Longtime Mill Valley couple’s 12-year-old business draws rave reviews for its alternative approach to teaching kids how to play an array of musical instruments.

Mill Valley native Emily Siskin-Toy met her future husband and fellow UC-Santa Cruz senior Tommy Toy on October 17, 1989, her 21st birthday and the actual day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

“The earth literally shook when we met,” Toy says with a laugh.

Fast forward nearly three decades, and the couple still oozes that sense of humor and an infectious enthusiasm at their 12-year-old Wow! Music Studios on Lomita Drive. The school has made its mark for its alternative, less rigid take on musical education that mixes “school of rock” fun with an individualized approach. Wow has drawn rave reviews in doing so.

The cornerstone of Wow’s approach is the Simply Music piano and keyboard method, which was first developed in Australia and is a “playing-based” program rather than the reading-based approach.

“We want kids be able to access music education that is reflective of the 21st century,” Toy says. “Starting by immediately reading music is a huge barrier to get to the fundamental joy of playing music. We tap into people’s natural musicality so that they’re not inhibited by old methods of teaching. It fosters this idea of, ‘I can do this.’ No kid who comes here ever walks away feel defeated.”

“There’s no such thing as wrong notes – only better notes,” Siskin-Toy adds.

To that end, Wow gets students playing right away so that they “learn by doing” right from the start, encouraging them to try a variety of instruments, learn from the school’s eight teachers and partner up with other students. And before long, that means students play in front of audiences.

“Our ‘recitals’ are very different from the typically stuffy ones,” Siskin-Toy says. “We’ve created a nurturing environment that helps students build their confidence and helps them learn the joy for playing for people rather than just being in your room practicing.”

Toy and Siskin-Toy moved to Los Angeles after they graduated from college in 1990, with Toy getting into advertising with ad giant BBDO and Siskin-Toy writing for film production magazines. After seven years in Los Angeles, the couple had their daughter Maddy. It wasn’t long after that they decided to move back to the Bay Area.

“Right around when nobody would hold the door open for me when I had a stroller,” Siskin-Toy says with a laugh.

The couple had long talked about starting their own business and Toy longed to get out of the advertising business.

“We didn’t need more laundry detergent – we need more music in this world,” Toy says.

Toy had been playing music since he was five – “classic tiger mom,” he says – and the couple’s discovery of Simply Music piano “really crystallized what we were thinking.” So they dove head-long into plotting their new business, launching in 2005 in a space on the section of the Frontage Road that’s just east of Hwy. 101 and just north of Tiburon Boulevard.

“We called it our little speakeasy,” Toy says. “You needed to know a special handshake to figure out where we were.

The business has evolved into a membership-based music school that us driven by cross pollination and positive reinforcement.

Wow’s core philosophy centers on what they see as a growing body of evidence that says that music is more innate to humans then even the idea of speaking. “It is so inherent in what we do,” Toy says, pointing to the Ted Ed talk below about scientific research that concluded that “playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout.”

Now in their new space on Lomita, the higher visibility and their growing reputation has the couple closing in on 180 students, the school’s highest ever, and set to launch new ventures like hosting musical birthday parties and likely an open mic night.

“We want to teach kids who will want to have music in their lives forever,” Siskin-Toy says.

The 411: Wow! Music Studios is at 145 Lomita Drive, Suite B. MORE INFO.

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