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Rochester telecom firm has its own "school of rock"

It's 4 p.m. on a Thursday. And instead of sitting in front of office computer screens, a group of employees from M5 Networks is in the middle of band practice.

The ragtag four-piece - crammed into rented jam space in Rochester's High Falls district - is banging out Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" as an instructor from the Hochstein School of Music looks on.

The banter is friendly, the thud of the kick drum is heavy, and the song is surprisingly well played.

There's only one rule for the M5 workers: you can't play an instrument you already know how to play.

"The great thing about this program is that you're required to learn something new," says M5 office manager Myriah Marsh.

In a nutshell, that's the point.

Band practice

M5 Networks - a provider of cloud-based telephone services for businesses - is teaming up with the Hochstein School of Music for a program called M5 Rocks. Every week, bands of M5 employees get together on company time to practice pop songs - everything from Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" to Semisonic's "Closing Time."

"They're at work all day," says Hochstein's Ivan Trevino, the guy in charge of band practice. "So for them to take a break and do something different, they're usually pretty happy to be here."

Still, few companies are following M5's lead.

Trevino says M5 is the first company Hochstein has teamed up with for a "school of rock." He says the unique partnership stems from a meeting with Phelim White, the founder of M5's Rochester office.

"The way he put it was really intriguing," recalls Trevino. "He said, 'We want our employees to continue to learn new things'."

"Happy colleagues, happy customers"

"Most people don't want to learn something that they're really insecure about," says M5's White.

White is a musician himself. Before moving to Rochester, he toured his native Ireland and then later the U.S., as a drummer in several bands.

Music has always been a part of M5's corporate culture, according to White. He says the first 20 or so people involved with the company were musicians who would often play together after work. The music education program is also "near and dear" to M5 CEO Dan Hoffman's heart. Hoffman first started the initiative at the company's New York City headquarters.

But White says M5 Rocks is about much more than just finding time to jam: He says there's no better way to build a team than to start a band.

"That's an accounting person getting together with an engineer and a sales guy," White says. "All these different departments coming together as a band, as a unit, and learning how to be great together."

And White says it's not just lip service. As a company, he says M5 is committed to providing business customers with telecom service they will "love."

When it comes down to it, White says M5 Rocks is about enhancing the company's bottom line.

"Happy colleagues, happy customers, right?" White says. "If you're going to have a commitment to your customers loving your service, the first commitment has to be to the staff."

The main event

That company-wide commitment takes the form of music education, but it also includes Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes for people uninterested in music. Between music and martial arts, White says about a third of the Rochester office's 90 employees are participating.

The training all leads to one big event this coming May: M5's 12th birthday bash in New York City.

The centerpiece of that event will be a "battle of the bands" pitting M5 offices in Rochester, New York and Chicago against each other in friendly competition. (White says there will also be a Jiu-Jitsu "fight off" earlier in the day.)

This is the second "battle of the bands." White says last year's show - in front of about 500 people - was a nerve-wracking success.

"There was a lot of cottonmouth and nervous people nearly vomiting in the green room," says White, laughing. "[People were] smoking lots of cigarettes and doing shots to get their Dutch courage together."

This year the company expects an audience of 2,000 - including M5 clients and friends. That's a pretty big gig for a bunch of fledgling rock stars.

Payback time

Last year, a band from Rochester came in second to one from New York City.

This year, Rochester office manager Myriah Marsh says that is not going to happen.

"We're working really hard toward one goal," Marsh says. "In case you didn't notice, we're all taking this pretty seriously. Rochester's going to win this year!"

M5's Phelim White concurs. He says teaming up with Hochstein is his office's secret weapon.

As a former pro, White can't perform at the show in May. But he says he'll definitely be there, playing head cheerleader as Rochester's bands take the stage.

"They'll go back to their jobs, and they'll still have that sense of coming together as a team," says White. "They see the bigger picture - and they'll continue to push that type of energy back out to the customer base."

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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