Ulf Geist spent much of his childhood in front of a drum set. First, he played with his family’s band at festivals for their small German town. Then, when he was old enough, he took lessons through Modern Music School, a network of European music schools. In the time since, he’s played professionally around the world, from Madison Square Garden to the Latin Grammys, and brought the school that kicked off his career all the way to Pasadena.
Geist’s plan was to come to the States to attend Los Angeles’ Musicians Institute (MI) for a year, learn what he could, and go home. He worked four jobs the year prior, gave tennis lessons, and sold his car just to afford tuition. But plans changed when he won $5,000 in a school-wide drum contest, beating 40 other students, most of whom had been attending for years. Suddenly, doors began to open. After graduating from MI, he began teaching classes there.
In 2011, Geist helped his mentor open the first American Modern Music School; he took on full ownership six years later. Since then, the school has doubled in size, a feat that Geist credits to good word of mouth and a philosophy regrettably absent from many music programs.
“You ask people why they quit music and they say, ‘Oh, well I’m just not musical,’” he says. “What does that mean, to not be musical? Often it relates to an experience they had where they were told that or made to feel that way. … It’s unfortunate.”
When taking on a new student, Geist begins by writing the instructions for an exercise on a whiteboard. Then, as he demonstrates the beat, he watches. Is the student looking at the board or watching him play? Or are their eyes cast downward, listening intently? Geist learns how the student learns and, from then on, teaches accordingly. If a student is struggling, he pivots and tries a different approach. It is this philosophy that drives all the instructors hired to teach at the school.
Lessons at Modern Music School are offered for guitar, bass, drums, piano, voice, and DJ/production. But what really makes the school unique is that, although private lessons are offered, the most successful programs organize students into bands that meet and play regularly. Instructors guide the session as students improve their craft while learning teamwork and cooperation.
“When you play baseball or basketball, you can have the best coach in the world who can teach you how to hit or how to throw, but if you never play the sport, you don’t really understand it,” Geist says. “Once you’re on a team, a whole different world opens up.”