When people think of children’s piano lessons, they might imagine an apprehensive beginner plunking out endless scales while an exacting teacher sits waiting to catch mistakes.
But Brian Simmons’s Music Schools International outfit in Peachtree City, Georgia, is all but that. Yellow and light-blue classroom walls feature photos of famous singers—everyone from Celia Cruz to Barbra Streisand—and a chalkboard that reads, “Without music, life would B-flat.” Sounds of giggles and the tapping of small feet fill the air as classes turn over every 30 minutes from 2:00 to 8:00 p.m. Students and teachers give hugs and high fives on their way into the classrooms. But that doesn’t mean it’s a party: Once the kids get in front of their keyboards, it’s time to work.
Simmons B.M. ’93 first experienced the life-changing capacity of music as a schoolchild himself. He grew up in Decatur, Georgia, and took his first classical piano lesson when he was 6 years old. He began playing at church, and by the time he was 10 he was earning $25 every Sunday. In middle school, he started teaching piano to other students. His music background prepared him to take on the role of drum major at Southwest DeKalb High School, home to one of the country’s best high school band programs, which was featured in the movie Drumline.
“My piano teachers taught me the simplicity of every song,” Simmons says. “There’s a common thread in every song and if you can identify it then you can play and teach anything. No matter if it’s jazz, classical, or gospel, there are common pitches and chords.”
At Berklee, Simmons majored in music education and film scoring, which he says prepared him to start his own business. (Especially useful was a Saturday morning course on tax law for musicians.) After graduating, he taught private lessons as well as music and chorus at Stone Mountain Middle School in Tucker, Georgia. But he found that the public education system limited both the style of music and the way he could teach. He wanted to help students develop their ear more, and he wanted to incorporate stuff like Muddy Waters and the Mississippi Mass Choir—the music his parents had played around the house—into his work as an educator. He began looking for other ways to forward his vision, and discovered the Australia-based Music Schools International; it was seeking to expand its operations to the United States and the curricula were already written.
“Most music schools focus on playing the instrument to prepare for a performance, but this is holistic,” Simmons says. “It’s for 2 years old up to 12, and it develops the ear, rhythm, playing, musical appreciation, and performance skills. You’ve never seen music taught like this.”
In its six years, MSI Atlanta has taught upward of 750 students, from 42 countries. With the film industry booming in Atlanta, more and more high school students are coming to the school for scoring and composition lessons.
On any given day, Simmons is constantly moving to keep up with many students at different levels as he bounces from working with a beginner learning her favorite movie songs to teaching a class of 7- and 8-year-olds to master do re mi. When not running the school, Simmons does film scoring for independent movies and YouTube videos.
“I get to be a musician, music educator, film scorer, and music business owner all in one place and all in one day,” Simmons says. “Berklee helped me to have that versatility because we took so many different classes all the time. And the connections with other Berklee alumni help me to stay on top of industry trends. It was certainly time well spent for me.”