creating  access for all ages and abilities. It’s not too late, you can do it and it does change your life forever.”

One of the most popular instruments currently is the ukulele, she said, because it is affordable.

“It’s the No. 1 selling instrument in the U.S. right now, plus they’re really cute,” she said.

West Music offers individual and group lessons, and the Weekend Warrior program  where musicians perform together.

“We rehearse for a couple months, book them a gig and they get the opportunity to play in front of a live audience,” Ms. Walenta said.

Through the whole company, there are 140 teachers. Most lessons are 30 minutes once a week.


“The teachers have a minimum of four to six students each week. Some are  overachievers and have up to 50,” Ms. Yarrow said, adding that at West Music they make sure the teacher is the right match for the student. “Each teacher has different varieties of music and different teaching styles.”

Throughout the year, group classes in ukulele, drumming, harmonica, song writing and many others are offered. The variety of classes depends on the strengths and experiences of the teachers.

These classes provide a comfortable, social environment to learn together and play in ensembles.

“We’re very fortunate to live in the Corridor because the school music programs are so strong here,” Ms. Walenta said. “We like to encourage students because sometimes they have one opportunity to try this and music is so important,” Ms. Yarrow said.

The programs for young students help supplement the music children are learning in school, said Tina Chapman, music instructor and supervisor of the Nancy Cree Keyboard  Learning Center at West Music.

The Nancy Cree Keyboard Learning Center allows young students to continue lessons through high school. This gives them the skills they need to keep playing for the rest of their lives. The Keyboard Learning Center studios include: grand pianos, electronic keyboards, digital pianos, computers for work with theory software and audio and video centers.

“A lot of students don’t get that (one-on-one) attention in school,” Ms. Chapman said. “We have a very high retention rate with the program.”

Young children who received a year of musical training showed brain changes and superior memory compared to children who did not receive the instruction, according to a 2006 Oxford University Press study.

“I think the adult students are more motivated. They expect to hear more out of the piano than simple one-finger notes,” Ms. Chapman said, adding that some adult learners have played instruments as children. “I like to say it’s like riding a bike. It will come back.”

West Music was established 1941 and serves six locations in Iowa and western Illinois. 
Over the years, West Music has expanded to include most types of musical instruments, including pianos and keyboards, band and orchestra instruments, guitars and amplifiers, drums and percussion, software, elementary general music materials, early childhood instruments and music therapy products.