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Making the Leap: Five years on.

I remember New Year’s Eve 2017 very clearly. We were hosting, I made a chilli, and we celebrated with friends. Among our guests was my sister’s friend, Madalina, who is now a business partner and leader of Academy at Keys. At the time we had no idea that the New Year would see the start of an exciting journey we would end up taking together.

I felt so determined that evening - so much so that an enigmatic Facebook post was required (of course!). After about 4 years of sketching out ideas, playing with spreadsheets and studying with excellent pianists and teachers, I finally had a plan. I was going to provide aspiring pianists in Bolton with an innovative, creative, musical home, to be inspired, and to flourish. I was going to do better for my 45 piano students, the children on my ever-growing waiting list, and any others who would like to join us. We were going to open the following September. I had no idea where, or how, but I was strangely certain I was going to make it happen.

On January 1st there was no lie-in. I started searching for premises and collecting numbers of estate agents who I began to pester as they opened the following day. What I wanted or needed wasn’t exactly clear, but I felt I would know when I saw it. The breakthrough didn’t come until mid-February when I sat at the traffic lights on Bradshaw Road and noticed the ‘To Let’ sign on an empty warehouse next to Finestyle Windows. After viewing the upstairs of the ‘premises’ (affectionally referred to as ‘The Shed’) by climbing a ladder through a hole in the ceiling, drawing out my idea for a floor plan on a bit of printer paper in half an hour on a Thursday afternoon, and then trying to work out if the £27,000 proposed conversion was reasonable, I finally signed the lease, and the building work began. The thought ‘Oh my God what am I actually doing?’ was permanently etched into my mind.

One of the most exciting processes during this period was the branding. I worked with the fabulous duo at ‘Aeroplane Design’ in Manchester, who took the time to get to know me and my plans thoroughly before coming up with the brilliant logo and colours we’ve used ever since. This was the beginning of obsessive need for everyone to use the exact colours in every situation, collecting items simply because they happen to be ‘on brand’, and feeling incredibly uncomfortable when an alternative font is used - things my colleagues find very amusing! But, in all seriousness, having a recognisable brand was a huge deal. The door was opened and (once I’d worked out how to build a website) Keys began to introduce itself to the world!

By this point I’d spent far too much money to chicken out! It was a good job, because the following few months were probably the steepest learning curve of my life. I nailed down a business plan and a cashflow forecast, opened bank accounts and applied for loans. There were countless situations where I barely knew the questions, let alone the answers. I was a sitting duck for scammers, or those wanting to take advantage of my naivety, so I called in favours from everyone I could think of to help me work out which were legitimate expenses, and those I could avoid.

Strangely, I became very aware of being a woman in a man’s world. It’s not something I’d considered a disadvantage beforehand, but the process seemed to involve lots of men calling me ‘darling’ and telling me I had no clue what I was doing. (I didn’t, but I was learning fast!) I started wearing eyeliner for confidence and developed a strong handshake. As I gained more understanding (mostly from midnight googling!) I started to realise that I was the only one who really understood my plans, and no-one was about to pop up with every answer to every question. It was entirely my responsibility, sink or swim. Eeek.

By the spring things looked clearer. The ‘shed’ developed into the ‘studio’ and the pianos were moved in. The staff in Rimmers Music shop now knew me well and would roll their eyes when I walked in with yet another random request! Most importantly, Jennifer Haworth was now on the scene.

The rest of this post could be simply be entitled “An Ode to Jen”. She was my luckiest break and the reason the venture ultimately succeeded. From March onwards she gave everything to Keys, as well as maintaining a full-time job in Blackburn and continuing her own piano teaching at home. We’d met a year or so earlier for a chat a Bakers Tea Room (the venue for all important decision making!), and dreamed of building some kind of piano community, but in the end it was only a photo of the ‘shed’ and the logo she needed to make the jump. Jen believed in the project as much as I did, and was fully prepared to take the risk of handing in her notice. Looking back, this was kind of bonkers for both of us. We barely knew each other at all and it could have all gone terribly wrong from the outset, but I do believe our shared vision and different skill sets meant we had no problem working together. Jen’s background of working with early years and children with special educational needs fit perfectly into a fully inclusive ethos. From these earliest days, Jen and I moved Keys forward together, and I’m delighted that she is also now a partner in the business.

Keys opened on 10th September 2018, with around 120 students. The first week was the most exhausting of our lives but it felt like a weird dream come true. We could offer old and new students a purpose-built space for interactive and kinaesthetic learning, and a community in which to flourish. The challenges we now faced were different. We needed to share our vision with the students and their families, and start to build the community we planned. Traditionally, piano is taught singularly, with very little opportunity to play with other musicians, explore music more widely or make lasting friendships. Over the past five years we have worked to deliver our ideology of togetherness and a nurturing musical community, where learners can be inspired and supported by others.