Arts and Entertainment

Silverdale piano teacher turns old Bookmobile into 'Music'mobile

What was once a Bookmobile is now a full-service piano practice studio on wheels. Unfortunately, for now, it’s got nowhere to go. - Courtesy (above), Bill Mickelson/Staff Photo (below)
What was once a Bookmobile is now a full-service piano practice studio on wheels. Unfortunately, for now, it’s got nowhere to go.
— image credit: Courtesy (above), Bill Mickelson/Staff Photo (below)

Irene Bowling's Rolling Piano Studio.

Irene Bowling — the featured soloist for the Bremerton Symphony's season opener last weekend — has a house full of pianos.

The front door of the Geodesic dome-shaped front room opens up to two big, black grand pianos which offset one another, anchoring nearly a dozen electric pianos lined up in back-to-back rows down the middle of the room. Down a path across the property, a short distance from the dome, another fleet of grand and electric pianos fill entire rooms in what was once a guest house — now the renowned local piano teacher’s second studio.

Even more intriguing, especially for the younger students Bowling says, is the big gray bus tagged “Music Mobile,” which hibernates on a long, tree-lined driveway beside the old guest house.

“This is our newest invention here,” Bowling said, unlatching the side door of the 35-foot-long, red-and-blue-striped silver behemoth. “It was a bookmobile. We kept all the original paint and everything, but we took out the word ‘book’ and put ‘music.’”

Inside, she and her husband Bill gutted out the entire interior, replacing bookshelves with sound treatment and lining either wall with Yamaha synthesizers — effectively transforming the bus into a fully functioning practice studio on wheels.

While, at first, the idea sounds a bit radical, the innovation is practically aimed at making music lessons more accessible to more people. It seems especially practical in settings like schools, after-school clubs and other community centers.

“If they’re already at the YMCA, and maybe the YMCA has a piano class that’s offered,” Bowling said, “the YMCA doesn’t have to come up with a whole room and put a bunch of pianos in it. We just drive up to the lot, they jump in, take their lesson, and we’re out of there.”

It’s a creative page from the Bookmobile book — something akin to how physicians used to visit their patients, as Bowling describes in her company overview — but thus far, the Music Mobile has been somewhat of a brilliant burden.

Last year, in its first year in action, the bus did find a decent demand at random places like the Queen Anne Community Center and the Bellevue Tennis and Athletic Club. But most all of its business came from the east side — in places like Kirkland, Redmond and Bellevue — making for massive commutes from Bowling’s Chico Way studios.

“But that’s not the original concept that I had in mind,” Bowling said. “It wasn’t designed to go to the wealthiest places. Ironically ... that’s what happened.”

Bowling has also shown the bus to local school districts and an internationally diverse Seattle-area group of grade schools which had lost all its music programs and facilities.

“We showed them the bus and talked to the principals, and they really wanted the program, they’re really excited about it, but they have no money,” Bowling said dejectedly. “And that’s the rub. The design, the mission of this is for that kind of situation, primarily, but they’re the ones that have no money.”

So Bowling is stuck with the conundrum of how to afford to pay her staff and fill the bus with gas, while keeping class prices affordable for under-privileged kids. Currently classes run between $20-$25 per student, per week, for multi-week semesters. The prices are on a bit of a sliding scale depending on the need and the demand for classes, but Bowling envisions some sort of community or patron donation to truly enable affordability.

However, Seattle Sound FX, the company which operates the Music Mobile, is a private business, not a nonprofit.

The Music Mobile began with the lofty idea of bringing big-city level music instruction to remote places like the outlying Native American reservations Bowling remembered from her youth in Arizona. They’ve even equipped the bus with a propane generator in the event that piano lessons are ever needed somewhere without a power source.

Bowling has long been a pioneer in the piano teaching world.

She started giving lessons informally at age 13, while living in Scottsdale, Ariz., when some of the neighborhood kids overheard her playing and asked her if she would teach them. After a few sessions, she approached those kids’ parents and asked if they might want to make the lessons a little more serious.

“So I was making more money at 13 than other kids babysitting and throwing newspapers on porches,” Bowling said. “I think I just enjoy people. I think music is a great way to show your love to others, basically, that’s the bottom line.”

She’s been teaching independently and professionally out of her Chico Way home base for more than 20 years. After earning an bachelor’s degree from the University State University, and a master’s degree in piano performance from the University of Maryland, Bowling earned a doctorate from the University of Washington in 1989 and went on to become a professor of piano performance at both the University of Maryland and Olympic College.

She left the professional pedagogy for independent practice when her own business became to big for a side job. Bowling Music Studios now instructs more than 300 students of all ages, across the peninsula, from all walks of life, through both traditional and innovative techniques.

In addition to conventional individual sessions, class settings and the revolutionary music mobile, Bowling even teaching one Idaho family via the Internet.

“The same principles apply no matter if its through the Internet, electric keyboards or a grand Steinway,” she said. “My feeling, is I try to keep up with what’s happening. I’ve made a real effort to keep up with technology.

“Technology has made this so available for people,” she added later. “We need to grab a hold of that, use that to our advantage and have more people studying music.”

For more on Bowling Music Studios and the Seattle Sound FX Music Mobile, see www.bowlingmusicstudios.com.

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