How do you Make a Music Teacher?

by | Sep 3, 2021

The path that has led me to teach private music lessons is an interesting one. The bumps and curves along the way have given me the insights and experiences that have made me the teacher I am today. What follows is the story of how I became the teacher that I am today. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to spread my love of music to others. The answer to the question, How do you make a music teacher? It may be different for every teacher out there. I know that I am the best teacher if I am always the student, learning the lessons that each new student has to teach me.

A Musical Family

My grandmother, Ida Fox, taught piano to the kids in her farming town in upstate New York. I remember her always playing and singing with us as kids. She was still playing the piano at ninety-nine years of age for her friends and us in her retirement community. She taught her son, my Dad, who taught me, and I taught my daughter, Jubilee. My mother also played the piano as a young girl. My grandmother, Bammie, had the only piano on their street in Opelousas, Louisiana. She would let the neighborhood piano teacher teach all her students lessons in her house. My Mom was a star student!

Future Music Teacher

Learning to Play with Music

Growing up in New Orleans, we were the family with guitars that went out Christmas caroling. It was usually warm in December. Mom, Dad, my brother, and sister, and I, along with Ida and Case, and Bammie, would gather our instruments and collect one family at a time. We’d gather a large party of singers and then find out how the neighbor’s Christmas cookies tasted.

Music was always second nature to me and a language I was familiar with at a young age. In the ’80s, I played “the keys” in a rock band. Of course, I had fantastic hair. I was in the district, state, and national honor bands with my horn and played in the New Orleans All-City Orchestra. I sang in the high school choir and even had a barbershop quartet.  I’ve been so grateful to have music in my life, and the older I get, the more that rings true.

The Reluctant Teacher 

I have always been a teacher. I started at age one and a half with my sister, Melanie, showing her how to throw food on the floor. As a teenager, I taught golf lessons, junior golf clinics, swim lessons, coached the swim team, and taught lifeguard training, yet somehow I was a reluctant horn teacher when that time came around.

In my freshman year of college, I got a job working on cars to pay the rent. I’ve had many jobs. In my last few years of college, I’d travel to teach private horn lessons at three high schools each week. This was good money and music-related, so I did it with my other jobs while I finished school. When our horn teacher left my last year in college, I taught my fellow horn majors and played in the faculty quintet.

After graduation, I stopped working on cars briefly but kept teaching. I was taking auditions and trying to win a job. Playing the horn in an orchestra was the job that I wanted. When I realized after playing with my students during their lessons that my practice sessions were unenergetic, I went back to working on cars, and I passed the horn students on to a friend. Thankfully, I didn’t spend too much longer working on cars. I moved to New York City and waited tables instead.  This put me in the proper city to study with the best players, and with much-needed guidance on the excerpts, I started winning auditions. 

Have Horn, Will Travel

My first concert as principal horn in an orchestra was in Pensacola, Florida, and one of the most famous horn solos ever written was on the program. It had been on every audition I had taken so far. One taste of the thrill of performing this music and feeling like a living museum for Tchaikovsky, I was hooked on playing, and teaching was just one of the jobs I didn’t have to do anymore. Now I was free to say yes to more gigs as they arose, and I loved playing in a different city each weekend during the season.

The maestros also appreciated me and would program music that featured the horn. I got to be a soloist, do recitals, and play chamber music, besides playing notable orchestral works that challenge the horn section. During the summers, I’d have a massive list of pieces to prepare to play for the next season. Then I’d spend the year in the car driving from hotel to hotel with my mobile practice room at the ready. I played principal horn for orchestras in the southeast in Lafayette, Biloxi, Natchez, Mobile, Pensacola, Niceville, Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Mount Dora, and Hollywood, Florida. I put miles on my car like a trucker. “Have horn, will travel” was my motto, and I couldn’t say no to a chance to play.

Horns in Action

A Love of Teaching is Born

Eventually, I settled in Mobile. This led me to an incredible teaching experience. The Mobile Symphony has a “preludes” program, where a teacher goes into the 1st and 2nd-grade classes to teach general music. This program was run by my friend Ben Harper, who also managed the classical radio station, was the stage manager for the orchestra, took the above photo, and had about a million other jobs. He decided he was doing too much, and I took over the music classes.

I’d travel to five different schools and teach all their 1st and 2nd graders music. When they saw me walking in, I felt like the swim coach again, and I was the fun teacher they only saw once a week and loved. They were sponges and loved learning new things. It is a great age for kids and learning. Ben missed it and came back after one year. He’s a smart guy. This experience gave me some beautiful insights into teaching young students about music and some important insights into myself, mostly that I loved teaching! I cherish that year; I still have Christmas ornaments.

Horn Teaching with a Passion for Sharing

After six years of playing in Pensacola, I started teaching the horn students at The University of West Florida. They sent me a friendly student, Ben, to whom I couldn’t say no, and I was teaching private horn lessons again, this time as an experienced player ready to pass on what I enjoyed doing to others. It had been some time since I had taught private horn lessons, and I soon realized that I wasn’t a very effective teacher. I couldn’t get them to do what I could do. I didn’t have much instruction in college, and teaching how I was taught was not working!

Teaching as I was Taught

I played the inner game when I played golf and tennis, visualizing the shots and imagining the result instead of thinking of the body. This was natural, and I wasn’t aware of the body while playing. I hadn’t had any private horn lessons until college, and posture and my embouchure were the main focus during my lessons, not the music. Thinking physically of how to move the body to make the instrument play was how I was taught, so I was taught this way too.

When I taught swimming lessons or golf lessons, I’d keep students from overthinking about the body and more about the goal of pushing water or where the ball was going to go, allowing them to perform physical movements efficiently without analysis paralysis coming in and freezing the physical motions, or making them less efficient. I played horn that way, too, when I played well. When working up a horn part, I’d listen and sing my part in my horn falsetto voice. It came naturally growing up in a musical family, but it wasn’t until lessons with Roger Rocco and Thomas Jostlein that I could understand what I was doing while playing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Finding Love and Jazz in St. Louis

After fifteen years as principal horn in Pensacola, ten in Mobile, and eight years of teaching at UWF, I fell for my childhood sweetheart, Becky. We got married, and I relocated to St. Louis. Now I had the freedom to explore more avenues musically. I wanted to study Jazz, and St. Louis has a great jazz scene and a storied musical history. I grew up in New Orleans, and jazz was in my blood. The Fleur De Lis had followed me up the Mississippi.

I performed solo gigs as “Leenhorn” with the horn and electronics. All alone on stage with my horn, I’d clap, snap, and beat my chest into a microphone with a looping station to make the original backing tracks live. Then I’d sing along and solo on the horn to jazz standards with some original tunes and fun pop covers. It was, in many ways, the hardest thing I’d ever done with the horn, and great fun. I love to sing, too, and this was something new for me to do solo. I’d been in the choir, but I’d never been on stage crooning. Exploring my voice as an instrument was a new passion I didn’t know I had.

Summer Swim and I’m Teaching Music Again

I started teaching private music lessons to some neighbors whose kids needed help in the band. These were kids I’d been teaching to swim for the summer swim team, so music lessons were an easy transition. I taught some piano, guitar, trumpet, trombone, and voice but no horn players. It was nice to focus on the musician instead of the horn when I was teaching, and I enjoyed learning more about the other brass instruments. 

Yoda and Obi-Wan Blow My Mind

I soon found classical playing opportunities in St. Louis. It was while playing a concert with a woodwind quintet that I met Maestro Leon Burke. He hired me to play with the University City Symphony, and I was back to playing principal horn in an orchestra. This is where I met Thomas Jostlein (Obi-Wan), the associate principal of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He performed Mozart’s 4th horn concerto with us and blew me away with his sound and phrasing. Then he blew my mind over a cup of coffee.

He introduced me to Roger Rocco (Yoda), a former tubist with the Chicago Symphony. They showed me the real message in Arnold Jacobs’s teaching. This was the beginning of a new method of teaching music for me. I might sound like Yoda in a lesson but this scientific method is based on how our brain works when we perform physical tasks like walking or playing a sport, singing, or playing a musical instrument. All merely physical acts.

My Music Teachers
Thomas Jostlein and Roger Rocco

“If you want to achieve freedom and joy on your instrument, Jeff is your teacher ! I’ve seen firsthand how he transforms students into artists.”

Thomas Jostlein

The Arnold Jacobs Myths Debunked

They were both students of Arnold Jacobs, and together, they took my idea of music performance to the next level. When I heard about Arnold Jacobs during college, I was told he was helpful with breathing, an essential part of playing a brass instrument, but I hadn’t gotten the whole story. I was also told he had one lung, but these were only rumors. Thomas and Roger showed me the light that I’d been searching for in my teaching and playing. The inner game that I knew existed in the sports I’d grown up playing, even when I was playing the horn, but I had never thought of music as merely a physical activity. Of course, it is that, and I had my “Ah-Ha ” moment, without my horn, in a coffee shop, talking to Thomas.

The Thought of Sound

I drove home and played my horn with just the idea of singing the part I was playing—the idea of the sound I wanted to make while I was making it on the horn. Of course, that’s what I did naturally when I was playing well! Don’t think just play!!! Or rather, have one thought, “imagine that I’m singing,” a thought of what I was producing, the music. I became aware of my body moving on its own. The notes felt free and easy, and I knew what to focus on while I was playing and how to get my students to become more effective instrumentalists.

It’s singing in our aural imaginations allowing the musical idea to drive the physical movements. We are musical athletes, and we know how to speak to the body when we play music. We speak sound, not English. No words, just sound. It is a natural thing we do when we sing, and we can do it when we play.

The Inner Musician

That day with Thomas changed how I teach and think about music performance. It became a mental game of expanding my ability to let go and sing, cutting out the middleman and allowing the inner musician to send clear signals from the brain to the body about what it wants. I stopped thinking of how my lips felt and let musical ideas drive my physical actions. I stopped talking about the body in lessons and used musical ideas to allow the student’s bodies to find the most efficient way to produce the sound.

My goal with students these days is to unlock the inner musician. The subconscious singer is the one who beats the heart and makes sure you are breathing while you are asleep. The natural musician in our bodies taping their foot at the sound of a snappy beat or hears a song that isn’t currently playing but is in the mind. The inner musician who can not only remember a song but sometimes can never forget it. 

Forever Student Teaching

My goal with myself as a teacher is always to be a student. I’m always learning together with the student in front of me. Strengthening and expanding my aural imagination, my mental focus, and my understanding of my playing better by seeing what is happening in others while they play. I’m 100% engaged during a lesson, which makes the whole thing work so well. Music is powerful! Let’s learn how it works together!!!

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