A Ford Transit van parked in a leafy side street in north Leeds catches my attention. Finished professionally in silver and black, it bears the words: The Keyboard Academy. The piano keys painted on the side of the vehicle leave no doubt that music teaching is involved. Plainly, this is no van ordinaire. Piano lessons in a van are something I've never encountered.
The van is a mobile keyboard lab, a world first. The idea is a roaring success. A phone call puts me in touch with Katie Kelly, the founder and course director of The Keyboard Academy. Katie studied flute, and took her piano playing to a high standard at the Royal Northern College of Music. After a busy freelance career with northern orchestras, the Hallé, and the BBC, and shows such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera, the demands of a young family eventually led her to take up a job as head of music in a comprehensive school.
"That's when I found out about the keyboards. Before then I taught loads of pianists. I really wasn't into the keyboard at all. I thought it was the devil's instrument. The school had a keyboard lab where the girls really loved me talking to them through the microphone headset, and then playing along, using backing tracks."
"They'd love to be hands on. That's when I started doing little arrangements. I'd do little harmony parts, like Inspector Gadget (the 80s Disney cartoon), where they were just playing the bass line. They'd hear the music coming into their headphones, but they were contributing to it. They'd find it very rewarding, to learn how to read the music and play along to it."
"The music used is from all genres," she says. "There's so much classical music on adverts, that I could find stuff they'd already heard."
"I could see that Katie was a fantastic teacher," adds Barry, her husband. "Katie was finding her Head of Music job frustrating. It was literally an idea in the pub. I said, 'No one's doing group keyboard tuition in schools. Why don't you?' It was an enormous decision to walk away from a well-paid job. She was extremely unhappy, but believed in this idea, which offered freedom. She began working as a peripatetic keyboard teacher."
Katie explained, "The whole secret was the keyboard lab." But it was tedious to transport, as initially she didn't use a van. "When I first started, with eight schools in Trafford, Stockport and the Wirral, I put six keyboards in the back of my car and turned up to schools," she says. "I'd set them out in the hall. A lot of sweat and tears ensued, pushing through doors with keyboards. We considered trolleys and bags, to make them more compact."
The idea of 'music in transit' was Barry's. "We were in Sainsbury's, sitting in the café. I had passed by this bus, a mobile showroom, that got me thinking. In the café I said, 'What you need is a mobile classroom, a converted minibus, so that you can turn up, plug it into the mains, and everything's set up.' "
"I saw it immediately," says Katie. "I went straight to the nearest garage with a tape measure, working out how many keyboards I could get in a van!" Each vehicle has six high quality keyboards for the students, with a master keyboard and control console for the teacher. Planning the mobile was, in Barry's words, 'a nightmare', as was the concern over whether it would work. "The fear that we had forgotten something basic dominated our lives for months," he says.
Numbers built up quickly. What Katie did next was to go out and buy two more vans. That meant employing teachers. The idea of a franchise was developed. Now, just three years since she began, van number six is on the way, for the Midlands.
"We ended up with really good teachers. But at the beginning some phoned me, and when they found out it was keyboard and a van, that was it," she says. "Teaching in the back of a van sounds a bit seedy! I got to the stage where I didn't tell people what it was. I said, 'If you're interested, come and see me.' When they see the resources, they are won over. It's such good fun to do. The children's faces lighting up, achieving something really quickly."
What qualities does she seek in her teachers?
"They don't have to be concert pianists, but have to be good musicians, to be comfortable on a keyboard, have good people skills and good communication skills. The van doesn't need a special licence to drive, nor does it need planning permission to park, " she says. "It fits into a normal parking space."
"By Christmas we reckon we'll have at least 500 people doing exams," says Katie. "The ABRSM don't do keyboard exams. We start with Victoria College exams. Their first three exams are brilliant for our younger children. Then we move on to Trinity. Wherever we try, it's successful. There's a 100% take up rate. Once they've had their free lesson, they all want to do it."