Friday 19 January 2018

Musical appreciation: Finding perfect note with students

Sonya Murphy-Lyons with Sean Gallagher. Picture: Tony Gavin
Sonya Murphy-Lyons with Sean Gallagher. Picture: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

The challenge for most people wishing to set up their own business is coming up with an idea they feel passionate about and enjoy doing. For many, the ideal would be to turn their hobby into a business. This week I met Terenure-based, Sonya Murphy-Lyons who has succeeded in doing just that. Today, she runs Mezzo Music Academy and makes a living from her love of playing and teaching music.

Having worked in a number of different jobs, Sonya Murphy-Lyons decided to set up Mezzo Music Academy in 2011 to pursue her dream of turning her passion for music into a business. Today, she employs two full-time staff as well as 30 part-time music teachers and has an annual turnover of more than €250,000.

“I believe my unique selling point is that I care about all my students — all 400 of them. I know all their names as well as their parents’ and siblings’ names,” says Sonya as she welcomes me to her facility in Dublin’s Terenure. Set over two floors, the place is beautifully decorated, bright and welcoming with a mix of smaller rooms for individual tuition as well as a large open and airy room on the first floor which is used for group teaching. 

“For years, I attended a music institution where I was just a number. Nobody welcomed me in reception and even my teachers weren’t that nice to me sometimes. At Mezzo, we believe that everyone has the right to learn music and I want to make it a fun place to learn. I am also very careful to match students with teachers depending on their personalities, because if the rapport is not there the child will not want to practise for them.”

Looking through the extensive stock of instruments, nearly every taste seems to be catered for. There are pianos, violins, violas and cellos as well as all types of guitar — from classical and acoustic to electric and bass. There’s also a wide range of wind instruments ranging from clarinets and flutes to saxophones, recorders and tin whistles and there are even a number of sets of drums. “We also teach voice lessons and have a number of junior and adult choirs,” adds Sonya.

Her students range in age from babies, to adults in their eighties. “We run classes for newborns where music is used as a bonding exercise with parents as well as classes for toddlers who we know benefit greatly from the movement and motor skills associated with music,” says Sonya.

“As children get a little older, say from four-to-six years, we run pre-instrumental classes where we encourage them to sample every instrument before choosing the one to progress with.

“It’s important to give children as many options as possible so they get an inkling of what best suits them before having to concentrate on a specific one. From around five-to-seven years, children then practise their chosen instrument in small groups after which they typically start one-to-one, 30-minute, weekly lessons,” she adds.

The Academy also caters for large numbers of teenagers preparing for both Junior and Leaving Certificate exams who require music grinds, as well as students seeking entry to the BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute) and other third-level music courses.

“We also have a growing number of adults who learned music when they were younger and want to get back to it and we have a large number of older enthusiasts who always wanted to learn and feel that now is their time. We call this our Silver Singing group,” says Sonya.

From Firhouse, in Dublin, Sonya grew up surrounded by music and musicians. Her father was a very successful musician/songwriter and an acoustic and electric guitarist who played with a number of showbands.

“I remember starting piano lessons at the aged of five but I didn’t like my teacher, so I told my father that I didn’t want to play piano any more. His response was great,” says Sonya.

“He said, ‘well OK, if you don’t want to play piano, then what instrument do you want to play?’ So that’s when I chose the guitar. If he had not asked me that question, I might never have stayed at music. However, when I told him I wanted to play just like him, his response was equally smart. ‘You can’t learn to play like me because I am self-taught,’ he said. So that’s when he booked me into classical guitar lessons.”

Sonya went on to study classical guitar for 15 years with the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and holds qualifications in grades one to eight with Trinity Guildhall for classical guitar, as well as a diploma in teaching music.

She also completed a degree in music in UCD and went on to teach classical guitar and piano on a part-time basis for over 25 years.

However, when she qualified, she found it difficult to get work in the music industry. To make a living, she decided to study for the IAVI (Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute) qualification and went on to work for a number of years in estate agents in Dublin as well as in South Africa. 

After returning home, she worked in sales and marketing with hotels including Quinn Hotels and the Citywest Hotel and Golf Resort.

For a time, too, she joined her mother’s interior design business until the downturn in the economy saw business dry up.

“That’s when I decided to go back to music. I had just had my first child, and decided to teach classical guitar from home. After advertising locally, I ended up with over 20 students coming to my house every week which enabled me stay at home with our little boy. However, I eventually got to the point where I needed to make a decision — start refusing students, and stay in my comfort zone, or take on more students and arrange childcare on a more full-time basis. I opted for the latter,” says Sonya.

“I designed some flyers and could often be found running up and down traffic light junctions at 7am handing them into cars or to parents outside schools, as well as leaving them in local cafes and hairdressers. By which point I had my second child, who was often in the buggy beside me.

“After a few weeks, the phone was ringing and Mezzo Music Academy was officially in business.”

But there were some learning curves ahead.

“I quickly found payment in advance was the only way to go, and because I was hiring teachers I also had to learn how to manage staff for the first time,” she says.

At the moment she has 100 students getting ready to do exams. She is particularly proud that examiners who visit the academy constantly remark on how happy her students are as well as the quality of the tuition they receive. “That makes it all the more rewarding,” she says.

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Sonya loves music. It’s her passion. She works hard to nurture that same love in her students. She wants them to grow to love music for life rather than for the few years while they are doing exams. “I am currently planning to organise a range of group classes for teens and adults to incorporate songwriting, supervised band rehearsals, music productions and recordings as well as bringing in respected musicians to give Master Classes to our students,” says Sonya.

“If I could get another 250 students, then the business could become even more financially viable.”

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