The economic recession of the 1980s was a vital turning point in Alex Leow's life. Hoping to make money in the insurance business, he had quit his job as a sales assistant with music equipment company Yamaha in 1984 to concentrate on selling policies.
But the recession put paid to his ambition. “People were cancelling policies and there was nothing I could do,” he recalls.
In 1985, after being jobless for months and with less than RM500 left of his savings, a desperate Leow decided to make use of a skill he had learned as a child.
“I used RM30 to put up a classified ad, and another RM300 for downpayment on a motorbike,” he says with a laugh. In the ad, he stated that he was offering music lessons and would conduct them at the home of the students. The motorbike was for moving around.
A self-taught musician, Loew's method of teaching was hardly the conventional type, where students would often start by reading notes. His method was to play by ear, a technique that he later perfected and then patented.
“I learnt to play by ear after going nowhere with the conventional lessons,” explains Leow whose musical education began when he was nine years old. His interest in music was kick-started when he got an accordion and then a harmonica, but it was a toy keyboard that really had him going.
His father enrolled him for piano lessons but he soon realised that the style of teaching, instead of improving his skills, was putting him off music.
“I also did not know what to do with my left hand,” he says. He quit the lessons six months later, preferring to explore music at his own pace and with his inborn sense of playing by ear.
“It took seven years for me to discover what harmony was all about but once I got it, it became so easy. Playing by ear is a creative way of working out melody without notes.”
His job at Yamaha was also a blessing of sorts as it was there that he came to know of people who could do with some music lessons.
“Lots of people had bought musical equipment, hoping to play for fun,” says Leow.
“They got nowhere when they started their lessons. Most adults who wanted to play for fun found it a terrible process and ended up not using the equipment they had bought.”
While at Yamaha, he also had the opportunity to observe other musicians and to read up on the latest in music from the books that were available at the store.
For the next 10 years, Leow, now 44 years old, taught music while also improving his own skills.
For some time, he was under the direction of David Soo, a former Radio TV Singapore arranger.
Along the way, he developed materials that were suitable for his method, which he describes as a fun and enjoyable way to learn music.
“There is something wrong with the mainstream education methods,” he points out. “Some students, despite their high grades, still cannot play like real musicians.”
Agreeing with this observation, one of his students who has completed piano lessons up to Grade 8 says: “When people ask me to play something off the cuff, I find that I cannot do it. I must have the notes with me.”
In 1996, while still doing house-to-house lessons, Leow set up Music Talentech Services to market the Play By Ear method. It was also from this year that he began to train franchisee teachers who would later use his method to teach other students.
Today, there are two companies - Play By Ear (PBE) Resources (set up in 2000) and Meixca Sdn Bhd. The former is the intellectual property owner of the Play By Ear method while the latter serves as the management company.
As a product, he says, PBE has been developed through the years. “There are now PBE 2 and PBE 3, and there’s PBE Jazz.
“Play by Ear initially attracted mostly older people who missed the chance to learn music during their younger days. It served that need then.
“However, there is also a vacuum in the musicality market. And that is why we are shifting to the younger market, to teenagers who want something more out of their music lessons.
“PBE 3 teaches students the harmony techniques used by professionals. The nice thing about the way we do things is that you develop your own style instead of copying your teachers.”
As for PBE Jazz, Leow explains: “There is also a group of musicians out there who could jazz like crazy but are not recognised for their musical capabilities.
“There are also lots of music teachers who want to learn to play and teach jazz but just cannot get started. PBE Jazz takes hold of their hands, gets them going and also prepares them for the required jazz examinations.”
PBE lessons start from about RM2,000, but payment by instalments can be arranged for those who cannot pay in one lump sum.
“Those who cannot catch up are given free revision classes. We set the dates for the revision classes, and students come and attend them for as long as they want,” Leow says.
In April 2001, PBE Resources achieved a milestone in its history when it signed an agreement with Sedaya College that would pave the way for PBE-trained students to be accepted by the college.
“Sedaya College recognised that we can be a good intermediary for better quality musicians before they pursue degree courses,” says Leow.
“It has been found that some of the students in the college’s intake are so far behind in musical skills (despite their certificates) that they have to take corrective courses. And by the time the students are in their late teens, it is rather too late for most of them for corrective actions to have much effect.”
Besides all these achievements, Leow, who also trained in IT skills, has developed a business management software called Enterprise Resource Programme that now allows him to stay on top of his business.
“I wrote it myself,” he says. “At the push of button, I know the status of the 12,000 people currently in our company database. I know, for example, who signed up, who graduated, who are customers, and the company inventory. It took five years to complete and is based on my experience with this company.”
He plans to sell this programme to small and medium enterprises. “The software is free. I will only charge for maintenance,” he states.
Leow says he and his staff hope to make their company an RM4mil enterprise in the next five years.
“We have been here officially since 1996. That’s six years plus. Let’s just say we are giving ourselves another five years. Staff who have proved their abilities will be given shares in the company.”
o PBE Resources welcome music teachers who want to become business owners by franchising the method. Alex Leow can be reached at 03-56323397 or via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org . The company also operates a 24-hour hotline: 03-20733176.
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