Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Dr Klondike Steadman Is Helping To Change Our World

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You have to care about everything. When I first started, I thought it was enough to be great at teaching, but then when I didn’t want to think about marketing, I had no students. When I didn’t want to think about negotiating, I ended up with a bad lease, etc. All of these things then impacted my teaching.

As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Klondike Steadman.

A pioneering guitarist, entrepreneur, educator, and author, Steadman has left an indelible mark in music. As a performer and author, Steadman has won top prizes in competitions, written textbooks used by private teachers and universities across the country, and authored an Amazon best-seller. His work as an educator, however, is where Steadman has made his most significant social impact. As the co-founder and director of Orpheus Academy of Music, Steadman has built one of the most successful music programs for kids in the country. By teaching kids to Collaborate, Play, Engage, and Create over the past 20 years, his students have been accepted to universities as music majors and won prestigious scholarships and competitions including the Texas Guitar Competition, the Young Artists Concert, and the Asian American Challenge Cup.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?

I fell in love with guitar the moment I heard the first notes coming off my dad’s 12-string that I found in an old barn. He passed away when I was just five years old and later a friend of his brought me his guitar and I started taking lessons from someone down the street. Since my hippie parents had moved into the woods, we had no telephone, electricity, or any other kids around so I basically started playing guitar all day every day.

I started teaching guitar toward the end of high school and always loved the interactions I had with students, so it was pretty much the only “job” I had throughout college. After my then-girlfriend, now wife, Wendy Kuo, started studying piano pedagogy and sharing with me the more detailed and thorough approach that pianists have devised over centuries to develop extreme levels of excellence, I started getting excited about the real science of education. From then on, I turned all my doctoral-level studies toward how to be a better teacher and ended up writing my own method book for guitar.

Once my wife and I finished graduate school, we realized there wasn’t really any forum for continued growth as a teacher that involved the kind of educational opportunities we were interested in. At the college level, in private lessons, at music schools, you name it, everyone was just sort of figuring it out on their own, which is so weird because there is just so much great research and so many different training systems for teaching music. That motivated us to start a music school centered around the idea of creating a community of teachers dedicated to mutual support and ongoing development of teaching methods and skills. Twenty years later, we have some of the most unique and innovative approaches to teaching, but are constantly updating those methods and creating new ones. Every week multiple forums and committees are meeting to build or improve the learning systems at Orpheus.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, not particularly funny, but one of our early teachers ended up not being the best fit for our school. During the interviewing process, I reached out to a reference of his and asked about his potential weaknesses. I was told that this teacher had a bit of a “My way or the highway” attitude, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time. We decided to hire this teacher, and it very quickly became apparent that he was unwilling to adapt to our systems, teaching methods, or community-building efforts. Despite our continued attempts to try to bring him more into the fold, he resisted and rebelled at every turn. Ultimately, we had to let this teacher go. I think this was a great learning experience for me, as it taught me to not overlook potential red flags and to address issues sooner rather than later.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

First, to make sure that it really is your passion. And not the kind of passion that burns hot for a short period of time, but the type of thing that you can dedicate your life to because it is a marathon. You have to care so much that you are willing to humble yourself and be willing to learn from anyone at any time. One of the great turning points in my business was being willing to listen to an employee who was so critical of me and the way I was running the business with regard to our systems and branding. She was brutally honest to the point of almost being rude sometimes. But because I wanted so badly for our community to succeed, and for our business to thrive, I couldn’t let my bruised ego get in the way of accepting her feedback.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Since my wife Wendy and I founded Orpheus Academy over 20 years ago, I’ve seen thousands of students come through our doors, and every single one of them has been special to me in some way. One student of mine in particular though, Theo, has meant a lot to me and changed my life in a big way.

Before Theo started his first lesson with me, his mom, Chloe, told me that while his cancer wasn’t entirely in remission, he had a lot of success with his most recent treatment and was able to start doing some regular activities again. Theo started his first guitar lesson on the day of his fourth birthday. For Theo, the biggest birthday present was getting his hands on a guitar. He just took right to it, and loved to sing — it just was something that obviously brought him great joy and made a big difference in his life.

Over the year and a half that I got to work with Theo, he showed incredible dedication to the guitar. He would come to the lessons sometimes with intense stomach aches or lack of focus because of the medications he was on, but he always did his best. He loved feeling strong. One of his favorite poses was just putting his muscles up, and you could see how playing music made him feel capable. Frequently people would be blown away by how many songs he could play, and I think that helped him to feel powerful and strong.

Of course, Theo’s cancer did make it hard for him to play guitar sometimes. Sometimes there was just too much pain, but he practiced whether he was at home, or in apartments in Houston, or even sometimes in the hospital he would still play his songs on step bells. In his year and a half of guitar lessons, Theo’s music brought joy to so many people. Learning music brought joy to Theo as well because it gave him something to work towards, something to focus on, something to put his energy into when he was stuck at home all day long.

I keep a picture of Theo over my desk, so I can look at it every day and remember that music can make a difference. It reminds me of the real reason that I wanted to teach guitar. It’s not just about fingerings, learning notes, or even learning beautiful pieces of music. It’s about making a difference in another person’s life.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

​I hope every music student can achieve the ability to share joy with the world, to make a difference in their world, and to connect with their world. But above all, I want them to know that they have a voice, they have value. We know every kid wants to be a hero, to make a difference, and to make beautiful music, just like Theo.

In his memory, we have put on an annual fundraiser for the past three years entitled “Theo’s Practice-a-Thon,” which benefits the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation (NPCF). The NPCF dedicates its funds to pediatric cancer research across a network of more than 30 children’s hospitals throughout the country.

Our students create practice videos of the music they’re learning, share them with friends and family, and recruit sponsors to provide fundraising support. This amazing effort is only made possible through the strength of our community, and this year is the first year that we’ve opened up the practice-a-thon to anyone who wants to get involved, even non-Orpheus students. Since the first year we started this fundraiser, we have collectively raised more than $20,000, with 400-plus practice videos created along the way!

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

See above answer to “Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?”

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

Theo’s Practice-a-Thon powerfully impacts everyone involved. Students improve as they make practice videos and benefit from watching the performances of their peers. Family members and friends get to share in the joy of music and witness the learning process as students get better and better. The NPCF and the children they serve benefit from the money we raise and the recognition we help bring to their cause. Our community as a whole is strengthened by working together toward such a meaningful cause.

One person in particular who is impacted by our cause is Theo’s mom, Chloe. She has told me multiple times how thankful she is that we have been able to keep Theo’s memory alive and that we are continuing to spread his incredible story through this cause.

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

The great thing about Theo’s Practice-a-Thon is that it is not limited to Orpheus students. Anyone in the world can participate, and it’s super simple to join. All they have to do is visit this link to get involved:

Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?

Just as I had a visceral response to the first time I heard a guitar, most people have an intense, powerful attraction to music. As a result, people can be motivated to engage in terrific levels of effort towards a cause that they believe in through the sound of music. Music also connects people to their deepest values, culture, and identity. This is one of the reasons why we ask every student who comes to Orpheus what music cultures they would like to explore and why. When people are playing music that resonates with them they are willing to dig deeper, work harder, and make sacrifices that wouldn’t be possible if they were simply trying to do something “selfish” or just to “get ahead.”

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?

  1. You have to care about everything. When I first started, I thought it was enough to be great at teaching, but then when I didn’t want to think about marketing, I had no students. When I didn’t want to think about negotiating, I ended up with a bad lease, etc. All of these things then impacted my teaching.
  2. The most important part of the business is happy employees. Happy employees create happy customers. When we started, we just tried to get students and keep students. But, we had trouble keeping teachers and that made it hard to keep students. Since then, we’ve transformed ourselves into a leader in the industry as one of the only music schools in the country to offer full salaries regardless of the number of students they have, maternity/paternity leave, 401k, health insurance, and most importantly, a supportive community that helps them grow as teachers.
  3. It doesn’t take money to make money. It takes creativity, effort, and value. When we first opened, my wife and I had just finished graduate school and we had less than $1,000 in the bank. At first, we panicked about how to buy advertising or find a good space to teach, but over the first couple of years, I found mentors and books and other passionate teachers who were willing to do whatever it took to attract students and find solutions to every problem.
  4. The “why” is more important than the “how.” Once I got intensely connected to why I wanted to create this community of teachers and learners, I was open to learning from any source, especially the students and teachers how to best tackle any problem. Also, when a solution didn’t go well I had the motivation and creativity to change course because I was energized by the “why.”
  5. An abundance mindset is more important than pinching every penny. Once I had the mindset that what I was doing was valuable, and sharing that with the world was going to bring great value to the customers, I knew that they would be willing to help create an abundant community.

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m very passionate about the movements we have started. One, to engage kids in changing the world by sharing their music and raising money to fight pediatric cancer, and two, to engage teachers in co-creating the most innovative and joyful teaching methods. Another area I think is so important right now would be to do something to fight climate change. I would love to find a way to harness the power of music and teaching to engage in this effort.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

I have frequently felt the desire to stoop to my basest instincts to respond to difficult situations where I have felt unfairly treated. Whether it be a customer leaving a bad review or an employee not showing up to work without notice because they could go on tour or many other situations that occur regularly in the music business. I admit I have considered retaliating, but this quote reminds me that, at the end of the day, even if I am successful at getting my way, I will have to live with myself knowing that I have taken actions that are not consistent with my values. I like to tell myself that I can still fire off that email, or make that phone call in a couple of days if I still feel like taking revenge. But by then the situation has usually dissipated and the desire for connection and love has returned. I realize that the only things I truly own are my thoughts and actions, and if I want to see improved circumstances for myself and those closest to me, I need to consistently turn toward positive action and gratitude for the infinite possibilities that have been granted to me.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I am a deep believer in treating each individual I encounter as though they were the most important person in the world at that moment. I sometimes forget this, but I feel that deliberately looking to put one special person on a pedestal undermines the value of listening for wisdom in the words of the young children who come into my guitar lessons every week, or the teachers who offer great suggestions for how we can teach better, or my amazing staff who are daily discovering better ways to run our business. I know it sounds sappy, but the person I would most like to have a private breakfast with is whomever I happen to be having a private breakfast with.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Dr Klondike Steadman Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.