We Create Birmingham: Will Mason

"Music is just innately human. Our heart is literally beating inside of us, rising and falling with our movement, every day. Like our heartbeat, music is just essential to our survival. We should stay more focused on things (like music) that inform our mental health and well-being." Will Mason
Interview: Meghann Bridgeman
Photos: Ambre Amari
Musician Will Mason established Mason Music in 2012, with its first location in Cahaba Heights, and has since expanded to five locations across Birmingham. We had the chance to sit down with Will and learn more about his early experiences with music, his touring days, and his transition from musician to instructor.
Will, you started playing the keyboard when you were just six years old. Was your attraction to music immediate? Were you a quick study?
It’s hard to remember being six years old. I definitely was a quick study, though. My family also had high expectations that I’m thankful for because it instilled this internal drive that I still have to this day. My grandmother bought me my first keyboard, and that’s how I got signed up for music lessons.
Honestly, I outgrew my first teacher. I would look at my lesson book in the car and have the week’s material memorized by the time I got home from the lesson. The pace was just too slow. So we found another piano teacher who was more challenging and strict. Mrs. Mann wasn’t mean, but she was definitely firm. Like my family, she had high expectations and required daily practice for an hour that my parents actually had to sign off on.
I liked being good at something. I liked excelling and doing something that was hard. It was also more competitive, which I liked and participated in. Mostly it was just something I felt confident doing, and it built my self-esteem. I moved to Mountain Brook when I was ten. As the new kid in town, I could hang my hat on music and being good at music.
Give us a snapshot of your life before Mason Music. When did you start playing professionally? Are there any parts of the performative and touring experience you miss?
Yeah, I’m trying to think how far to go back. I didn’t consider music as a career option. Growing up in Mountain Brook, there weren’t a lot of musicians at career day. Most people held very traditional careers, and music was just an extracurricular. I went to college thinking I’d be a physical therapist, and I hated it. I didn’t enjoy college at all. I wanted to transfer after my first semester at Furman University in South Carolina. I stuck it out for a bit and transferred to Birmingham Southern. I actually chose Birmingham Southern so I could join my friend’s band as the guitar player.
When I was 13, I quit piano and switched to guitar. At some point, piano wasn’t cool anymore, and I didn’t resonate with the music. You can’t really play Green Day on piano, so I switched. Playing guitar is when I really fell in love with music in a deeper way than ever before. It wasn’t even the instrument, it was the teacher. I’ll never forget when he asked, “What do you want to learn?” No music teacher had ever asked me that. When I answered that question, it led me down a totally different path and influenced me for always.
Playing in the band ended up helping me redefine my path and pursue my passion. We did pretty well for a 4-5 year period. We got signed to a major label and got to do some really cool things.
In different seasons I still miss performing. I’m an introvert, not really a spotlight guy, but I do miss being in a band. I enjoy the creative group environment where everyone brings something to the art and supports each other in the performing experience.
Talk about launching Mason Music in 2012.
We actually started giving private lessons in people’s homes in 2008 and launched our first store in 2012. My ex-wife was a huge part of how the business got started. We did that as one of many means to make ends meet. I didn’t have a degree, so we really hustled… waiting tables, construction, etc., for a number of years before we opened the store. I was also a worship leader at a church for nine years.
How’d you formalize your business?
Finding a good CPA was super helpful. One of my superpowers is curiosity. I’m very comfortable saying I don’t know how to do that and asking professionals for help. A big support early on was the AL Small Business Development Center. They really helped us with our planning and support.
You must be a gifted teacher. Schools (in any study) rarely succeed without a leader who can actually transfer their passion and skill to the next generation. When did you realize you were a good teacher? And what’s your favorite instrument to teach?
Well, I appreciate that. Even though I came from a family of educators, I wasn’t that excited about teaching at first.
But I gave it a try. I went to this house to teach private lessons, and when I started teaching, I realized how little I actually knew about what I was doing on my guitar. When you start teaching, you realize it’s not effective to just explain. You have to learn to break down the pieces and deliver them in the right order so students can actually digest the information.
I was terrible in the first 6 months. I’d have students ask me to break down my strumming hand when I was trying to teach chords, and I couldn’t explain. I had to really start figuring out a process for teaching guitar and how to break down the basics.
I started loving teaching when I noticed that students were actually getting better, and I could see the light bulb moments from my students! Expectations are huge in a teacher/student relationship, and if you don’t understand what’s realistic for a student to grasp, it can be so frustrating. Figuring out their pace is really important, so you don’t communicate impatience to the student. I didn’t have an awareness of that in my 20s when I started teaching. I love to teach and still do every week.
How do you select and train teaching artists who are part of the Mason Music team? Do you all subscribe to a certain methodology?
This is a really interesting part of our business. Not all people who are good at doing are good at teaching. When hiring new team members, we prioritize character and personality as equally important to musical skills. Patience is a hugely important characteristic, and we look for people who can translate knowledge into instruction.
Our teaching methodology is individual. Each teacher has their unique method they have developed for teaching. We bring them on because of what they have to offer and match students, based on their goals and teacher’s niche. Rather than provide training, we have a peer learning environment where our teachers meet each quarter to discuss their methods and share ideas for improving the overall level of instruction at Mason Music. Those are really helpful for teachers who don’t have a ton of teaching experience. We also match students with teachers whom they fit best with. We have a really diverse group of instructors who can meet the unique needs of each student. From more casual engagement to more classical and formal engagement. That’s part of the reason we don’t subscribe to one specific way.
In your opinion, what’s the best age for kids to start music lessons?
We’ve written blogs about this. No one size fits all. Kids mature at different rates and seasons. Generally speaking, seven is a good age to start. Being conditioned to sit still for a bit (½ an hour) is a great indicator for focus readiness. Another good indicator of dexterity readiness is a child’s ability to tie their own shoe.
As a past performing artist and arts educator, I’m always curious to know how arts educators toe the line between arts achievement and arts exposure. I know it doesn’t have to be one or the other… but what do you think? Music for competitive careers and opportunities? Or music for music’s sake?
That’s a great question. We mostly have folks looking for musical appreciation and enjoyment. It’s actually something we ask in our intake. We want to know what people are doing here and what their goals are.
Our place in the community is to care for our students and provide them with the opportunities they’re looking for. We aren’t pushing toward achievement. There are other people in the community who are pushing students towards more competitive goals. We do occasionally have kids who want that path, and we can help those students go in that direction if they’d like.
We have this program, Rock Band League, that has a competitive element. It allows kids and adults to play in competitive divisions. It totally changes the tone, and people really feel passionate about it. It’s cool that people care and have assigned meaning to the experience.
We don’t get a ton of parents who are expecting their kid to be career musicians, but we want kids to know you can do hard things. We pour a lot into building discipline and self-confidence.
Today, you can just go to YouTube to learn to play an instrument. You don’t need us, but the human connection and accountability are really motivating. That relationship is at the core of everything we do.
And on that note, do you think everyone can be a musician?
No. Well, let me clarify, not a professional musician, no. But we believe music is for everyone. Not everyone has the raw talent to go to Julliard, and if you don’t have it, you can’t work hard enough to get there. But I do think everyone can get to the point of enjoyment with an instrument. And I think that music is just innately human. Our heart is literally beating inside of us, rising and falling with our movement, every day. Like our heartbeat, music is just essential to our survival. We should stay more focused on things (like music) that inform our mental health and well-being.
Can you tell us about your five locations? Are the offerings the same across all of your locations?
Yeah. We have Cahaba Heights, Mountain Brook Village, Bluff Park, Greystone, and Woodlawn. The fifth location is home to our non-profit, Mason Music Foundation. We have the same offerings across all sites but are able to offer scholarships through the Mason Music Foundation in Woodlawn.
Also, I definitely want to touch on the Woodlawn Theatre. What’s the news?
We’re focused on building out the Woodlawn Studio and Theatre so it will reflect other Mason Music studios across Birmingham. The space is in the same building as the Woodlawn Theatre. We actually bought the building in 2019, but because of the pandemic it has been delayed, and we don’t have an official opening date, yet. I’m excited. We’re going back with the original art deco look with brass, gold, and green.
Finally, anything else you want to add?
Be sure to check out Birmingham 365 for spring break and summer camps. We also have Mason Music Fest, and we’re going to do it again this year! It’ll be at Avondale brewing again, and 100% of the proceeds go to the foundation. Last year we were able to fund 400 lessons from that one event, so it’ll be our go-to yearly fundraiser to support lessons in Woodlawn.