Interview by Jordan Snowden
D.C. Music Entrepreneurs is a new series where we profile local entrepreneurs who have turned their love of music into a successful full-time business. Know someone we should interview? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out our first profile featuring Neal Humphrey of Flashband.
Miles Ryan, who started out teaching music lessons in his living room, now owns one of the best studios in the area. With a growing client base, 7DL Studios has turned into a full-time dream job for Ryan. It’s a beautiful multi-story space around the corner from 9:30 Club where D.C. musicians can rehearse or get drum lessons without the hassle of noise complaints.
Once you step inside 7DL Studios, it feels more like a cozy home than a practice space. Usually you’ll see musicians come before or stay after their classes or rehearsal times to just sit and talk. Over the years, it has become a venue for the D.C. music scene to come together–Ryan also hosts a ton of cool community events like workshops, jam sessions and concerts that are open to the public and give musicians more opportunities to meet up and network.
I had the chance to speak with Ryan about how he turned his love of music into a successful business and what inspires him to keep 7DL Studios growing.
DC Music Download: To start off, how did you get into music?
Miles Ryan: In fifth grade, we all got to pick an instrument and join the middle school concert band. Since they didn’t have piano (which I had been studying), I picked percussion, thanks to my friend Stephen who I sat next to on the bus. My public school had a great music program and I took full advantage of that as well as the private lessons I took at a local music school called Indian Hill Music School. At one point, I was drumming in both of their jazz bands, in addition to taking drum lessons, doing concert band and being in my own rock band.
When I was 15, my grandmother got me an old Rogers drum set, and around the same time I got really into Led Zeppelin. I remember trying to copy the drum solo in “Moby Dick” and trying really hard to get the triplets right. My friends and I formed a rock band called ATP in high school, and wrote about 20 originals and played a few gigs a month. That really transformed my playing and took me to the next level. Mike Portnoy (from Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment) and Danny Carey (Tool) also inspired me to get more advanced and faster.
DCMD: What inspired you to start 7DL? Why did you decide to start teaching?
MR: There were several key things that came together at the same time.
Opportunity–I got laid off from my 9-to-5 job at a solar energy company in May 2010, which caused me to reflect on what I really wanted to do and allowed me time to switch to an entirely new life path.
My entrepreneurial friends–My high school friend Matt attended Babson College (a top entrepreneurial school near Boston), and hanging out with him and his business buddies had a big influence. I was inspired by their lifestyle and the alluring excitement/freedom of running your own business.
My musical friends–My girlfriend at the time lived in D.C., and was (and still is) making a career for herself as a jazz singer. This pushed me further in that direction, and her support and encouragement helped during this self-evaluation time
My grandparents–My maternal grandfather was a chemistry professor at MIT who also invented several patents and founded a handful of biotech companies, and my paternal grandfather was a Spanish teacher at University of Connecticut his whole life. I always look up to them as inspiring people who do great things.
Tim Ferriss’ book, The 4-Hour Workweek—Reading this while unemployed is a dangerous combination. The original idea was to sell instructional drum videos online in order to achieve a passive income source. However, I realized I needed to get better at teaching first.
Enjoyment from past experiences–I did Spanish tutoring in high school and Italian tutoring in college and enjoyed the challenge of figuring out the best way to explain things. I also have always run my own house painting business for supplemental income, and at one point realized that I always felt happy and engaged at the end of each year doing this.
DCMD: What was it like when you first started 7DL? How has it changed and expanded since you began?
MR: I started teaching in the living room of my group house on H Street. I had one student, Mitch, who still continues to take lessons to this day. I only had a couple students in the beginning, but it grew steadily by a couple students per month, and I just kept working on my website, reading business books and figuring out how to improve by asking for advice from Ben Tufts, who actually became the first primary teacher at 7DL!
By the end of 2011, I had 15 regular students and around 30 by the end of 2012. At one point, I “expanded” and took over the dining room, and agreed to pay my three housemates an extra $50 a month in rent for using the space. Still, it was starting to get weird having strangers (to them) knock on the door all the time, wait for their lesson on our living room couch and deal with acoustic drums until 8:30 p.m. Big thanks to my housemates and neighbors for allowing 7DL to be born!
Finally in January 2013, I found the building which has become 7DL Studios. At the time, it was completely gutted, so I had to wait about 10 months before I could teach lessons in there. However, it was worth it, and a huge valuable learning experience, even though it was challenging at times. Just getting the building permit, navigating the D.C. permitting and licensing system, and researching and building the soundproofing were major learning experiences. I was working at the studio building and painting things, then darting back to my house to teach four to six lessons until dinner, then heading back to paint from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. It was actually quite energizing.
2014 saw the addition and transformation into what it is now. Ben Tufts, Andrew Toy, John Heinze and Winston Johnson took over the teaching, I began doing the online booking system and partnered with Flashband after our first meet-and-greet jam that we hosted for the 2014 Funk Parade showcase. After that, things really started to take off because bands discovered the space, and word started spreading without me doing anything. Since then, I’ve just been trying to keep up and design better systems so that we can keep delivering an awesome experience to everyone.
Now we have about 90 drum students attending private lessons every week. Our big performance room is booked solid 7 p.m. until 11 p.m. for two weeks out. There are over 25 separate appointments happening every day; we’re seeing bands form at the studio and gain traction in the D.C. music scene. It’s starting to feel like we are really helping out the D.C. music community by providing a clean, comfortable place to learn, rehearse and grow through music.
DCMD: Having knowledgeable, fun and patient teachers is important to 7DL–how did you go about choosing your team?
MR: 7DL’s core values are reliability, enthusiasm and lifelong improvement. This is a minimum requirement for anything, really, and especially for starting out a small business. In the teacher-student relationship, reliability and enthusiasm is a foundational ingredient for successfully overcoming the challenge of learning an instrument. The hard part is really just showing up and practicing regularly. Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it!
Any music educator knows that just because you can play an instrument well doesn’t mean you’re good at explaining how to play it. This ability comes from a range of factors, but it’s mainly affected by the personality and brain type of the person teaching, and their ability to think objectively about situations. For example, in order to be a really effective teacher for a wide range of people, you have to get good at quickly observing the subtleties of your students’ personalities and brain types as well, and adapt your teaching approach to fit that. So, learning to observe subtleties as a teacher helped me choose my team effectively as well.
I also picked teachers who I thought were good listeners and who made me feel comfortable to hang out with. This is because music lessons are really an experience, not just an isolated service. You are spending one-on-one time in a room with someone who is like your teammate and coach, who helps you grow your excitement of your favorite hobby! Having a little chat before and after the lesson, recommending music, maybe going to a show together, and being able to teach drums and be an expert player on top of that makes them really special and valuable to study with. I am really, really proud of all the folks on the 7DL team: Ben Tufts, Andrew Toy, John Heinze, Winston Johnson and Mitch Bass.
DCMD: Is there a certain age group that attends more than others or do you get a wide variety of students?
MR: Yes, we mainly teach adults in their 20s and 30s who are taking lessons as a fun artistic hobby, or to improve their existing drumming skills. Most people who sign up are complete beginners. Kids also come in usually in the late afternoon time slots. Some of our kids are pretty good, but it’s just been mainly adults who sign up, so we’re rolling with that. It also creates good synergy with the bands that come in. Right now we have about 80 percent adults and 20 percent kids.
We are also proud to have about 40 percent female drum students. I think this is part of a bigger trend of bands being less male-dominated.
DCMD: What have you seen students do after completing classes at 7DL?
MR: Many of the achievements are slightly easier to quantify for the kids. We have had one student get into the Duke Ellington School, two (out of two) students win entry into their school jazz band (including Mitch, the first 7DL student), and one was recently accepted into and performed at the 2015 Drum Line Battle!
Other students have gone on to form their own bands, some after having started from no experience on the drums whatsoever, and others who come to us wanting to sharpen their skills or get past that brick wall.
We also host quarterly student concerts at the studio, where students perform the drum part to a song along to a recording. It’s always really fun to see everyone perform and have fun playing drums. Not everyone taking lessons wants to be in a band or get an award; a lot of times, just the private study of an instrument is rewarding in and of itself.
A lot of students have also gotten a lot out of participating in Flashband showcases. With these, you form a temporary band at a jam session, and have to perform a show a month later. I can think of five people right off the bat who participate in almost all the Flashband shows. This is a nice option/solution for musicians who might not have time to commit to a regular band.
I consider bands’ successes as a noteworthy part of the growth too. We have about eight bands that regularly rehearse at 7DL, and it feels good to see them all thrive and get more and more gigs. I also help promote some of their shows. Namely: Aztec Sun, Lucky So & So’s, District Sky Punch, Mènage Á Garage, The Perfectionists, Mr. Blonde, Lookout Gang, Shining Blade Theory and Loud Boyz.
DCMD: How did you come up with the “seven drum lessons” that are key to your teaching approach?
MR: My mom is a Reiki master and introduced me to the chakra system, which are the seven energy centers of the body. At the time, I thought this was a cool idea, and definitely can relate to “feeling the energy” in a jam session, or “getting good vibes” from people you meet, which I think has a lot to do with the “magic” of music and why it moves us so much. I just think the philosophy of the seven chakras is interesting, and it’s a way to connect your mind, body and spirit without having to have a religious context.
Also, I have always felt like 7/8 time signature was my favorite time signature to drum along to, thanks to two key songs: “When The Water Breaks” by Liquid Tension Experiment and “Ticks and Leeches” by Tool.
The teaching approach that I outlined on my website was made to loosely fit into the seven chakra system, because I thought it was a neat idea. For the record, I’m not an expert on chakras; I kind of invented this based on what made sense to me, and I think of it more as a way to approach one’s entire experience of learning and playing music, not just a teaching approach. Here is the basic idea:
Root: order; stability — foundational skills; taking lessons
Sacral: reproduction; pleasure — creating and synthesizing new ideas/songs/beats/bands
Solar Plexus: identity; self-worth — finding your unique sound; sense of achievement
Heart: love; healing; giving — feeling joy from playing/hearing great music; connecting with others
Throat: self-expression; inner voice — expressing yourself through music (playing or listening)
Brow: wisdom; control — the mental benefits you get from playing music
Crown: rising above; holism — enlightening experiences from a show or a jam; feeling part of a greater good
The same could probably apply to any art form.
DCMD: What do you love most about 7DL?
MR: This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I look forward to getting up every day to get started on the next project. Over the years, I feel like I have had a dozen different jobs through all the different phases of this company, and that to me is kind of the fun part, just learning to do more, and tackle more challenges, all in the pursuit of finding a good work/life balance.
I think my favorite thing is getting to meet so many interesting, passionate people. I love that 7DL has become people’s favorite part of their week to come to, or at least that is our goal here. Some folks come early just to hang out and chat and that certainly opens up my heart chakra.
If you would like to take lessons at 7DL, you can sign up on our website. Once there you can sign up for drum lessons and rent time to practice.