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Meet Vanessa Little

Today we’d like to introduce you to Vanessa Little.

Vanessa, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio really began as a side hustle when I was in my late teens living in Falcon, Colorado. Growing up in my household, there was always music, so I had an ear for music and singing. My mama and daddy, Jacquie and Willie Little, were always singing, dancing around the house, and playing Motown music, songs from musicals, or religious music on records and cassettes. Although I began playing the piano by ear at the age of four years old, I didn’t take formal lessons until I was 15 years old. My parents couldn’t afford formal lessons for me. So, my mom, who had a business of her own as an interior decorator and seamstress, bartered her services with our church’s piano player for lessons that I took for a couple of years. Once I finished with high school, I started working at a child development center in Colorado Springs and paid for my lessons myself.

Shortly after turning 19 years old, a mother in my church congregation asked me if I would be willing to teach her three daughters piano lessons. The girls were aged five, ten, and eleven. I guess word started spreading in my church that I was teaching piano and that my rates were low (I felt like a novice, so I didn’t feel like I had the right to charge average rates). I started building up a client base, but also continued taking lessons from my piano teacher until my very early 20s. Eventually, I started attending Pikes Peak Community College, doing work-study in their child development center, and working at Barnes and Noble and conducting their weekly story times. I became very busy working and taking classes, so I stopped taking my own piano lessons but continued to learn and challenge my piano skills by buying piano music books and sheet music.

I guess it must have started coming up in conversation at my school and places of work that I taught piano lessons and word started to get out. Once I started attending Colorado State University-Pueblo, to pursue my bachelor’s degree in mathematics and earn my elementary teaching certification, I moved myself and my piano from Falcon, Colorado to an apartment in Colorado Springs and continued teaching piano. At one point I had a father and his two daughters as students, I had a mother-son duo as students, and I even ended up teaching two children who regularly attended my Barnes and Noble story times. Over a period of ten years, I ended up teaching 20 students, with word of mouth as my only source of advertising. Once my undergraduate career started coming to a close, I had to pull back on teaching piano lessons and began sending many of my students to my former piano teacher. The transition was needed because I had to complete student teaching, I was a math small group facilitator and tutor in the CSU-Pueblo Math Learning Center, and I was preparing to move to Washington DC.

When I moved in 2004, I had every intention of having my piano moved to Washington DC with me so that I could continue teaching piano there, but that never came to fruition. Over five years, I ended up teaching kindergarten and 1st grade and being a math coach in Prince George’s County, Maryland and Northeast DC schools. Since I no longer had a piano to play or to teach others to play, I became very involved in dance and poetry communities to fill my artistic needs. Then in September 2009, I had a catastrophic rock-climbing accident in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, in which I fell 40 feet. Weeks before this accident, I had decided to take a break from teaching and attend graduate school full time to get my master’s degree in mathematics. I wanted to help people struggling with math and make learning math fun. Anyway, I was hospitalized for three months and convalesced for another two months at my brother, Jason Little’s house in Warner Robins, Georgia.

When I came back to DC, I went back to graduate school for the spring semester twice a week in my wheelchair. By that same summer in 2010, I was climbing and biking again and finished my master’s in math in August 2011. After graduating, I was a math instructor at George Mason University and American University from 2011 to 2015. However, in 2013, I was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and by 2015, I decided to move back to my home state in hopes that the slower pace of life would be easier on my illness. I lived in Fort Collins from 2015 to 2017 and was a math instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University. My illness started taking a turn for the worse, so I decided to move to Colorado Springs, my hometown, to be closer to familial friends.

Since moving back to Springs, I have been employed as a substitute teacher for school districts 8, 11, and 49, but working multiple full day shifts proved to be too much on my body and my illness. Many people gave me lots of suggestions for how to supplement my income: teaching online, doing office staff work, working in call centers, retail work, online marketing, online curriculum development, etc. But I am an educator at heart who enjoys personally interacting with humans/students. So, I decided to resurrect piano lessons! I bought a house, got my piano out of storage, and began advertising myself as a piano instructor.

My first six students were friends’ children who became customers because piano lessons came up in casual conversation. But in summer 2018, I decided to get sort of serious and make a business page on Facebook, because it seemed like word of mouth was not going to be as effective as it was 15 years ago. That’s when the name ‘Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio’ was born… Up until this point, I had no business name. Later in the summer, a good friend of mine, Erin Bergquist, suggested that I also create a business page on Instagram to get the word out more. I started re-branding myself/my business. I began attending small business group meetings like Colorado Springs Black Business Network (CSBBN) for a while to get ideas and support. I also reached out to my former piano teacher and asked for some pointers with my policies, pricing, and contracts. During the first year of the reboot, I still had to rely heavily on substitute teaching. At one point, in the fall of 2018, I only had one faithful and dedicated student, who is still presently taking lessons. It was pretty discouraging, but I stuck it out, and by spring 2019, Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio started to grow.

Presently, my client base is in a comfortable place, but I hope to continue to grow as I start to become more known in my community. I’m involved in and connected with teaching communities and arts organizations like Poetry 719, Colorado Springs District 11, Pikes Peak Library District, CPCD Head Start Colorado Springs, AAYLC (the African American Youth Leadership Conference, Hear Here Poetry (specifically the youth poets), People of Color in Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs Black Business Network, and a myriad of well-known independent local artists, including Christopher Weed, Jeanne Robbins, and Emily Strange. I hope that being connected with people and organizations who highly regard the arts and understand the value of learning this beautiful skill will help get the word out to those families who have the same values.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
In the beginning, when Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio was a side hustle with no name, there were no struggles. The road was so smooth that I had 20 students with absolutely no advertisement but word of mouth. Because I had other jobs early on, I had to turn people away because I could not balance working, school, and a full load of students. But fast forwarding to January 2018, the reboot of Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio has not been smooth at all. Re-booting and re-branding have been a constant struggle.

When I decided that I wanted to make this a legit business, I mentioned before that I started going to small business groups like Colorado Springs Black Business Network (CSBBN) for a while to get ideas and support. While I got some pointers from attending some of their meetings, much of the information and suggestions were geared more towards small business owners in fields like business management, marketing, financial planning/advising, and real estate. I started to see that my business had more of a personal feel to it, and many of the business owners that I was connecting with saw their clients as numbers in a sea of data points. I held on to the input from those meetings that was relevant to my business but continued to seek out more advice. I needed to find support and suggestions for more art focused small business entrepreneurs. The best connections that I made in the Colorado Springs arts community over the past year were with Poetry 719 and Womxn of the Future. Poetry 719 has promoted me at so many local events as well as held small pop ups that I’ve attended that really helped get my business name out there and secure new customers. Additionally, attending a Womxn of the Future pop up in 2018 at Pikes Peak Market secured some new customers.

At the beginning of the reboot, I received payment from my customers the day that they came for their lessons. This was how I handled payment 15 years ago, but I began having issues with frequent cancellations, and it turned out to be problematic. There would often be several weeks that I would go without any lessons and hence no payments. I tried not to take it personally that customers didn’t take into consideration that not paying me because of cancellations, meant that I could not pay my bills, but it was hard. It also hurt that people didn’t seem to see me as having ‘a real job.’ Honestly, another challenge was believing that I had no value. I felt the sting of people making it clear to me that they were not willing to pay a black female to teach their children piano. Colorado Springs is my hometown and a beautiful place to live with wonderful people in it, but there are still many people who are quite vocal about not wanting ‘my kind’ (for lack of a better expression) in their town. People of this caliber also seemed to feel that I was not worth the price that I charge for my art, which is the art of patiently teaching people to play the piano. Additionally, I experienced a lot of turnover with students quitting during the first year of the reboot. So, I still had to rely heavily on substitute teaching. At one point, in the fall of 2018, I only had one faithful and dedicated student, who is still presently taking lessons.

I was pretty discouraged, so, I reached out to my former piano teacher, Wendy Hunter, and asked for some pointers with my policies, pricing, and contracts, she helped me revise my contracts, payment policies, cancellation policies, and guidelines for terminating lessons. Creating these contracts was the reason that I ended up only having one student in the fall of 2018. it was a good thing and needed to be done to weed out the students who did not intend to commit to piano lessons in the first place. Losing all but one student, made me realize that I needed to focus on customers who were going to respect my craft and not treat it as a side hustle. It wasn’t until this fall 2019, that I started to feel like I had a business. I realized that I needed to find the right customers for my craft. I needed to find people who respected my craft because with the lack of respect for my business, which is honestly a lack of respect for me, came constant cancellations and non-payment.

When I first embarked on my re-branding journey, I wanted to be the piano teacher for everyone. But as time went on, I realized that I needed to market to humans who valued the arts and the personal connection of private, patient one-on-one, individualized piano instruction. I learned that in the 21st century, a majority of people want to try out a lot of things but to commit to nothing. Trying things is great! I like trying things, too. But it’s hard to build a business with drop-ins and trial students. So, the ‘trial’ student was a new thing for me. When I was teaching before I moved to Washington DC, my clients seemed to have very little problems with commitment. If they said they were going to take piano lessons, they took lessons for years. If they said they were going to show up for lessons, they showed up for lessons. So, with the new ‘trial’ students, I have modified my classes so that people who are not sure what they want, have the option to ‘try’ lessons at an increased cost. But most of my marketing is to appeal to students who want to be dedicated and commit to learning the craft for longer than a week.

Please tell us about your business.
Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio is a piano instructor who helps students understand basic musical concepts, the greatest of these concepts being the ability to measure and identify rhythm and keep time. I do my best to provide students with the opportunity to play the music that peaks their interests as soon as they are able. Of course, most importantly, I encourage my students to have fun. I try to connect their musical journey to various other aspects of life, including but not limited to art, dance, theater, mathematics, and the sciences. I conduct weekly lessons in my home near the Hillside and Memorial Park area of Colorado Springs on an antique piano that was made in 1878! Lesson time slots are generally in the afternoons and early evenings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Students are required to sign monthly contracts showing their commitment to piano lessons, practice, and timeliness.

I value personally connecting with my students and pride myself on providing individualized instruction based on my students’ learning styles and interests. Most importantly, I prioritize being patient with and allowing my students to learn and master pieces at their own pace. As I mentioned earlier, I learned that in the 21st century, people want to try out a lot of things but commit to very little. So, I have made an effort to accommodate those individuals who are not sure of what they want. There is the option to ‘try’ lessons at an increased cost, but I focus more of my energy on appealing to the students desiring to commit and be dedicated to piano. I do this by highlighting the connections between piano and enhanced mathematics understanding, piano and singing (those who are interested in vocal careers), piano being one of the best musical foundations for learning most other instruments, recitals and performing in public, and connections to so many other art forms (dance, poetry, writing, painting/drawing, etc.).

When it comes to pace, I am the kind of instructor who is less concerned about students mastering pieces quickly. Quality is better than quantity, in my opinion. So, I encourage my students to learn songs and music theory in a stride that suits them. I do my best to instill in my students that making mistakes is how they learn and master pieces of music. My students are free to make as many mistakes as they need to on their musical journeys. One way in which I hope that I set myself apart from other piano instructors is my mathematical background. I try to teach my lessons in such a way that music history and/or mathematical connections/patterns are made during lessons. Kids want to learn more than we are willing to teach them sometimes. Often adults think that children don’t have the capacity for understanding complex ideas, especially complex mathematical concepts. But kids think it’s cool when I tell them that mathematical formulas can be used to model sound waves, that mathematical topics like ordinary differential equations, fast Fourier transforms, sine and cosine functions, and differential equations can be used to talk about music mathematically, or that without mathematics, we wouldn’t have a tool to quantify beats, measures, intervals, frequencies, harmonics, dissonance, and rhythm.

Like many piano teachers, I love classic composers and my favorite composer is Pytor Ilych Tchaikovsky. But I also love pretty much every music genre, and I like learning to play pieces other than classical on the piano. I also love playing records from all genres. So, I have a record player in my house that very young students, in particular, are fascinated with! Sometimes as a reward, they’ll get to operate the record player and put on a record to listen to for a few seconds. During these times, I get to teach them about the artists or music genres of the records that they select, as a music history lesson.

Sometimes in students’ lesson books, songs are titled differently from the original tune, so I also make an effort to inform students of the origins of musical pieces. For example, some of the first songs my students learn are ‘Ode to Joy’ and ‘Greensleeves.’ Students always recognize the first as ‘a song we sing in church,’ and the second as ‘a Christmas song’ (‘What Child is This’). I like to ensure that they know that the first piece was written by the famous classical composers Ludwig von Beethoven as a part of his 9th Symphony and that the latter originated as an old English folk song. A few months ago, a student’s lesson book brought us to the songs ‘Aura Lee’ and ‘Scarborough Fair.’ We ended up discussing the first being an American Civil War tune that was later made popular as Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’ single, then we listened to both songs on YouTube. The latter song, I explained, was an English folk song from the 17th century that became popular in the late 60s when Simon and Garfunkel released it as a single. Of course, we looked up Simon and Garfunkel on our phones to learn a little more about the singing duo, and we listened to additional songs on YouTube. And more recently, a student started learning/playing ‘Heart and Soul’ and once she improved at playing the song, she recognized that the tune was the basic melody for a song on the radio that she liked called ‘Play that Song’ by the band, Train. The teacher in me loves these teachable moments and seeing my students want to learn more about the songs they learn to play. And the musician in me loves to see my students make connections to their own lives through music.

The other thing that I encourage in my students in creating their own compositions. If they want to spend a few minutes at the beginning of their lesson, or if they stop me in the middle of their lesson or at the end and want to play around on the keys and create something of their own, I let them. Some of my students have their sheet music so that they can compose pieces on their own at home. The musical journey is my students.’ I’m just walking along with them, supporting them, and being a facilitator of information while they travel.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I wouldn’t change anything about the state of my business prior moving to Washington DC. But if I had to start the reboot all over again, I would have done a few things differently.

First of all, I would have done some kind of ‘product testing,’ if one can do that for piano lessons, to see what parts of town were more invested in the arts. It wasn’t until fall 2019, that I realized that my target markets were on the west side, the southwest side, downtown, and the central parts of Colorado Springs. A couple of my students come from the north side of town. When I first started promoting my business, I thought that “generally” people in northern Colorado Springs might be the ones who couldn’t put a price on the importance of the arts. But I was mistaken.

Secondly, I would charge a rate that seems fair from the get-go. To try to get more people to commit to lessons, I significantly lowered my prices. But my rates were so low that I think people didn’t see the value. Individuals are less likely to bail on something for which they are paying good money.

Thirdly, I would have initially abandoned advertising solely via word of mouth. I would have created a business page, business cards, and gotten connected with schools and arts communities from the get-go. Again, 15 years ago, marketing to friends and relying on word of mouth got me far. It was effortless to build a client base. But one thing that I have realized is that it’s not only that more people just want to try things. It’s also that in the 21st century, there are YouTube videos and all sorts of online tutorials for people to learn how to play the piano and pretty much any instrument for free. So, the one thing that I have to drive home with customers is that if they value personal connections and teaching as a craft, then Miss Vanessa’s Piano Studio is the piano instructor for them. One thing that I can provide that a video cannot is instant and encouraging feedback. In my opinion, that’s priceless and worth it!

Contact Info:

  • Address: 1023 East Costilla Street
    Colorado Springs, Colorado 80903
  • Phone: 7192310732
  • Email: missvanessaspianostudio@gmail.com
  • Instagram: @missvanessaspianostudio
  • Facebook: https://facebook.com/missvanessaspiano

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