PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
December 9, 2003

Playing For Peanuts

by Jim Newsom

“I think there’s a real connection between getting good grades and having music in your background, because it opens up the mind. I want to do more to bring that connection to people who don’t understand that yet.”

John Dixon, executive director of Norfolk’s Academy of Music, is a man with a mission, a true believer in the power of music to affect the lives of individuals whatever their age. His own life story is a textbook example of the importance of music in a young person’s upbringing. Growing up 40 miles outside of London where his father was a professor at King’s College, Dixon’s love of music started at a young age.

“I had a very good education at an all-boys school,” he recalls in his proper British accent. “And there was an organ in the assembly hall. We’d have an assembly every morning, 600 boys would get together, sing a hymn, say a prayer and then go to class.”

He learned to play the organ there and was encouraged to vie for an organ scholarship to Cambridge University. Instead, heeding his father’s advice that “you don’t really want to study music, what kind of career are you going to have,” he went to Oxford University and put formal music studies on the back burner.

“At Oxford I was studying engineering and economics. I was not a very good engineer, I found that out pretty quickly, but I liked the economics part. Quite by coincidence I was at a college that had fabulous music. Yet while I was there, what did I do? I was in my rock music phase. We did covers of Elton John, the Beatles.

“It was so funny. Here I was at Oxford with this fabulous classical music going on and there I was playing rock.”

After getting his Oxford undergraduate degree, Dixon worked for England’s Atomic Energy Authority for a year. But he decided he didn’t want to spend his life climbing the bureaucratic ladder.

“They had something called a fast breeder reactor which uses plutonium with a half-life of something like 250,000 years,” he laughs. “The first thing they said was ‘our reactors are absolutely safe, there will never be a problem with our reactors.’ The second thing they do is say ‘just in case, we’re going to build it on the north of Scotland.’ So it’s just on the back of beyond. In order to make progress through the organization, they were going to put me there for a couple of years.”

“The back of beyond” didn’t sound very appealing so, encouraged by American friends to attend business school in the States, and bolstered by a shot at a Rotary scholarship, he applied for admission.

“I only knew of two business schools in America,” he says,” Harvard and Stanford. Stanford rejected me, Harvard accepted me. Then I didn’t get the Rotary scholarship. I had a place in the Harvard Business School but I didn’t have any money. So I went out and borrowed enough money to buy a small house, and off I went to Harvard Business School.”

He met his future wife Karen, a fellow MBA student, at Harvard. He also played in a band called the Fortune 500s:

“We took Billy Joel songs and things like that, and rewrote the lyrics to be spoofs on business. We claimed we had invented the genre of ‘biz-rock.’ Biz-rock never caught on!”

Graduating from Harvard Business School during the economic downturn of the early 1980s, he found it difficult to secure a position in America. So Dixon returned to his hometown in England, taking a job with a “high-tech sports shoes company” started by a tennis-playing friend. He and his future wife carried on a transatlantic romance while Karen finished up her MBA at Harvard. (“The phone bills were astronomical!”)

“We got engaged right at the time that I was sent out to Taiwan to open an office. So the year of my engagement, Karen was living in Pittsburgh working for Mellon Bank and living with her parents and I was living in Taiwan.”

In Taiwan, he found an unusual way to keep up his musical chops:

“Most of my evenings I was taken out to dinner at these businessmen’s clubs by factory owners and people like that. These clubs would typically have Filipino bands who were singing covers. When the Taiwanese discovered that I played piano, they would send me up on stage. I was the break band. That was the only way I could get any practice!”

After their marriage in 1984, Karen and John Dixon moved back to England. He continued with the shoe company while she commuted into London to work for a bank. On the side, they began importing How to Host a Murder games from Decipher, a Norfolk-headquartered company. At first they used their garage as a warehouse.

“In England, the houses are built close together,” he says. “So when we’d go out, we’d take our cordless phone next door and our neighbor would act as our secretary.”

Still, the couple wanted to move back to the U.S. When an offer came for John to take a position as executive vice president for Decipher in 1988, they jumped at the chance and came to Hampton Roads. Two years later, though, the company found itself in a downsizing mode and John began to look for another business opportunity. He found it when his accountant told him of a peanut broker interested in selling his company.

“With a Harvard MBA, you can learn a lot about stuff very quickly,” he responds when asked about going into an industry he knew nothing about. “It was fascinating, and it was a very good business for about eight years. I brokered more than $100 million worth of nuts in my time. I went to Senegal. I went to Surinam. I’ve been to Prague and Hamburg and Valencia. I went to Italy for a week every year in the spring.”

As the peanut brokering business began to decline in the late ‘90s, he found himself with time to revisit his first love, music. Through involvement with the choral music program at his church, Providence Presbyterian in Virginia Beach, he composed pieces for worship services. His music was also performed by the Virginia Chorale at Chrysler Hall. When the church’s organist retired in 1998, he took the job himself.

“There was this period where it was quiet but it was always there,” he says of his music. “My left brain got all the action for a significant chunk of that time, until about the mid-‘90s and then the right brain got a chance to let rip. But unfortunately, it’s a very rare person who can earn a decent living from right-brain activity. I’m trying to balance the two now.”

Which brings us to the present, and his job leading the Academy of Music, a non-profit community music school started by First Presbyterian Church in Ghent, but now independent. Besides programs at the school, the Academy sponsors violin lessons for disadvantaged children at Park View Elementary School in Portsmouth. Plans call for offsite offerings at churches in Great Bridge and Kempsville.

“In our building we offer music lessons. There’s tuition payable but we also have scholarships. We have some of the best teachers around, and they are very dedicated. These are performers who play at the highest level but they also have this desire to teach.”

John Dixon has brought together his love for music with his business training and experience. And he has a bully pulpit from which to spread his message---the importance of music in everyone’s lives.

“I’ve become a living example of the benefit of a music education to a young person,” he concludes, “because I had all that music early in my life and ended up having an international business career. What I want people to understand is the benefit to anybody, not just young people. Having music in your life will improve other areas of your life. If I can get people to buy into that, then other programs will flourish.

“I can’t drive that all by myself. I have to lead by example and then others will say ‘we want our SOL scores to go up, we’d better get some music to these young kids.’”

The Academy of Music is located at 902 Colonial Avenue in Norfolk. For more information, call 627-0967 or go online to www.academy-of-music.org .

copyright © 2003 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.