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Music For Everyone, Developing a Studio in a Clock Factory, A Conversation with Sue Gillio

Patricia George | May 2016

    After graduating from Western Illinois University, Sue Gillio returned to her home town, LaSalle-Peru, and began teaching flute lessons in a piano store in the mall. When she was not teaching, she sold pianos. When the piano store moved out of the mall, it was time to look for a new venue. Gillio and a group of seven other instrumental teachers rented the second floor of a downtown building. The move proved to be a good business decision, but as their studios continued to grow, they soon needed more room. A local principal, who played the cello, offered some empty space in a local elementary school. The building seemed perfect because it had many classrooms that could be used for teaching and rehearsal space. Within a few years, however, it was clear that a larger space again was needed.
    The local Westclox factory, which at one time had employed over 3,000 workers, had sat empty since moving its operations. In April 2012 Gillio toured the building to see if it might be a good location for her thriving business. One of her main criteria was that the new space included an office as she did not want to run the business out of her teaching studio. A portion of the Westclox building seemed perfect. The area she selected had once been the office for a recycling business, so much of the retrofitting of the space had already been done. The offices could be used for teaching studios, and Gillio had one that was perfect for an office. The owners took down a wall to open two offices for one large rehearsal room for the flute choir. Gillio had new flooring and carpet put in, and she and her husband John painted a lot of walls. A friend started purchasing Westclox clocks, made at the factory in Peru, on Ebay to decorate the studios.
    In the fall of 2012, Music Suite 408 held an open house for the community to see the new facility. Over 400 people attended. One person who came remarked that she had made one style of the clocks that adorned each teaching space in 1957. In the last few years, Gillio has converted more space for her business, including a 2,200 square foot multi-purpose area which she named The Westclox Arts Factory.

What led you to transform an abandoned factory into teaching studios and an arts center?
    I needed more space for my studio projects and thought the 900,000 square foot factory offered enormous potential. I opened my studio, Music Suite 408, in 2012 with 3,000 square feet and 80 students. Today there are 26 teachers and 400 students using 8,000 square feet of the factory. We offer classes in applied music, visual arts, literature, tutoring, as well as outreach classes that include such diverse topics as fly-tying, jewelry-making, and world music. There is also an art gallery that features local artists in monthly exhibits and a 2,200 square foot performance/multipurpose room. The performance space is called the Westclox Fine Arts Factory after the previous owner, Westclox, a maker of clocks and watches. There are 19 other businesses occupying space in the Westclox factory, including a yoga studio. Everyone who takes lessons there walks past our suites so it is excellent advertising for our programs and concerts.
    The Illinois Valley is nestled in what is called Starved Rock Country and has always had wonderful music and arts programs in the schools. I attended LaSalle-Peru High School and wanted to develop my dream in my home community. I think it is important for the community and students to be exposed to the arts. I do not teach flute lessons to train flute majors; I teach them to be good people who function well in the community. In today’s economy many people do not have the financial resources for lessons and ensemble programs. I want the arts to be available to everyone. You would not want the next Galway, Picasso, or Hemingway to never have a chance because of financial limitations.
    The North Central Illinois (NCI) ARTworks is a regional arts advocacy not-for-profit organization that works to revitalize the community through the arts and arts programming. I serve on the Executive Board and am on the educational outreach initiative. The vision is to promote economic growth through the arts. I embrace this idea and a big part of what Music Suite 408 offers centers around outreach. One of our current projects is to develop and implement an arts centered afterschool program for children who otherwise would go home to empty houses. 

What types of events are held in the Westclox Arts Factory?
    The 2,200 square foot performance area serves as rehearsal and performance space for flute and guitar ensembles. Other events include lectures, painting parties, wedding receptions, and workshops. The space is booked almost every weekend. Events we sponsor such as TubaChristmas, Piano Weekend, and Stringwerkz that require more space are held at other venues.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to create something similar?
    Talk to someone who knows how to set up a business plan and get some good legal advice. You have to be passionate about it but also do your homework. Start by finding out if your area needs something like this. Check with the local Chamber of Commerce for demographics to see if the area can support the project. I have always thought that things happen at the right time and for a reason. I was lucky enough that I did not have to force finding a location and never solicited for educators. They found me. If you believe in it, you will find other people with similar dreams. Develop a three- to five-year plan and think about where you see the project going and figure out how it will become self-sufficient. During the recent recession, we never lost students. In fact we gained them. I believe when push comes to shove, people want what is best for their children and find a way to provide the experience. However, they may be more selective so be sure your program is the best it can be.

What type of instruction is offered at Music Suite 408?
    Music Suite 408 offers a comprehensive music curriculum that includes individual and group lessons, supplemental classes and ensembles, family-friendly early childhood classes, Suzuki and traditional strings education, applied study on all the band and orchestra instruments, percussion, guitar, mandolin, banjo, piano, and voice. 

What are some of the important features of your curriculum?
    When I was in graduate school at Western Illinois University, my teacher Gerald (Jerry) Carey recommended me for a position teaching children at the Preucil School of Music in Iowa City. Each Saturday I traveled 256 miles round trip. I learned that I loved teaching young students. I found they were sponges, and if I said, “Stand on your head and blow an F# out your big toe,” they would try it. While I attended the Suzuki Institute, I do not teach Suzuki per se although I love some of the basic ideas that the method promotes such as parents serving as home teachers and the development of listening skills.
    Ensemble playing is an important part of my teaching. As soon as beginners can play the notes B, A, and G, they begin playing in a supplemental ensemble. It is amazing what you can do with three notes. They begin playing on stage as early as possible. In the summer we offer additional group classes; a Junior IMEA audition preparation class, advance technique/scales class (which the students call flute boot camp and can’t wait to sign up for), and ensembles simply for sightreading new music.
    I think performance is an valuable part of learning to play an instrument. Students perform in two full studio recitals each year: Festival of Flutes in December and the Spring Flute Fling in May. They also play Christmas carols at Starved Rock Lodge which is called Flutes by the Fireplace. Other concerts include a Halloween concert complete with costumes and an Irish program on St. Patrick’s Day. If we use one of the local churches for a concert, we return to perform at church services during the year.
    Sightreading is a skill that is developed with practice. It is more fun to sightread as a group as it is much less intimidating if everyone is doing it together. I got the idea to have group sightreading sessions from my study at Western Illinois University. When I was a graduate student, one of my duties was to lead Gerald Carey’s Flute Scale class. The goal was to perform all of the scales in unison for a jury panel. We worked until no one ever made a mistake. I had t-shirts made that said, “I’m one of Jerry’s kids” and had one made for him that said, “I am Jerry.” We still laugh about it. I love that type of environment, and that is what I try to promote. The studio should encourage a healthy, non-competitive atmosphere. If someone has a playing problem, we rally around that person and get it worked out.
    Eighteen years ago, I started the Summer Flute Retreat in Peru with a faculty that includes Gerald Carey, Ellen Huntington, Darcie Glenn (a former student), and pianist Anne Badger. The Retreat is open to all ages and ability levels. We have had participants from as far away as Mississippi, New York, California, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and New Jersey, however, the core is made up primarily of students from the area. Local students serve as hosts for out-of-town guests, and many have formed lifelong friendships and are still in contact years later.
    I have been blessed to have a great support system. Gerald Carey was my teacher and mentor from WIU, and now he works for me teaching at the flute retreat. He is also who I go to when I need advice about teaching or flutes. My mom makes all the treats for the flute retreat lunches, and everyone always asks if she is making her lemon cookies! John, my husband, has come to every concert, class, or camp that I have done. Now that he is retired, he teaches fly-tying classes and does some tutoring at the studio. He is also my maintenance guy; I could not have done it without him.

What are your dreams for the future?
    I want to give every child the opportunity to be exposed to the arts. We are heavily sports oriented in this area with the mentality that if you are not good at sports, then the arts are the default option. It is a mindset that I want to change. With the help of NCI ARTworks, we are making a difference with educational programs in the local schools in collaboration with other events. For example, for the past nine years we have hosted a Flute Day every February with masterclasses, clinicians, and guest headliners. For concerts I have brought in non-traditional performers to appeal to a wider audience. We have hosted Rhonda Larson, Project Trio, Steve Kujala, Jim Walker & Freeflight, Marco Granados, Ali Ryerson, In Sterio, and the Righteous GIRLS. Besides performing a concert these artists go into the schools to present live music to the students. We have also held masterclasses and a Visiting Artist series with such guests as Patricia George, Sonja Giles, Shanna Gutierrez, the Lyrebird Ensemble (Flute/Harp), Christopher Caliendo, John Barcellona, Jonathon Keeble, Virginia Broffit, and Gerald Carey. The masterclasses are designed to encourage everyone to participate.

Did masterclasses that you attended as a student influence your projects?
    I attended the Trevor Wye Residential Classes for three summers at Connecticut College. What I took away from those classes was that flute playing is something you do, not who you are. If you go into a masterclass for a pat on the head, you are missing the point. I kept my eyes and ears open and realized that everything I was being told was to make my playing better. It was not an attack on me. I think that lesson has taught me how to be persistent. There are always critics. You have to be willing to take a leap of faith if you are truly passionate about something.

Do you perform in addition to teaching?
    I play principal flute in the Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra, a community orchestra comprised of local musicians and a few students from regional colleges. The IVSO has been in existence for over 60 years. Each year we play a Pops concert and four subscription concerts.
    As a former board member for the orchestra, I have served as the Educational Coordinator for the past 14 years, and this year passed the baton off as my time commitments to the studio have increased. As educational coordinator, we held a Young Performers Competition for junior and senior high students with the winners of each division performing with the IVSO. About a month after the competition we host a recital for all of the performers who won the honorable mention awards. The concerto winners also performed a concert for 2,500 3rd to 5th graders in the area.

How has Music Suite 408 affected your graduates?
    As I said before, my focus is not on training flute majors. I have had to be honest with some students and tell them that being a music major is not for everyone. Being a flute major in college is not just playing in marching band. It is many hours of practicing and honing your skills. I encourage students to try everything. Be well-rounded. Do sports, musicals, theater, and academic teams. Eventually, activities prioritize themselves, and they start picking you. Most of my students have gone on to college to study in majors other than music. Many are in a medical or business profession with a few who are music majors. Hopefully, what they learned through music – commitment, discipline, teamwork, honesty, confidence, self-worth, self-respect and respect for others – has become part of their character. The arts enhance all of these wonderful attributes.  

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    Music Suite 408 in Peru, Illinois is the home base for five flute ensembles for flutists ranging in age from six through adult. The Illinois Valley Flute Ensemble, which was established in the summer of 1991, is composed of advanced high school and junior high flutists from the Illinois Valley and surrounding areas. Most members also perform in their local band programs including the Illinois Valley Youth Symphony. The Illinois Valley Flute Ensemble holds several concerts per year as well as performances at various private parties and seasonal gatherings. Additionally, the ensemble has performed at the 37th Annual Principals Association three-day conference at the Peoria Civic Center and at Chicago Flute Festivals. The group has produced three CDs: In the Mood for Flute, Christmas Tidings, and Flute Spangled Spectacular. The adult ensemble, Flutopia, was formed several years ago for flutists returning to flute studies after an absence or for those who are learning to play for the first time. They do not charge for performances but do collect donations. This money is used for scholarships for studio members to attend summer flute or band camps.  

    Oglesby, Illinois native Sue Gillio is the owner of Music Suite 408 and director of the Illinois Valley Flute Ensemble. She is principal flute of the Illinois Valley Symphony and has performed with the Quad City Symphony, Heartland Philharmonic, Knox-Galesburg Symphony, Peoria Symphony, and the Rome Festival Orchestra. She has been a featured as a soloist with the Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra, Northwest Indiana Youth Symphony, Illinois Valley Youth Symphony, Mendota High School Band, Illinois Valley Community College Wind Ensemble, and the Northwest Indiana Symphony. Gillio, a graduate of Western Illinois University (BM, MM, Gerald Carey), teaches at Illinois Valley Community College and is the former education coordinator for the Illinois Valley Symphony. She serves on the executive board of the North Central Illinois Artworks and is a member of the Chicago Flute Club, Quad City Flute Association, Rockford Flute Club and the National Flute Association. Each summer she teaches at the Annual Summer Flute Retreat in Peru, Summer Flute Camps in San Diego, and Westminster Choir Conservatory, in Princeton, New Jersey. She was awarded the 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Illinois Small Business Development Center at Illinois Valley Community College.