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WOW! Music Founders Talk College Romance and Shredding in Mill Valley

From Greek Wooden Buddha to banana slugs, Tommy Toy and Emily Siskin-Toy share what inspired them to open a new breed of music instruction school in southern Marin.

Tucked behind the small stretch of retail shops and offices along the northeastern edge of Mill Valley, can be hard to find for some. But it's certainly not hard to hear.

Husband-and-wife team Tommy Toy and Emily Siskin-Toy launched Wow! in 2005 to create "a totally unique music education experience for people of all ages interested in playing music." We sat down with the couple to talk about what led them to start a music school, their Banana Slug background, their favorite bands and what they love to do in Mill Valley.

Mill Valley Patch: Where are you from originally?
Tommy Toy: I grew up in Castro Valley in the East Bay. 
Emily Siskin-Toy: I grew up here in Mill Valley. I went to and , which is where our daughter now attends!

MVP: Where did you meet your husband and business partner?
EST: We met at UC Santa Cruz when we were freshmen. We were paired together by an English professor to work on a project together. The teacher quickly realized she shouldn’t have paired us up, as we couldn’t stop laughing while we working on her preposterous assignment. We’ve been together ever since.

MVP: What drew you back to Mill Valley?
EST: After college we moved to LA to jump-start are careers in journalism (me) and business (Tommy). But after our daughter was born, we knew we wanted to return to the Bay Area where are families both still lived. I talked Tommy into moving to Mill Valley. I really wanted to come back home.

TT: It wasn’t hard to get me to leave LA. The cacophony of car alarms in the middle of the night was reason alone!

MVP: What makes your music studio different?
TT: Our goal when we started WOW! was to provide kids with the musical experience they were missing out on in school with all of the budget cuts. Instead of traditional piano and guitar lessons, where reading music is emphasized from the outset, we use methods that are more intuitive and fun to get students playing great songs right from the start.
This inspires them to want to play the instrument and gives them a solid foundation before we teach them to read music. At that point, we begin the reading process and it comes more naturally and easily. Our students also get opportunities to apply what they are learning in their lessons in ensemble play (rock bands and jam sessions), something that is sorely missing in most programs.

MVP: What is the age-range of students you have?
EST: We primarily teach students ages 6 to 18.

MVP: What would you be doing if you weren't running WOW!?
TT: We love to travel and experience new cultures. We’d probably figure out a way to bring our style of music lessons to the rest of the world.

MVP: What's your favorite thing to do in Mill Valley?
EST: We start most days with an early-morning hike with our dog. There are so many awesome trails in Mill Valley with some of the best views in the world. We also love to eat lunch at —we are definitely regulars there. The iced teas are usually waiting for us before we even sit down! We also love going to the  to listen to music; the acoustics there are great.

MVP: Are you a musician?
TT: I have been playing music since I was five years old. I can remember
eavesdropping on my older sister’s piano lessons. Then when the teacher left, I would go to the piano and start playing what I heard her learning, note for note. I also play bass in a local band called Greek Wooden Buddha.

MVP: What's in your iPod/record player/tape deck?
EST: Just a huge variety. My favorite band is No Doubt. But having a teenager in the house and being around the kids at our studio keeps us current—Train, Pink, Coldplay, Paramore, One Republic.

MVP: How did your years as a Banana Slug influence you musically?
TT: My time at UCSC was when I really first started playing in rock bands. In high school, I mainly played in the school jazz band and orchestra. But when I got to UCSC, I wanted play in a rock band and I ended up playing in three! It made studying kind of difficult, but that’s when my love of playing music really took off.
Sharing music with other people is where the fun really is—and that’s why we started WOW!—to share music with kids and to teach them how to share their music with other people, too.

Tracy H. September 10, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Tommy and Emily are local treasures--thanks for focusing on them. The WOW Music program is a creative and powerful way to learn music, and a whole lot of FUN. My daughter has been taking lessons there for 6 years.
Tim Amyx September 11, 2012 at 06:14 AM
Tommy & Emily have already left their mark on Mill Valley. Great couple, and Tommy is a fantastic piano teacher. We've been blessed to have had the opportunity to share our lives with them personally and professionally.... Our little town is a better place because of them...

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