Not many of us would give up a comfy five-figure salary to start our own music school. But Ivy Toh-Tan, 41, had no qualms about doing just that. In 2012, the petite mother of one quit her job as an assistant vice-president at Coutts Bank to start rock music school Studio 72 and form an all-female rock band, Rock Rosettes.
Despite spending the previous five years in banking and the 14 years before that in hospitality with established groups like Banyan Tree, Ivy seized the chance to fulfil her childhood dream.
“When I was a little girl, I wanted to play the drums, but my mum thought it was uncouth – it was a noisy instrument and you had to sit with your legs apart – so I played the piano instead,” says Ivy. It wasn’t until her girlfriends asked her to join their weekly drum lessons in 2009 that her interest in drumming was reignited.
The result? She fell madly in love with it again and was the only one turning up for lessons four weeks later. She also rented a set of drums and soundproofed a room in her terrace house, so that she could hit the toms as much (and as hard) as she liked.
So great was Ivy’s enthusiasm that she sacrificed her weekday lunches for one-hour private lessons three times a week, over the next four years. There was simply no other time, recalls the busy ex-banker who worked from 9am to 6pm and had to entertain clients after work. Weekends were also out of the question as they were reserved for her then four-year old son, Matthew.
Making the switch In 2012, Ivy was planning to move to another bank when a comment at the dinner table changed everything. “I remember casually telling my husband that I would be happy if I could spend time playing the drums daily,” says Ivy.
While she didn’t take her own remark seriously, her husband did. He encouraged her to start a music school so that she would have more time to play the drums, and also get the opportunity to share her passion with other mature students. “If you don’t try, you’ll never know,” he said.
While serving her notice after resigning in June, Ivy did extensive research on how to start a rock music school for adults to learn instruments like the drums, electric guitar, bass guitar and ukulele.
Although it took only half a year for Studio 72 to be up and running – Ivy had the finances for it, thankfully – she had to put a lot of hard work (and money) into her market research.
For instance, she forked out $8,000 for a two-month survey to find out if adults in Singapore’s central business district would be interested in taking rock music lessons.
Why so much for a survey? It involved getting university students to conduct polls at Raffles Place for three weeks. This was followed by a comprehensive analysis of the results.
To her surprise, the majority of the professionals surveyed showed a keen interest in rock music and were willing to pay good money for music lessons. This gave Ivy enough assurance to give up her bank job and open her 1,000 sq ft school along Circular Road.
She reveals that she and her hubby had to dip into their savings for the renovations, but were savvy enough to set aside enough money to sustain them over the next six months. She declined to say how much she spent in all.
By December 2012, Studio 72 was up and running.
Off to a rough start
For Ivy, the first two months were the most challenging because it was the December school-holiday period and many people were overseas. The school was empty; there were no students. But instead of calling it quits, the plucky businesswoman upped her game.
She networked ferociously through friends and clients, distributed fliers in her Louboutins and organised open houses for banks like OCBC, Standard Chartered and Citibank. These open houses allowed the bank employees to have a go at all the instruments at Studio 72.
She also created special holiday programmes – like music camps and student showcases – for the following year, so the school would not be empty during the holidays. Despite being the “boss”, Ivy took a hands-on approach to running the school and had no reservations about cleaning the toilets and repairing cracks in the walls. She was earning 50 per cent of her salary as a banker.
Her hard work paid off and, by the end of 2013, Studio 72 had about three times the number of students it had at the start of the year, comprising lawyers, bankers, regional directors and owners of shipping companies – “high-net worth” students who were drawing at least a five-figure salary monthly and willing to pay premium fees that were about 10 per cent above the market rate.
Even though Studio 72’s students pay relatively high fees, Ivy makes it worth their while. For example, she gives them flexible schedules, allowing their lesson times to vary from week to week, as they travel frequently and have many meetings to attend. She ensures that her teachers have a diploma or degree in music from recognised institutions like Lasalle College of the Arts, or have at least 10 years of teaching experience.
She confesses that dealing with older, more savvy students can get problematic because some of them have unreasonable demands, but she handles such situations well thanks to her experience in the hospitality industry.
“There was a student who signed up for 12 lessons and disappeared for a year after the first two. When he returned, I told him that the rest of his lessons had to be forfeited since he was gone for so long. He wasn’t happy and tried to bargain for them. To resolve matters, I gave him two more months to complete the rest of his lessons and the option of letting his friends take the lessons in his place,” says Ivy.
Ivy is now making 80 per cent of what she used to – a decent figure, considering that she gets to spend more time bonding with her son Matthew, who is now nine.
Businesswoman by day, rocker by night
After work, Ivy rehearses or performs with her all-female rock band, Rock Rosettes – which was formed in 2012 – into the wee hours. To put the band together, Ivy held auditions and discovered lead singer Zsa, 28, guitarist Jo, 21, and bassist Lyndsey, 26.
To promote the group, she trawled through all the pubs at Clarke Quay almost daily and spoke to their managers to learn more about the live music scene. In fact, it’s something she still does, to stay in touch with what’s going on.
Thanks to her legwork, Rock Rosettes currently has weekly gigs – an impressive step-up compared with the monthly gigs they had when they first started out. They scored their fi rst contract with Hard Rock Cafe Singapore last March and have a six-month residency at Taps by Fabrika. Th ey are currently booked until August 2015 for private events.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Ivy records every song they perform and analyses the recording once the gig is over, on top of practising for four hours on her own daily.
“I’m very particular about the quality of our performances because I want Rock Rosettes to be recognised for our musical skills and not our gender,” says Ivy. So what’s Ivy’s secret to success as a businesswoman, musician and mother? “Discipline. It’s ironic, but when you don’t have enough time, you learn to make time for everything.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: WINSTON CHUANG, ASSISTED BY ANGELA GUO, ART DIRECTION ALICE CHUA, STYLING: VIOLET FOO, HAIR: DORENE LOW/ATHENS SALON, MAKEUP: LOLENT LEE, USING GUERLAIN, OUTFIT: ALICE AND OLIVIA, HARNESS: FOREVER 21, LOCATION: HOOD BAR AND CAFE
This is an excerpt from a story originally published in Her World magazine May 2015. Read the full story in the May 2015 issue, now available on newsstands.