Introducing the people of Ayrshire to the joys of music
In 2002, Peter O’Neil had an industrial accident when he was working as a general manager in a bakery. Out of a job and with a family to feed, he turned to his love of music and started teaching guitar from home. The success of his new venture soon became an issue when neighbours started complaining about the number of cars on the street at all times, reveals Peter’s daughter, Katee Kross.
“He thought he’d better get himself a wee building to teach from and found a unit in our hometown of Bishopbriggs,” Katee tells Ayrshire Magazine. “He started inviting other music teachers to join them, and it grew from there.”
And grown it has – Bishopbriggs School of Music has gone from strength to strength, now boasting 420 students and 23 tutors. In November 2022, Peter and his wife Lee opened their second music school in Ayr, with Katee and Paul Bain (also a manager at the Bishopbriggs school) completing the management team.
“My family always wanted to live in Ayrshire,” says Katee.
Initially, Peter and Lee made the move first (before COVID-19 struck), followed by Katee’s sister and her brother-in-law. Finally, Katee joined them.
“The pandemic taught me to go for what I want,” she says, adding that she was keen to embrace the slower pace of life in Ayrshire after being based in Glasgow. “Living in Ayrshire makes me feel like I’m always on my holidays,” she says with a smile. “It helped to pull me out of the rat race. Ayrshire is beautiful with its beaches and lovely walks.”
Today, Ayr School of Music has six tutors, offering acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, ukulele, drums, piano, and vocal training to 80 students (and counting). Everyone under 16 (students are welcome from age five and there’s no upper age limit – you’re never too old to pick up that ukulele) follows the RSL (Rockschool Limited) syllabus, working towards RSL exams.
“It gives students something to aim for, and shows good progression,” Katee says.
Speaking of the ukulele, the school’s ukulele club runs every Saturday from 10am to 11am, offering a great introduction to music lessons in a friendly, encouraging group environment. There are also music lesson vouchers available if you want to give a loved one the gift of music.
Katee believes that their strong management team is at the root of their business success.
“We work well together and see everything through right to the end,” she says. “We also have a fantastic team of tutors who are hugely talented in their field, and working towards the RSL exams creates well-rounded musicians.”
There are also numerous live playing opportunities for all students, showcasing the hard work they do. Each member of the management team attends all the shows and every exam day. And giving back to the local community is an ongoing focus. Every couple of months, students busk outside local supermarkets (known as the Jam for the Foodbank), encouraging passers-by to donate.
“This shows students that they can use their skills and talent to give back to the community,” says Katee. “Giving something back is more important, sometimes.”
Countless success stories have come out of the Bishopbriggs School of Music, including students who enrolled at age five or six, worked through all the exam grades and ended up securing a place at Glasgow’s prestigious Royal Conservatoire, one of the best universities for music in Europe. But success comes in many guises.
“It’s a huge thing to see students performing on stage when they started learning with the mindset of ‘I could never do that’,” Katee says. “Seeing that buzz in them, and their eyes light up, makes it all worth it. It’s a hard job, but it’s amazing.”
It would be remiss not to mention Katee’s own musical accomplishments. The Americana artist, who plays guitar and ukulele and sings, and plans to add a piano to her home in the near future, is in the process of finishing the songs for her fifth album, which she hopes to start recording in early 2024. Katee’s fourth studio album, Show Your Hand, was part funded by Creative Scotland and released two weeks before the first lockdown.
Unsurprisingly, Katee’s whole family are musical (“totally absorbed in music,” she says), from Peter and Lee to Katee’s seven-year-old niece Emily, who is taking piano and vocal lessons and came third in her primary school talent show. ‘Emily’ is also the title of one of Katee’s current must-listens, and she’s learning the lyrics to the ‘Lower Than Atlantis’ track.
“It’s a fantastic, feel-good song,” she says. Other regulars on Katee’s Spotify playlist include Scotland’s own Eddi Reader and Dougie MacLean, The Beatles, Taylor Swift, The Rolling Stones, T.Rex and Eva Cassidy. “I always go and watch country star Ashley McBryde,” she adds.
As for future plans for the business, Katee says the sky’s the limit.
“If an opportunity to open another music school arises, we’d be thrilled to do that. We have a really great blueprint in Bishopbriggs, and Ayr is running smoothly,” she says.
In the meantime, the focus is on growing the Ayr school. Currently the school is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but the goal is to open five days a week – and continue to introduce the people of Ayrshire to the joys of music. As Katee points out, many people turned to music for comfort, escapism, or a creative outlet during the pandemic, “when the world was going to pieces”.
“I think enjoying music and playing an instrument can give both hope and focus, and can also be a way of promoting positive mental health,” she says. “Certainly, from my own experience, music allows me to communicate and express myself in a way that emphatically makes my life better.”
Ayr School of Music is at 26 Wellington Square, Ayr. Find out more at www.ayrschoolofmusic.com. And if you’d like to see one of their management team perform, Katee (www.kateekross.com) will be at the Shades of Amber Festival in Perthshire from 3rd to 5th November.