Ottawa’s music man: How Spaceman Music School turned the beat around during COVID-19

By Denis Armstrong

When Dave Dudley gave notice that he was moving his drum shop out of Spaceman Music's second leased building, the shop owners Scott Terry, Alex Mortimer and Tom Stewart asked their sales staff for ideas on what to do with the space.

Rey Sabatin suggested converting the store at 390 Gladstone Ave. into a music school, reasoning that a music school would pair perfectly with the music store. Students could buy an instrument at 388 Gladstone Ave., and take a lesson next door. It would make Spaceman Music a hub for the city's burgeoning music community.

“I'd been entertaining the idea of opening my own music school for a few years,” Sabatin recalls. “I'd been teaching guitar and songwriting on my own, and saw the effect learning how to play music has on people. I knew it would work.”

Convinced that Sabatin was onto a good thing, Spaceman Music opened its music school in 2018 with Sabatin as the school's co-ordinator.

It marked a new, if not unexpected, stage in Sabatin's varied music career. He's among the six people on staff who teaches guitar, vocals and songwriting in addition to managing the school. He took to teaching, finding the relationship between teacher and student similar to the relationship he had with audiences when he fronted the Ottawa band The John Henry's.

“Music,” Sabatin says, “can have a transformative power on people. You see it when you play — how an audience can lose themselves in the music and becomes a part of the song. It's the same as teaching a student. It's a fantastic feeling when a student learns something you've taught them, and you see them grow more confident and they want to play more. I develop a relationship with the student you don't always find with customers in the store.”

It took a couple of years for the business to mature, but by 2020, registrations were peaking with more than 100 students.

Then, COVID-19 hit. The school closed and lessons went online. More than an awkward situation, it was potentially life-threatening.

“We lost half our students overnight,” Sabatin recalls. “This is a hands-on business. Students want to feel their instrument, develop a relationship with a teacher. We couldn't do that. The first lockdown was devastating. I thought we'd have to close for good. But the interest was still there. People were waiting for the opportunity. But there's something about this place that people love. We're a community. COVID's not going to stop us. We were determined to keep going.”

Fortunately, Spaceman Music had the support and goodwill of the music community it's built over the years. Registrations for lessons via the website are returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“It's been a long two years,” Sabatin says. “People needed something to do during the lockdowns. If anything's going to make people feel better in these troubled times, it's music, whether they're listening to it or playing it. I prefer they play it.”

Formerly Song Bird Music, employees Stewart, Terry and Mortimer bought the business, renaming it Spaceman Music in 2007. Sabatin, then a touring musician, moved to Ottawa and began working at Song Bird in 2002. He's been there ever since.

“Spaceman's always treated me well,” he says. “I've never gone home and said, 'Why do I work there?' I've worked at corporate shops that promised to look after the staff but did the opposite. Spaceman's management knows what it's like to be the employee. Most of the staff are musicians. They treat us well.”

In addition to managing the school, Sabatin continues to write and perform his music and is planning to release two albums of new original music later this year.

“Even as a kid, I was more interested in records than toys, G.I Joe,” he recalls. “It was pretty clear at an early age that my happiness was with music. I started selling guitars when I was 18 in Toronto. I've sacrificed a lot of financial opportunities to work in a guitar shop, but that's where my heart is.”

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