Thomas Gregory tells us how he developed Vamoosh

31 May 2016

THOMAS GREGORY tells us how he developed Vamoosh, a successful series of tutor books for young strings players

‘Why don’t some kids want to make music?’ This question set the cellist Thomas Gregory on the path to creating Vamoosh, a range of tutor books for stringed instruments. The American colloquialism for ‘vamos!’, or, ‘let’s go!’, the title Vamoosh reflects the speed and entrepreneurial chutzpah with which Gregory has built up his own small publishing empire over the last seven years.

Thomas’s journey started after he graduated from Guildhall School of Music. He’d received a scholarship to continue his studies in the US where he’d lived for four years, but on returning to the UK in 2001 he needed money and took on a teaching job in an East London primary school. He was supporting the cello students. As in most school environments, however, he came up against discipline issues. ‘The students didn’t seem to engage with the music they were being taught,’ Thomas tells me over lunch. ‘I started to ask myself why.’

Whilst at the primary school, Thomas also worked for Haringey Music Service where he had freer rein to input on the material being taught. Again, he was teaching children in groups of up to 30, and testing what they responded to. ‘It was clear that they were most engaged when they were given something practical to do. The best lessons, I noticed, were those in which there were concrete, task-based activities. So I started to compile my own teaching material.’

At this point the material was focused on the violin because it was the instrument which most students, through services like Haringey Music, had access to.

It was when a Kent-based colleague asked him if he had any material he could share, that Thomas decided to consolidate what he had gradually amassed over the course of 8 teaching years. ‘I realised that I’d stockpiled all this material and that it was worth something.’ He put together a CD of backing tracks to accompany the books, as well as supporting material that included teachers’ notes, hopeful that this would be of use to others.

‘I took a risk. I calculated the costs, and spent all of my savings on a print run of 6,000 books. The majority of those books were for the violin, but I also produced ones for viola, cello and double bass. Then there was an accompaniment book, as well as a PowerPoint presentation which allowed teachers to project the notes on the classroom wall.’ There was also the CD of course.

The design of the books was pretty rudimentary. ‘I designed it in Word! But it didn’t need to be fancy. The whole point of the project was its affordability.’ One way Thomas kept costs down was by keeping Vamoosh a family affair. His father designed the charming Quentin Blake-like illustrations which adorn the books, and his brother-in-law helped set up a Vamoosh website and PayPal account so that people could buy direct from Thomas – avoiding the hefty administration costs of a publisher.

Cost, specifically affordability, was important to Thomas from the beginning. ‘I wanted the look and feel of the books to be affordable,’ he says. ‘I knew that price would be an important factor for teachers and organisations with tight budgets. The first book retailed for £4.95, and there were also discounts for bulk orders. Did he have any idea then that the books were going to be successful? ‘I wasn’t sure. I wrote to music services around the country to let them know about it.’

Selling to music services was a smart move of course, as teachers inevitably order in bulk for their students. And it wasn’t long before the orders started rolling in. ‘The feedback from teachers was good. They told me that it made their jobs easier. The students were responding to the exercises and a lot of their progress was self-motivated.’

As sales picked up, Thomas realised that he was due to make a return on his investment. ‘Within six months I had made my initial investment back. Within one year, I was able to launch the second book which was paid for out of the profits. This was in 2009. In 2012 I launched Book 3.’ Since then, sales have grown steadily, something Thomas attributes to word of mouth. Today he sells in excess of 10,000 books a year.

There’s plenty of educational material out there for musicians. I wonder what teachers and students respond to in particular with Vamoosh. ‘It makes teachers’ lives easy,’ Thomas says. ‘It gives them a structure. Also, the students are very self-motivated. It makes it easy for them to practice. There’s a gentle progression to the pieces so that their skills build, so they feel like they are achieving something. It also gets them learning musical notes very quickly. But they don’t feel intimidated by technique and theory. Music becomes something they do.’

Such has been his success that Thomas can no longer run the enterprise from his own home, making trips to the post office with armfuls of packages. Instead he employs a small family-run music distributor, Spartan Press, to fill the orders for him. And with the recent arrival of a Vamoosh app, the brand is set to spread even further afield. ‘It was expensive to develop the app,’ Thomas tells me. ‘But hopefully soon it should start paying for itself.’

As well as UK schools, Vamoosh is being used by some El Sistema – England projects as well as by the Music in Secondary Schools Trust. Further afield, it is already being bought in English-speaking territories, Australia and Canada, but perhaps surprisingly also in Scandinavian ones – particularly Norway. Thomas’s future ambition is to produce further books for strings but also other instruments. There are two books for recorder and two flute books in the pipeline. ‘One day I hope to have Vamoosh books for all instrument groups being taught in schools.’

I finish by asking Thomas whether, from that early gamble with his savings, he could have envisaged the success of his books. ‘No. It’s afforded me a decent lifestyle, which I’m very grateful for.’ He pauses briefly. ‘I’ll tell you a story. When I was first trying to sell the books, I took them in person to Boosey & Hawkes and Chappell of Bond St to see if they would stock them. These two giants of the music publishing world turned them down. One year later, almost to the day, both businesses came to me asking to stock them; their customers had been asking for the titles. It was a pleasing position to be in.’

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