My fingers rest on white Ivorite and black basswood, curled and at ease, gaining confidence with each subsequent stroke to a key. The confidence is unusual as my fingers are just 20 or so minutes into something they’ve never done before– playing a piano piece. Not just any piano piece, but capital-B Beethoven.
When I arrived to interview Sean Campbell — owner/founder of Sean Campbell’s Music Lyceum, who just patented an alternate piano notation method — an impromptu lesson occurred.
Campbell, a firm believer of both showing and telling, assured that he could teach me — a piano Luddite — “Beethoven… in less than 30 minutes.”
He had me trace my hand, number my fingers, and sat me at a piano in his clean, Guitar Center-y classroom (a sparse, open space, with guitars on the wall, a piano adjacent to them, and a desk with a computer. The essentials of Campbell’s life, no doubt).
I was then introduced to the reason for the interview, Campbell’s piano patent that made this lesson so easy: a graphic that codifies piano keys, simplifying the reading process. No daunting never-seen-this-before symbols here, this is essentially tablature in an easier to digest way.
Campbell leads me through a quick lesson, showing me the sections of the piano keys and how sounds of those sections work, leading me through his transformed, somehow-simple-to-play version of Beethoven’s Fur Elis.
“You’re a fast learner,” Campbell says. “So let’s try with two hands and remember: hey-diddle-diddle, the D is in the middle.”
It’s a silly but memorable aphorism, and it exemplifies Campbell’s teaching style: fun and easy to understand.
Sean Campbell’s life is all about synchronicity.
His journey into music was built on this laurel, as he says he went to a friend’s apartment during college and a roommate tried to sell him a guitar, an offer he refused. Until something told him, Hey, buy that guitar.
That purchase led to a series of lifelong and altering events for Campbell: learning guitar, playing in a band, playing with a spiritual guru, and sadly, a recent divorce. Campbell takes all these things in life, good and bad, in stride, saying the events happened so he can be where he’s supposed to be now, doing what he loves– teaching music.
“There’s artistry laying dormant in people that want to play,” Campbell said, “and there’s that wall people face where they need to read music to perform it. I wanted to change that.”
Before his patent and his own business of The Music Lyceum, Campbell taught music at a school in Santa Monica. He would see students come to the school initially eager to learn, but eventually see that excitement dissipate due to the complexity of music notation.
“If I showed them the sheet music, they’d look at me like, ‘You’re crazy.’”
Campbell says he wrote “sloppy scribbles” of what his patent would eventually become and showed his students, who took to it easily.
He partnered with a graphic designer to give the alternate notation a minimal, easy-to-follow visual appeal, and he’s been teaching with that ever since.
Patty Richardson, a parent of one of Campbell’s students, was amazed by the results Campbell’s The Music Lyceum had on her daughter, Katie.
Katie suffers from a neuromuscular disease, making certain motor functions difficult. After classes at SMC and private piano lessons, Richardson says both her and Katie were close to giving up on any music playing dreams. “It was like a person being forced to learn algebra that wanted to paint,” Richardson said.
After a chance occurrence of “popping [their] heads in” Campbell’s previous teaching position, Campbell kept in contact with the two, asking Richardson to let her daughter give his method of piano reading and training a try.
“It’s breathtaking,” she said, getting a little choked up in our phone call. “You have this young woman, my daughter, with limited muscular functions, and she was loving it. It’s been transformative and positive on every possible level.”
The difference between Campbell’s school and others–besides the patent– Richardson says, is Campbell’s demeanor with his students. She says Campbell let Katie be the guide, asking her what music she was interested, and working from there. Beethoven and Bach not your thing? That’s fine, Campbell can teach you Guns n Roses or anything from Disney’s Frozen. “He doesn’t make you feel defeated,” Katie said. “He helps and listens.”
Richardson says Katie will now hear songs on the radio and attempt to replicate them at home due to her enthusiasm for the lessons she’s received and is now challenging herself to perform classical music using Campbell’s methods.
Campbell tells me he never meant to get into teaching; it was something that just “kind of happened.” Something that seems destined to be, another synchronicity in his life.
For more information, visit Sean Campbell’s Music Lyceum at https://www.yelp.com/biz/sean-campbells-music-lyceum-santa-monica