Beckham Adams sat behind the electric drum kit, his head bent in concentration. His pizza socks bobbed up and down as he tapped a floor drum, hitting a cymbal with his right hand, a snare with his left.
The 17-year-old was in the middle of a test at Columbia Arts Academy, busting out a “Rush” song he had been practicing.
His instructor, Jason Summers, tested Adams on everything from notes to how precisely he hit the hi-hat.
“Eighth notes!” Summers yelled halfway through the song. Then, “Good job!” when Adams adjusted his rhythm.
At the end of Adams’s 30-minute exam, Summers proudly slapped a sky-blue wristband inscribed with the word “Prodigy” on his pupil.
The wristbands, which hang in a tantalizingly bright formation in the Academy’s lobby, are part of a music teaching strategy developed by Academy owner Marty Fort.
The trademarked Music Ladder System is a tiered approach that encourages students to reach certain milestones with their music lessons through wristbands and trophies.
Fort started the system at the Columbia Arts Academy and the Lexington Music School, which he also owns. It is now being used by 70 schools across the country, in Canada and Australia.
“It’s easy to get people to start music lessons, but it’s hard to keep them engaged. Retention is a big problem,” Fort said. “This solves that.”
The wristbands correlate with different levels, from “Apprentice” to “Prima” for students who pass a test in their lessons. They also get a certificate and, at certain levels, a trophy.
13 Levels with wristbands in the Music Ladder System. Students get the chance to earn a wristband roughly every three months
“This is not a participation trophy,” Fort emphasized. “They have to earn it.”
Essentially, the system outlines the rewards, but not the curriculum. The teacher decides what to test each student on. It doesn’t change what the teacher does, but enhances and incentivizes the music instruction, Fort said.
Summers, the instructor, said he uses it with every one of his students. “It's something for them to look forward to,” he said.
For Adams, who has been learning guitar for six years, it’s a way to mark his progress.
“It's a great way to see how much better you’ve gotten,” he said.
Initially, Fort had plans to expand the Music Ladder System beyond his two schools, but a brief encounter at a conference with businessman and “Shark Tank” star Mark Cuban changed his mind.
Fort said while he was attending a GrowCo conference in Nashville, he approached Cuban for a photo-op and quickly pitched the Music Ladder System (and got a blurry picture to prove it). Cuban then advised him to patent the system and license it to others, Fort said. He currently has patents pending in the United States and Canada.
Now, Fort’s office in Irmo is filled with boxes stacked ceiling-high that contain trophy parts and wristbands. Trophies are engraved in-house with an engraving machine, put together and sent out by Fort’s five-person team.
Fort acknowledged that basing a business move on a 3-minute interaction sounds crazy, but he describes himself as a risk taker.
“What would have happened if I hadn’t of met (Cuban)? I never would have put the pieces together.”