Lena Begun has been playing music since the age of 5. She attended a school for gifted children in Moscow and eventually received a masters degree from the Russian Academy of Music. The accomplished pianist is now bringing her gift to tech workers in the Seattle area who take a break at work for Play At Work, a music lessons company started by Begun.
Begun has worked with recording teams for the internationally renowned Russian National Symphony Orchestra and Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. She came to the United States in 2000 and eventually launched Play At Work in 2013.
“I came to Seattle as a single mother with my daughter, and basically started from scratch,” Begun said. “It’s a success story for me and I’m very proud of it.”
The impetus for Play At Work was rooted in Begun’s desire to spend more time with her daughter at night. All of her private music lessons were happening in the evening, and Begun was looking for a way to maintain that career, but to do it during normal working hours.
“This kind of work-life balance that we promote at the workplace? I started with myself,” she said. “I just wanted to have the same balance for my own life.”
Play At Work offers one-on-one instruction in the workplace, and bills it as a benefit to the employee, who can take a break from work to learn or brush up on an instrument. The employer gets to allow a perk that is said to improve mood and performance — much like massages, fitness classes, free food, and others benefits frequently offered by tech companies.
Begun started by offering piano lessons by herself at Google in Seattle, and her business grew to a waiting list of 40 would-be students. She brought on other instructors teaching other instruments, including choir, and now between Google and Facebook, Play At Work teaches about 100 students.
It’s a benefit for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find the time to take music lessons, especially if they have children or other obligations that mean they have to be right home after work.
Pankaj Kakkar is a software engineer at Google and he’s been taking piano lessons for about five years. He has a background in Indian classical music, vocals as well as harmonium. He tinkered with the piano a bit before beginning formal lessons with Play At Work.
“I do weekly lessons, though work responsibilities sometimes mean I have to miss,” said Kakkar, who takes his lesson in a dedicated room with heavy soundproofing at Google’s Kirkland offices. “Lena is very patient and adapts her style to fit the student’s preferences and level. She also picks music that adapts based on those two things, which makes the lessons tractable and very enjoyable.”
Apart from the achievement of getting progressively better at playing the piano, Kakkar said that every lesson leaves him mentally refreshed.
“Playing and learning the piano is a meditative experience for me,” he said. “It de-stresses me and helps me sleep better, code better, feel better.”
Begun is at Google every day, and the Play At Work website shows seven other instructors, who mostly visit once a week. Students range from beginner to quite accomplished, Begun said, and rates are $45 for a half-hour lesson. While she’s already teaching at two tech giants, and has tried to get in the door at Amazon, Begun said the workplaces do not have to be high-tech.
At Facebook, Marianne Giesemann has been a product designer on the News Feed team for a bit over a year and a half. She had no prior experience playing music, aside from a bit of singing for which she had no formal training, but she’s been taking ukulele lessons through Play At Work for almost a year.
“I saw some posters at work and I thought it was a really cool perk,” said Giesemann, who meets with guitar instructor Chris Gibson once a week in a soundproofed music room.
Giesemann is already able to play two types of ukuleles and now she’s starting with guitar. She admits she has a long way to go technically, but the experience has been great.
“It’s really awesome to take a break and do something completely different than work,” Giesemann said. “To have fun and learn something new, something creative. It really makes me excited to go to work whenever I have a class that day.”