Not fade away: How Dietz Brothers Music kept its groove in the time of novel coronavirus
by Mark McDermott
Something strange was going on at Dietz Brothers Music during the first weeks of the pandemic.
Like every other small business, the shop had closed its doors when state and county officials issued Stay at Home orders in mid-March. But Dietz Brothers is more than a guitar store; the two-story, labyrinthian compound on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach is also a music school. For the last five decades, several generations of kids have learned their first scales, chords, and songs at Dietz Brothers, which was founded by John and Pat Dietz in 1976 and has been at its current location since 1991. More than notes and scales, however, the Dietz Brothers brought something few music shops or schools have managed to truly bring to the table. They taught kids how to rock. Quite literally hundreds of bands pounded out their first songs behind the fabled doors of Dietz Brothers Music.
Most of the 13 employees at the shop are young musicians, and so when the notion of teaching lessons online first arose, everyone was down for it. For kids who’d grown up with YouTube, teaching music via screens wasn’t a huge leap. Even John Dietz, the more tech-inclined of the brothers, quickly adapted.
Pat Dietz was a different story. He doesn’t even own a cell phone, although his wife Carol did buy him an iPad a few years ago to check out the internet. Teaching music via a little screen was far off his radar. On top of that, he was under the weather. This, too, was something that never happens; Dietz, for example, has played over 6,000 gigs as a musician and never missed one and only ever been late once (due to his sworn enemy, Daylight Savings Time).
And so, during the first weeks of the pandemic, the Dietz Brothers for the first time in its 43 years of existence was without one of the founding brothers. Two words nobody had ever associated with the loquacious Pat Dietz became operational: radio silence. For those close to him, like his daughter, Carrie Dietz Brown (who calls her dad “the Mountain,”), his absence was like living in an alternate universe.
Then there were a few blips, flickering signs of Dietzian life. In late March, one friend was shocked to receive a FaceTime call from Dietz. There were clearly still a few bugs in the system. When he appeared on the screen, at first only the top of Dietz’s forehead appeared. “It’s like Star Trek, dude,” were his first words.
Then one day in the second week of April, Dietz took his iPad and drove over to the shop. He was feeling better and had decided to teach lessons. He ran a cord from his iPad to a guitar amp so he could hear his students play, and plugged his own guitar in, as well. His first FaceTime call was to his wife to take the system for a test drive. She was a little surprised to pick up and find her husband on the screen in full performance mode. He played her “Memphis, Tennessee,” the rock ‘n roll shuffle made famous by Chuck Berry: “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee/
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me….”
She was stopped in her tracks, as she had been when she first heard him play 44 years ago at the University of Oregon, by how good he sounded.
“Nobody can play like that and not be alright,” she recalled. “He sounded just like himself. Hearing him play — that’s how I fell in love with him in the first place…. He wanted to test the system, so that’s why he called, but Pat is a huge show-off, so he was showing off, too. That’s when I knew he was back.”
Dietz has since regained 20 of his 30 or so students and found, much to his surprise, that teaching music online is not only doable but fun.
“I think the best thing is getting to see people’s houses,” he said. “It’s just kind of what you’d expect. The older people’s houses have nice wood floors and look all together. This young single guy, it’s just kind of a derelict scene, the bed not made and coffee cups everywhere. I told him I wanted to pick up the room before the lesson.”
Most surprising, however, is that the lessons have been effective, sometimes almost startlingly so.
“Students are definitely spending more time on it,” Dietz said. “I had one little girl I was teaching, she’s a sophomore in high school, a super talented singer. But I’m watching her play guitar on one of these lessons and I realize, ‘Oh, she’s killing it.’ And I said, ‘Annie, you are really playing well.’ And she said, ‘Pat, it’s all I’ve been doing here. I’ve been playing so much that I taught my friends to play, online.’”
That student, Annie Iantuono, is a Mira Costa student who back in pre-pandemic days had trouble finding five minutes a day to pick up her guitar. Now she finds herself practicing an hour at a time, and has indeed been teaching two of her friends. So far the three of them have learned Tame Impala’s “The Less I Know the Better” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
“Because we didn’t want to start easy,” she said. “So we jumped into any song we wanted to.”
And that might be the key not only to the survival of a little family-owned music shop on Sepulveda but to everyone who has soldiered through this time of crisis and loss: the teachers and aspiring musicians who are part of the Dietz Brothers community have just jumped in to what present circumstances, however dire, have still made possible. Pat Dietz noted that throughout this difficult time, he’s turned to one of his favorite books, “When You are Falling, Dive,” by Mark Matousek and Ram Dass. “It’s a great book about resilience,” he said. “And just f’ing doing it, you know?”
His daughter Carrie said that’s been Pat Dietz’s main message to her throughout the time of novel coronavirus.
“He’s like, ‘Listen, man, do not get distracted by stress,’” she recalled. “‘Think about what you need to do today, and just get it done.’”
Pat Dietz’s resurgence, along with his students, is indicative of how Dietz Brothers Music has somehow itself hummed along underneath the disruption of the pandemic. Not a single employee has been laid off. Though income from lessons for the store’s teachers has declined, Pat and John Dietz have taken cuts from their own income as teachers to help bolster their employees’ pay.
“I know I’m a family member so I’m biased but I don’t know anybody whose bosses are bro-ing them the way we are getting bro-ed, or being as generous,” said Carrie Dietz Brown, who teaches at the store. “Most of my friends are just begging their bosses to just fill out unemployment papers. Which is no shade on anyone, but I’m incredibly grateful.”
The Dietz Brothers’ loyalty to their employees is akin to the loyalty their community of students and other customers have shown the store. Roughly two-thirds of the roughly 400 students who take lessons from Dietz Brothers — in normal times, in one of the little practice rooms behind and above the store — have continued their musical education online. Income also continues to come in from instrument rentals and very sporadic instrument sales (though the shop declined to fully reopen when LA County allowed music retailers to reopen in early May, the Dietz’s developed a system in which they’d leave instruments out in the store’s courtyard so those calling in search of an instrument could go check out a selection and then pay for any purchases by phone). While corporate behemoths like Guitar Center have barely averted bankruptcy, the Dietz Brothers chugs along.
“We are so used to scuffling, it just seems normal,” Pat Dietz said. “It’s not like being a musician is some easy way to make a living to start with, you know. So yeah, we are kind of used to the scuffle, and we are small enough that I do think it’s one of those cases where you can reorganize pretty quickly. Especially the students who have continued with the online lessons, I think there is definitely an element that they are just hanging there with us. The surprising thing is we have also started new people.”
“Musicians are just scrappy and can turn on a dime,” said Carrie Dietz Brown. “We are all used to being broke all of the time, so we actually know how to handle something like this. Whether there are changes or we are totally broke, we’ve all run that drill enough times we can go do what we need to do to change and to go onward.”
“Our students, on the flip side of that, have just been incredibly gracious and open-minded to just go, ‘Yeah, I’ll try this.’ For parents with kids locked down at home, I’m sure it’s appealing for them to have their kids have something to do, but I am so moved by our customers’ open hearts. I know they have a need for what we are providing, but I also know they are trying to bro us and give us a chance. It’s just a really kind thing they are doing, and it’s working out.”
John Dietz has been surprised at just how well it’s been working out, instruction-wise. His students have almost all made unusual progress during the pandemic, largely owing to the fact that they are more focused.
“Kids are really improving,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that we are not competing with sports and school. They’ve got the time to do this and there’s nothing else they can do. It’s just themselves and their instruments so why not? I see an immense amount of improvement, simply because they don’t have that competition. Sports is a very positive thing, but an extremely time-consuming thing.”
He’s also noticed something more unexpected. He teaches flute, saxophone, and clarinet. Usually, he said, teaching these instruments is all about tone. “When teaching online, that goes by the wayside, because the tone sucks, frankly,” Dietz said. “But I find myself focusing on other things that I normally don’t focus on in a lesson.”
What Dietz has instead focused on are broader musical dynamics. An essential part of music is about knowing which notes to emphasize, and how much, in order to convey feeling; it’s about how loud to play at some points, or how soft to play at other points, as well as knowing when to pick up the tempo or let it slow. With a saxophone, flute, or clarinet, there is an especially fine art in what Deitz calls “exaggerating” those dynamics.
“When you are playing a wind instrument, it’s loud in your head. It’s right in your face, in your mouth,” he said. “It’s in your ears. So you tend to lose track of the fact that sometimes what you think is really an exaggeration of something, five rows back they can’t even tell you are doing it.”
Watching and listening to his students on the screen, Dietz is much more than five rows back, which means he can better feel how their dynamics are or are not conveying the feeling of the music.
“I find myself focusing on things like this online because I can’t focus on other things as much,” he said. “I think in the long run it’s not a bad thing. It’s almost like being another teacher, in some ways, because every teacher tends to focus on certain things. It’s kind of interesting. I can see the drawbacks, but I can also see the positives.”
“Online is never a route that we’d ever really wanted to do, and it’s turned out to be in a lot of ways a very positive thing. I mean, every teacher would tell you it’s not as good as a hands-on lesson where you are there one-on-one with someone showing them exactly what to do. That’s the best-case scenario, without a doubt. But we’ve been doing this eight weeks now and there are things that have been surprisingly positive about the whole scenario.”
Carrie Dietz Brown, who teaches guitar and ukulele, has taught the full version of a fairly challenging song, “Blackbird,” to students who a few months ago couldn’t have even tried such complexity and are now gamely tackling it, if not mastering it. She has noticed one oddity, however: the uke students aren’t the online kind.
“I tried doing FaceTime with a few of them,” she said. “One of them actually had the phone up to his ear. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m just looking at your ear right now.’ The uke people demand an in-person vibe.”
Carol Dietz, who teaches violin and harpsichord, has likewise seen significant progress in her students’ playing. It’s occurred almost across the board. One girl, a sixth-grader who has taken lessons for four years, has suddenly mastered techniques she could barely attempt a few months ago.
“She pushed herself and has learned stuff that we messed around with before but that never really clicked,” Dietz said. “There was just a level of focus and seriousness I had never seen for her as a student.”
Part of what’s occurring might be something beyond the fact that students have more time. It may also be because music is fundamentally about feeling, and living through these strange times has given rise to a lot of feelings. Dietz tailors her lessons by what her students are feeling — if they look ready for a challenge, it might be a technical classical etude, but if it looks like they need an easy lift, it might be a song from a Disney movie, such as “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas.”
“I started out skeptical about teaching online, and within a couple of weeks I was sold,” Dietz said. “I find that the look in the kids’ eyes can be very moving, whether they are eager and excited about their piece or, as the weeks go by, how some of the kids look kind of beat down. I feel very moved by their tone and vibe. I kind of sink into that and read by it, telling by their tone or the look in their eye what they need in our half-hour together.”
She has also witnessed some other unexpectedly positive aspects. Usually, in person, Dietz accompanies students while they play, but because of the slight internet lag on Zoom or FaceTime, that is not possible right now. So in some cases, her students are playing music with family members. One middle school violinist is doing something she would never normally do — playing with her little sister, who is four years younger and accompanies her sister on cello. Another of Dietz’s students, an eight-year-old girl, recorded a video of herself playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on violin with her mother accompanying her on piano.
“That video was really meaningful to me,” Dietz said. “The little girl’s solemnity — she’s so serious about working hard to learn that song, even though you mostly can’t tell what the song is because she’s making this one little mistake with her third finger. But she’s so solemn and she’s playing and her mother is so patient. It really reminded me of when I was a little girl and my mother would do accompaniment for me. It kind of gave me goosebumps, thinking about my mom, and how fun that was. And just the connection between two people.”
Pat Dietz calls the music shop “the family farm,” in part because both he and John’s kids have worked there, but also because Dietz Brothers Music has some traits inherited from his family’s history.
In 1938, Merle and Patty Dietz drove west from their hometown of Willow City, North Dakota, a village of fewer than 500 people about 30 miles from the Canadian border, nowhere near anything resembling a city. They drove all the way to the coast of Southern California. As family legend has it, Merle drove down Rosecrans Avenue, felt the ocean breeze for the first time in his life and realized it was the only time in his 25 years that he hadn’t felt itchy. He declared Manhattan Beach home.
Merle and Patty would have 11 children. Merle was a chemistry teacher who built houses in the summer and an eternally curious man who would obtain his Phd at the age of 50. Music flowed through both sides of the family, all Midwestern farming folk who came from a culture in which people entertained themselves. As it had been through most of human history prior to the dawning of the music industry, music out on the plains of North Dakota early last century was something families and communities did together. People shared songs. This was especially so with the Dietz family. Patty Dietz had an older brother whose band, The Dizzy Syncopators, became a hit all over the state, and music particularly suffused her life.
“Everyone in her family played something,” John Dietz recalled. “Her older brother played a big part in her life, and it was a time when people — instead of watching TV, like nowadays — they played music.”
The Dietz brothers, John and Pat, were the ninth and tenth children in a family of eight girls and three boys. The first six girls all played piano but it didn’t much take. But by the time John and Pat were growing up, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had arrived. They bought their first guitar together for $5 when they were still in elementary school; John had three dollars and Pat two. They were in luck in that one of the truly foundational guitar teachers in the United States, a gypsy jazz guitarist named Gene Leis, happened to open up a shop in Manhattan Beach in the 60s. They were even luckier in that Leis had a high tolerance for wacky kid musicians.
“It was the cool hang, and that’s a big part of music when you are a kid,” John Dietz said. “I’m surprised he didn’t kick us out. That dude was patient, I’ll tell you, man. Because we were irritating, super irritating.’
They formed bands with their childhood friends — back in the mid-60s, when forming rock bands was a new thing upon the earth — and later attended music school in Oregon. When they returned home, the brothers started the “family farm” as a way to both keep making music and raise their own brood.
And so the founding ethos of Dietz Brothers Music has always been about people playing music together. One of the shop’s signature classes is an annual group instruction called “Summer of Rock,” in which young kids, many who have never met before, are taught to form a band together. The Dietzs teach music as connection, even when that connection is a bit faint and far apart, online. If anything, they are putting more time into making sure that connection happens — the lessons go a little longer, and the post-lesson notes, which can be songs or licks or exercises, are still handwritten, photographed or emailed right after (or for those who don’t have printers at home, Pat sometimes drops off the papers on his students’ doorstep, what he calls “DoorDash for music.”).
Yet as good as the online lessons have been going, something essential is missing.
“Dude, I’ve got to say, I miss seeing my students,” Pat Dietz said. “That’s not a surprising thing, but a central thing. I always said, I went into music for the hang. And this has really driven that point home.”
“I’m telling you, man, this must be what it’s like living in North Dakota,” he added. “There’s a reason my Dad left.”
“You know, all our teachers have been really good,” John Dietz said. “They are trying as hard as they can, really putting 110 percent into it. And we appreciate that, but it’ll be good to get everyone back in the shop. Because that is where the scene is.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Pat Dietz was hanging out in his room at the shop, teaching a longtime student named Hal Hunt some blues licks and turnarounds. But in between licks, he was also philosophizing, as is his wont — about John Prine’s last days, about the cruelty of childhood nicknames, about the time he met John Denver and how he really was as nice a guy as he seemed to be (and he wanted to learn classical guitar) but was also much bigger in person than he seemed on TV (“He was kind of a big dude.”). Hunt, a former fourth-grade teacher who has a bluegrass band that Dietz sometimes plays with, talked about Martin guitars, about mutual friends, and about Guy Clark’s songs. And whenever the topic was a song, both Deitz and Hunt indeed talked like they were talking about old mutual friends.
“Man, ‘Green River,’” Hunt said, referring to a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. “I’ve been kind of getting into this whole thing…There’s chords I don’t get in there.”
Then he started playing the song, with his teacher listening along, both in the same groove from a few miles apart, because the songs must go on.