By Nate Clark
It happened last March, and Rebecca Featherstone’s panicked staff of 14 piano, guitar and voice teachers looked to her for answers. In the blink of an eye, everything she’d worked the last 12 years for was on the brink of collapse. It was sink-or-swim time and she needed a new plan, fast.
“Everyone was in shock when they locked us down,” says Ms Featherstone, 41, a Port Dover native, from her home in Dundas, Ontario. Her parents now live in Waterford.
“There was no government relief coming that we knew of, and my teachers needed guidance. I didn’t sleep for a week.”
Ms Featherstone’s first solution was the obvious one: she took her entire school online. Although the move provided her team with some relief, everyone quickly realized that traditional video conference platforms were not designed for music classes.
“We started with Facetime, Skype and Zoom, and immediately found that they didn’t cut it. They crash, they freeze, there are huge latency problems and there are no tools for teaching music.”
Latency is the time between when a note is struck on an instrument and when it is heard. Minimal latency is a necessity for duets, for example.
Ms Featherstone sums up the problem this way: “Imagine explaining to a 5-year-old where middle C is on the piano over Zoom,” she says, and then mimics a conversation with a student, “‘A little to the left, no that’s too far left!’ (laughs) That kind of talk just frustrates the kids. Music teachers need specific tools to keep students engaged on the same level as an in-person lesson.”
It was after a late night conversation with her accountant and friend, Toronto’s Ryan Kagan C.P.A, when Ms Featherstone decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I explained our problems to Ryan, and his first thought was to make a platform for teachers to find students. That was the spark, but I knew that product already existed. I told him what we really needed was a dedicated video conferencing app for music teachers–something actually designed by music teachers. He agreed and Musicology was born.”
Ms Featherstone says Mr Kagan’s input has been indispensable.
“Ryan has something most musicians don’t: business connections, a lot of them, and he got to work finding them. When investors realized there wasn’t anything else like it on the market, the funding just started to pour in. We feel very blessed to have received such support from our investors as well as the Business Development of Canada (BDC) who is supporting us every step of the way to ensure we succeed in our vision.”
Flash forward eight months, and Ms Featherstone now holds the reins of a half million dollar app company, Musicology, which promises to revolutionize the music teaching industry in the post-Covid era of online education.
The mom of two boys now commands her own team of developers, advertisers, and administrators – most of whom, it should be noted, are musicians themselves. Ms Featherstone says this is fundamental to the project.
“I want everyone working on the app to understand the app exactly,” says Ms Featherstone. “My whole team teaches, performs or plays music at some level, from the developers to the advertising director–even our consultants at the BDC.”
In 2008, Ms Featherstone opened her popular Toronto music school, Featherstone Music, and hired her first teacher that same year. Since then, she and her team have taught hundreds of Canadian kids how to play musical instruments, with a fresh new batch of students coming through her doors each year.
Ms Featherstone began playing piano at the tender age of 4, and soon after met her musical mentor, legendary Simcoe piano teacher Angus Macleod.
“Everybody in Simcoe knows Angus,” says Ms Featherstone with a grin. “He’s a lovely Scottish man who would ride his bicycle down the streets of Simcoe and teach at the church. He’d always wear the same brown, tweed suit jacket, his grey hair flying in the wind.”
Ms Featherstone chuckles at the memory, but then gets a bit emotional when remembering her teacher on his bike. It was his kindness and commitment that first inspired her to teach.
“He was completely dedicated,” she says. “Years later, when I was applying to Mohawk College to study piano, he’d drive up to Hamilton just to help me prepare for the exams. That’s how dedicated he was.”
Every day, Rebecca Featherstone honours the memory of the great teachers that have inspired her by giving the gift of music to children online. Unfortunately, she has no choice but to use problematic conferencing platforms like Zoom and Facetime.
Like the teachers she’s trying to help, she anxiously awaits Musicology to begin beta testing in January.
“Honestly, I’m desperate to start using Musicology myself,” she says. “That’s how I know it’s going to be successful.”
Ms Featherstone says the reason the app continues to attract intense interest from teachers, musicians and investors around the globe is all about staying open to new ideas.
“The key has been to actually listen to what the teachers are saying. We’re taking their feedback and input and adapting the app to meet their needs. We’re creating a community. We’re listening.”
Musicology is set to launch in spring, 2021.
Originally published January 13, 2021