Welcome to Rock ‘N Learn’s conversation with parents and teachers who use our educational DVDs and our other programs. Here’s some background on how Rock ‘N Learn got started—the long version. (Normally my posts won’t be this lengthy.)
You’re invited to respond to anything I say. There’s a good chance I’ll reply back. Our team also wants to help answer your questions about anything educational. We know you can assist us in our goal to produce the best children’s educational music and videos on the planet. We value your thoughts, questions, and suggestions.
As president and cofounder of Rock ‘N Learn, this story begins with my background. You’ll learn how some of my professional goals got derailed and how a better career path emerged. This allowed me, along with others at Rock ‘N Learn, to help many more children than had everything gone exactly as planned. Your life probably has its own twists and turns. It’s amazing how events prepare you for successes you don’t yet know about.
Doing well in school wasn’t my priority during junior high and high school. I typically rushed through my homework right before class. My senior-year English teacher turned that around. I went from making barely passing grades to A’s because of one teacher who cared and encouraged my writing. She gave our class engaging novels to read, some highly controversial but pertinent to our teen struggles. I regret she passed away before I went back and thanked her.
I first became interested in psychology as a possible career when in high school in Amarillo, Texas. We received a magazine written for students, Senior Scholastic, and one issue featured the field of psychology. It talked about psychology as a behavioral science, not just psychoanalysis or popular self-help. I kept this issue for many years and likely still have it somewhere.
In 1974, I enrolled in college, majoring in psychology with a minor in biology. While working on my undergraduate degree, I decided to get some actual experience in applied psychology. I went to a psychiatric hospital to see if they were hiring for entry-level assistants. They weren’t but suggested I go to the children’s psychiatric hospital across the street. Working with children? I wasn’t so sure about that, but I needed a job.
I was hired immediately at Kilgore Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in Amarillo, Texas, long since closed. For two years I worked as a mental health assistant, afternoon shift. I got to work directly with kids, lead them in activities, and record behavioral observations each evening after they went to bed. Working with kids was lots of fun, and they responded well to me. It was fortunate the adult hospital wasn’t hiring. I learned so much during those two years, which complemented my college studies.
I began to plan for graduate school, and one of my undergraduate professors suggested a school psychology program at North Texas State University in Denton—now the University of North Texas. The more I learned about it, school psychology seemed like a field where I could make a difference working with kids. Remember, education had turned my life around.
In 1980, I received a master’s degree in school psychology. My original goal was to continue directly into a doctoral program, but I was offered a good-paying job in Kansas by a special education system that was recruiting psychologists. Sweeping changes with federal legislation passed in 1975 had placed a critical need to hire school psychologists for special education. Kansas helped pioneer innovative ways to serve kids with special needs. In 1980, taking a break from my studies and getting some practical work experience made sense. Oh yes, and earning money was pretty enticing. I headed off to Kansas, but I definitely planned to get my doctorate in psychology someday.
After getting married in Kansas and switching jobs, I landed back in the Texas Panhandle with Region 16 Education Service Center in 1982 doing school psychology work. It was really coincidental that this job came up; it was first offered to another psychologist in Kansas whose fiancé lived in Texas, but she refused it because she didn’t like the location. Being from Amarillo, I had friends and family there. The Texas Panhandle is a lot of wide-open space, mostly flat and desolate, but with its own peculiar beauty.
We served 26 counties at Region 16. This meant many miles of driving, sometimes two hours each way. I had plenty of time to think, dream about possibilities, and listen to music. Often I would travel with other educational specialists, and we had fun. Those vast open roads really allow great conversation, in your own head or with others—just don’t miss your turn.
When my wife Kathie and I married in 1982, I instantly became the stepfather of a lively and precocious 3-year-old daughter, Shawn. Who would have guessed that at age eight she would give Rock ‘N Learn its name? In 1983, Kathie and I had another terrific daughter, Michelle, born exactly five years apart from Shawn.
While Michelle was still a baby, I awoke one night and walked by her crib, watching her sleeping so peacefully. Shawn was five and loved playing with the neighborhood kids. Did I really want to disrupt my family’s life by going for a doctorate in psychology? I had seen firsthand what psychology doctoral programs could do to families; they totally consume your time and finances. Suddenly, I felt a huge anxiety over giving up a professional goal that had been “must do.” In that moment, I choose family over career, but it was agonizing.
Almost immediately that night, a new goal popped into my head. I recalled how much I had loved my organizational psychology class at North Texas. It was tough; Doug Johnson was a demanding but inspiring professor.
I met another student in my organizational psychology class working on his doctorate in international business, Belmont Haydel. We became lifelong friends, and Belmont has been a significant mentor in my life. He’s older than me and had prior experience as a U.S. Army Infantry officer and also a U.S diplomat. Belmont and I were always the last ones to finish Dr. Johnson’s rigorous essay exams; we were both high achievers, perhaps overachievers. So naturally Belmont and I would visit after class, sometimes walking a short distance to the pub on campus. Yes, in 1978 the minimum drinking age in Texas was 18, and some campuses served beverages. Seems odd today.
We learned a lot of business concepts in organizational psychology. I found the subject material fascinating. Belmont often told me that an MBA was the “golden degree” because you could do so much with it. As a result of our close friendship, Belmont and I spent hours talking, and Belmont hired me to assist with some of his international consulting projects for domestic firms. On one occasion I traveled to Washington D.C. with Belmont, getting to meet a U.S. ambassador and other highly accomplished government leaders. I even met a former spy. (Of course, I can’t talk about that.)
So five years later in Amarillo, here I was deciding one emotional evening not to pursue a doctorate in psychology. The next day, I rearranged my schedule to work at an elementary school in Canyon, Texas to visit the business school at West Texas State University (now part of Texas A&M) during a late lunch break. I found out that by taking a combination of evening and summer classes, I could get my MBA in about three years.
Midway through my program, the thought of starting my own business began to intrigue me. Marketing and management studies seemed more fun than accounting and finance classes, although all the classes were useful. Somehow, I still wanted to help kids learn, so maybe there was a business opportunity. Different ideas crossed my mind.
I took management classes under Dr. Bob Worthington, a Dartmouth graduate who coincidentally had a Ph.D. in counseling psychology along with his business degree. He had served as an officer in the Vietnam War, seeing combat, before going into psychology. Bob knew management from many perspectives. He taught me contingency planning, drilling it into my head, which has saved Rock ‘N Learn plenty of times during unexpected adversity. We always have a Plan B and more. Dr. Worthington ran the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and that became my focus and passion. I learned how to think strategically.
During this time, I worked as a part-time assistant to Dr. Jerry Kleinpeter—a clinical psychologist in Amarillo who did a lot of work with children in his private practice. And, I worked part-time evaluating gifted students under Dr. Gene Norman, also my director at Region 16—a great guy who became another mentor and close friend.
Though far from being Super Dad, I actually found time to read children’s books to my girls almost every evening. If the books were boring, I would creatively change the words, but my girls would catch me and call me on it. I liked impersonating the dialogue. I also made up outrageous stories when we ran out of books to read.
It sounds hectic looking back. My wife Kathie was so supportive. She typed a lot of my college papers on a cheap typewriter and did more than her fair share of our house and yard work. Shortly after Michelle’s birth, we had decided Kathie would quit her government job to stay at home and raise our daughters. We had no idea this decision would eventually allow Rock ‘N Learn to develop; Kathie was Rock ‘N Learn’s first fulltime worker.
So besides my MBA studies and part-time jobs on evenings and weekends, I was a school psychologist traveling the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle, driving those wide-open highways almost every workday. In special education, I would attend what’s called ARD meetings (admissions, reviews, dismissals). After diagnosing why children weren’t learning, it was my responsibility to make recommendations.
The year was 1986. I don’t recall the exact school district, but I remember one meeting where a parent said, “I don’t know why my son can’t learn his multiplication facts. He can listen to a song on the radio just a few times and know all the words.” A light bulb went off in my head.
I had learned my multiplication facts to music back in the mid 60’s when I was in third grade. My teacher played a vinyl record over and over in our classroom and we sang along. One day my father visited our class, as parents were encouraged to do. He was singing one of the songs later that evening. It made an impression: “Wow, Dad even liked this!”
“Here’s an idea,” I told the ARD committee. “I will find a cool multiplication cassette that will help [this fifth grader] learn his multiplication facts.” So, I started asking around. We had great media resources at Region 16 Education Service Center.
I listened to several different recordings of multiplication tables. The problem was they all sounded so juvenile. And poorly produced. And boring. Come on, this was a fifth grader! Giving him something that sounded like baby songs was only going to insult him. At this time, even Schoolhouse Rock had gone out of publication. It later came back—we may have helped that—but in 1986 no cool-sounding multiplication cassettes existed.
My brother Brad, ten years younger than me, was in a rock band at the time. He had started playing with this band when he was just 14 by getting together with some other young musicians at his church. They wrote their own songs, and in Amarillo they were getting a lot of attention, not just from guest appearances at churches but even renting space at public schools and playing to packed audiences. Our family loved going to hear them perform. I took lots of photos and was so proud of my younger brother.
Faced with trying to help kids learn multiplication, I thought, “What if I could work with Brad to make our own educational recording of multiplication facts?” I knew it would cost a lot of money because we would need to go into an analog recording studio with good equipment. At first, I wasn’t sure how committed I was. It’s easy to get business ideas; it’s tough to actually implement them.
My wife Kathie is the more cautious one of us; we’ve always balanced each other in that regard. Money was tight, especially since she had quit her job to focus on raising our daughters. We pinched pennies, clipped coupons, and really saved. Kathie had managed to put away over $500. Could I use it to start a company? Kathie knew this was important to me, making a multiplication recording with my younger brother, Brad, so she agreed.
I worked up a proposal and went to Brad and talked also with his band members. By this time Brad was in college studying to be an electrical engineer at Texas A&M in College Station. He was home for a semester break. Keep in mind; this was before digital recording, so we would have to go into an analog recording studio. Brad’s band had never done any serious recording, just little 4-track projects using cheap equipment.
“Hey Brad, how would you like to take your band into a real recording studio?”
“That sounds great!” he replied. Brad knew I was a big fan of his music. Brad was becoming an accomplished guitarist, singer, and songwriter.
“So Brad, how would you like to do multiplication recordings? Wait, before you say no, hear me out.” I went on to tell Brad that this might become a profitable company that we would share ownership. No telling whether we could make money, but at least we could help some kids learn. There was nothing even close to what I was wanting on the market.
Brad said “yes” and began to help me write songs. I wrote a few lyrics and combined them with the facts, Brad wrote more lyrics, and composed the music. We did this in a few weeks. It sounded good. One of the math consultants at Region 16 looked over our method to check whether it made sense educationally. It did, and it was time to find a recording studio.
We also needed a catchy name for the company. After mulling over several names and none too appealing, my daughter Shawn barely eight years old offered, “Why don’t you call it Rock ‘N Learn?”
We found a recording company in Amarillo—Perdue Studios—that actually had a fairly impressive facility with a nice mixing board, good equipment, and several isolation booths. I negotiated a deal with the owner, Jay Perdue, to record Brad and his band for $500. That was a pretty sweet deal for us. Analog recording equipment was extremely expensive. We did a multi-track recording, using one of Jay’s engineers. Because of our budget, the recording and mixing had to be done in one 14-hour day. There was no room for a misstep.
The night before the recording, my wife Kathie got scared thinking about using up our savings. She didn’t say I couldn’t do it. She was just obviously anxious, and I hated to see her so frightened. This really was a long shot; we knew that most new businesses fail.
I called my mom to let her know that Kathie was a little scared. I was having last-minute jitters myself. My mom told me sternly, “Rich, you cannot back out of this. The boys are so excited. You cannot let them down; that would be very wrong. If you won’t do it, I’ll manage somehow to find the money.”
I told Kathie what my mom had said. Kathie responded, “Honey, you can do this. I love you. We’ll make it work.”
That morning was hectic. It was sometime during the last part of December 1986. The lead singer had stayed up all night intentionally not getting sleep—his secret strategy for battling nerves. “Okay,” I thought. “Sounds crazy; hope this works.” Things turned out surprisingly well.
Our first recording, Rock ‘N Learn Multiplication, has been redone and improved a few times since the original. Eventually, Rock ‘N Learn became full time employment for Brad and I, both of our wives, and a team of talented sales and marketing people, an office support staff, artists, and animators. We were fortunate to begin producing animated videos in 1997. Learning how to do quality audio first, definitely gave us an edge when making educational video programs.
Through the years, besides our full-time staff, we’ve worked with a lot of great voice actors and singers to help give our educational programs the entertainment value that gets results. We’ve consulted with several terrific teachers and educational specialists, coordinated by Brad’s wife Melissa, a former teacher herself who writes many of our scripts. Plus, we’ve responded to the excellent feedback on how we can improve our programs from our fans—the parents, teachers, and kids who use Rock ‘N Learn.
Now we’re excited to explore new frontiers with our first series of iPad apps and interactive white board programs.
I welcome any comments or questions you have. Please post.