Every week, groups of Los Angeles middle and high school students trickle into makeshift music rooms, ready to rock. As they lug their instruments inside and throw their backpacks on the floor, a professional musician is at the helm, waiting to start the day’s lesson. Because of Catherine Goldwyn, the future of music education isn’t holed up in some empty classroom somewhere. It’s right here. Welcome to Sound Art LA.

For the past 14 years, Sound Art’s mobile music classes have been popping up all over LA public schools, exposing over 17,000 students to the wonders of a rigorous arts education. A musician and mother of four, Goldwyn had never run a nonprofit when she first had the idea for Sound Art. After volunteering at a community center one day, she noticed something. Arts education programs were being slashed across California, but there were all these musicians who had just moved to LA, trying to break into the industry. “I saw an opportunity.”

Today, Goldwyn relies on strong relationships and a scrappy business model to spread her musical mission. However, you don’t have to be a musician to incorporate Goldwyn’s learnings into your life. Here are five lessons she’s learned along the way:

If the model doesn’t work, change it

When Goldwyn started Sound Art, miles of freeway stood between her and her dream. It was hard to build a music program that reached kids across LA — a sprawling city where people tend to stay within their neighborhoods. “The only solution was for us to go to them,” says Goldwyn. She decided to reinvent the music education model by bringing teachers directly to students.

Goldwyn also took a different structural approach than typical nonprofits. Instead of having a physical office, her staff works remotely. As a result, costs are low, and she can reach more kids. “We’ve organized things along very lean lines which has enabled us to do more.” Goldwyn also uses Gusto payroll to streamline her office operations, which can get complicated with so many contract workers on board. Because of our platform, this year was the first time she delivered 1099s to her employees on time. “Find solutions that work, and don’t spend money on dumb stuff.”

Your work is an extension of yourself

Do what you love. Goldwyn created an organization that melds her two biggest loves: kids and music. “There’s something about it all that just inspires me.” When building a business, it comes down to making sure the mission aligns with the things you care about. Because she’s working in a space so close to her heart, the challenges that emerge while running a nonprofit are not just manageable — they’re deeply satisfying.

Small habits move mountains

Goldwyn has seen firsthand how music changes kids’ lives. She points to several skills that have led both her team and students to success. “The mentoring aspect of teaching a kid how to play, the cooperation and teamwork that are required to play in an ensemble, the respect for artistry, and the discipline required to practice,” says Goldwyn. “All of these things make major changes in kids’ lives.” When you start turning small practices into habits, they can make a big impact over time.

You’re always in the business of people

“Your relationships are everything,” says Goldwyn. The effort you invest in building a strong team and community pays off in unexpected ways. Strong relationships with the people you work with also make your day much more fun. Goldwyn says that her teachers arrive in LA “a little disillusioned,” because things aren’t as easy as they imagined. “Then they meet these kids, who are so excited to play an A chord on a guitar. The teachers are inspired and so are the students. It’s a feedback loop.”

Trust your team and value what they bring to the table

Goldwyn isn’t interested in standardizing how her teachers teach. “I really value each of their experiences.” She knows that the people she has hired are talented, and that their unique perspectives will be reflected in their classes. “Kids taught by one teacher will sound different at the final concert than kids taught by another,” she explains. “I’m very much about allowing that. It makes our teachers feel like they’ve really done something.” Empowering your team to take ownership will allow them to work with more authenticity and purpose. It also sends a clear message that you trust them. “That stuff is important.”

For Goldwyn, a music education isn’t just about becoming a rockstar. “It’s about what happens inside you when you play an instrument.” Thanks to her vision and clever business practices, Goldwyn has turned Sound Art LA into something that transcends music itself. “Most graduates are going on to live their lives in a much more complete and satisfying way than they would have ever considered for themselves,” she says. “It works.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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