Interview with Jeff Slepak, HS band director and musician

Added on by Robert Willey.

Ethan Rosuck performed the interview

What is/was your occupation?
Out of college, high school band director and overall musician for bands around my area.

How did you get started with that?
“I went into college thinking I would be a performer so I started as a music performance major. However, I did get some advice to double major and I followed that because with music business, performance, education, it is easy to double major. That is because there is so much overlap between music that I could do much more in college in the 4 years that I wanted to graduate in. In about my third year of college, the head director at WMU retired and a new one came in. He told the ensemble that most of you are music education or music business majors so we aren’t going to have rehearsals for band pretending to be a professional organization that you can find in many other colleges and ensembles. Every day in rehearsal is going to be like a lab on how to best teach music in schools or in the business world. So all of the pedagogical stuff was explained as we went through the course and living the student end of it, I saw how much of a great impact it could have on musicianship. By the end of that first year with the new director, I was getting more interested in the teaching aspect with also having some part in recording in the music business. For performance wise, I played in short 2 week gigs and responded to various ads in the paper for ensembles who needed payers so I could still play but at the same time move away from that to focus more of business and education.” 

When you started, what were schools looking for in an applicant much like yourself?
“Schools want to have people who are good musicians, although you are rarely going to be asked to play an instrument like in an audition. They are more interested in your academic preparation, and looking at your transcript with how well you did in your classes. For popular jobs, an awful lot of people would apply for one job and I could tell you from 2 experiences being on the higher end, no 4 experiences! My most recent one was hiring my replacement band director and I will never forget it because we had over 300 people apply for the job and I had to narrow it down to less than 10 people, and it was not easy. Each of those people would come to Stevenson and conduct one of the bands in class while being observed by people in the fine arts department and we went from there. But when I was early on at Stevenson, I built a relationship with all of the Junior High Schools that fed into Stevenson to grow the program because my teaching in Texas was built all on that model to have that sense of continuity. Every week I was in each school at least once and the principals trusted me. So when those people retired, which were successional like every 2 to 3 years, they invited me to be part of the hiring process/committee to find the directors replacement. It was not really official, I made basic yes and no piles and sat in on the interview part. You also really need to stand out with grades you know you have to show that you are serious enough that you take care of yourself academically. And I think of what people look for in the business overall, is the enthusiasm and the mind-set of what a person really wants to do with trying to be helpful and showing what you know. Overall: Smart, confident, enthusiastic, track record of working hard shown with what you have. If you have experience, especially with recording, companies really look at the track records you have with enthusiasm on the part students when you talk to their coworkers or former students.”

You were a director for a long time. If you had to describe the basic skills to do that job, what would they be?
“I’m not going to promise to spit these out in an order of importance as it will be a little bit random! You have to have a real thorough understanding of music and that is not always a given I’m afraid especially when it comes to recording… You have to have a clear pedagogical approach on how to teach recording, music, the various instruments, and little nuts and bolts of a recording studio in ways that are logical and understandable by students and now, coworkers. Because of the 2 different things I did, I worked with people of various ages in a big gap, from 14 to anyone who is an adult! You have to be able to express yourself through stories and analogies and so on so you can meet people where they are in your explanations. Another skill set is organization especially in a community like Stevenson is. Being as complex as it is, I was lucky to have already taught for 10 years in Houston Texas as an assistant to a guy who had established a strong program and while it was never as big as Stevenson got so I really understood what and how to do it. When Mrs. D and I started at Stevenson, it was about 53 students was the entire program. So I think one of the important aspects was having some experience as people would say, a view from the mountain top you know you’ve been up there and have seen what’s possible, what students and coworkers are capable of, what a program can become so that when you are starting up a program that has returned to the ground floor and needs to grow again, you aren’t feeling your way along with that growth rather that you are helping it come back to a place that you have experienced. I was lucky to have that experience but I think that played into my hiring. The principal at the time needed someone who would stay a long time at the school and has experience in education and recording because recording was just starting up at Stevenson. He was thinking, here is someone who has worked in a program that looks like what we want this program to be. I consider myself very very organized, logistical things, kind of like playing in that stuff hence the program grew to 5 bands and 360 people. Being a team player with coworkers/colleagues is very important. I was lucky to be in with other colleagues that shared a vision of what a music department could be. Band was not separate, orchestra was not separate, and chorus was not separate as we all had the same ideas! We want the music department to look this way. And a lot of that was the Stevenson culture, but we were all team players. So in essence, you have to understand music and for me, recording well, you have to teach and how to do it and there is a lot more to it, like the art of knowing how to do it. You also have to be very encouraging of others to make their own discoveries with leadership components. You also need to foster independence in the coworkers and students. Leaders, drum majors, head directors, are essential. And finally, highly, highly, and did I mention highly organized?”

What was the one thing you found most challenging being a director and recorder?
“Well, this will probably sound like a typical answer to an interview question. The thing I found the most challenging I also found to be the most rewarding which was the Stevenson culture and this was fit me very naturally this okay lets never be satisfied with where we are. Let’s always look at how something went or whether it’s an event or the whole school year or something in-between those in the scale and think how could it be better next time around. And so this constant analysis and strife to make it different and better is always a challenge, but that is what makes it fun. I would think it would be terribly boring to do the same do the same things in recording and conducting over and over again in its regards.”

What is the biggest change you have seen in the your work world in the past 5 to 10 years?
“I may go back and add to it and maybe even shift it but the first thing that comes to mind… I heard someone else quote someone else saying what’s been the biggest change in education these past several years of your career and this person said, (I used to spend all of my time and energy teaching my students. It feels like more recently I have to spend most of my time and energy proving to people that I teach students.) And now, that did not manifest in as bad a way for me as it does for other people at other schools. Just on my way out of Stevenson, you can tell that there are more standardized testing and there would be a lot of brand new things I would have to learn about and go through more hoops and it would all be peripheral to the core jobs I always did and still do today. The way I recorded and taught students, taught music, technology, helped the program achieve and grow in context of all the other parts of the music department. But there is a lot of peripheral stuff that teaches must do because there is a general suspicion, not on everybody, but on some people. You end up with Common Core emphasis and it would get more specific in each department of the district. All this accountability testing stuff is really for the academics for music is a huge distraction in what teachers could be teaching their kids about real world stuff and to have more interaction. Everyone buys in to this cycle of continuous improvement at a personal level and all this other stuff is just like it just went all away. Computer Science, for example, is always changing, and the teachers have to always stay me chapter ahead of they students. What makes a good HS music and recording educator today is the exact same stuff that made a good educator 40 to 50 years ago. For business and performance, I think there are a lot of challenges with the technology that now makes it very easy for people who want to make a living at performance to not be able to because you want to make records but now everyone can download and share their stuff and buy all accounts that I keep in touch with. The recording industry, from my experience, is a very big machine that is really built to keep the machine well oiled and growing and enriched. The artists, and we can all think of people that are household names as artists and they are the small percentage of people trying to make a living at performing their music for the rest of the planet. These few golden platinum albums are selling people away and everyone else you know they have a tough time doing it. And I do worry a lot I guess about the democratization of music too. The concern is if you want to play the whole career through the traditional path of trying to sign a major label and get your 25 cents per record or something or a penny or two per radio play that might happen and that is because companies do not sell the recordings like they used to. I grew up in the days of vinyl. Unfortunately, even when I was teaching,  technology has improved so greatly that I miss records. I went to the record store and I paid $10 for this piece of vinyl and you knew the record company was a getting a line share of it and the artist was getting a fair amount of that. This is balanced out, I suppose, that technology now allows people to record themselves. I myself have never worked with big artists but with a bunch of students and more communal groups. My last major project, was with a guitarist that I know who put together an album and I saw it unfold over the course of a year. She found musicians to collaborate with, she found the producer (me), and we did a lot of studio time and I know that she did invest a lot of $ into making this project happen. But she published it somewhat independently. She sold her own records from her own website but she will not have the bigger connections to get her way out. The whole universe, as I’ve come to accept, is constantly changing and things get easier and harder too. I think the soul of musicians will keep going but I think it is sad that it is becoming harder to make a living at it which I might think be the case. If a person was into playing an instrument that could potentially be in one of the major symphony orchestras that pay a living wage and I am not exaggerating these numbers that if the CSO wants to replace 1 of their 3 trumpet players, there will be 600 to 700 applicants and they’ll invite 80-100 to a first round audition then pick a pool from there. If you want to get together with your friends and polish up your garageband, its even gotten where live performance opportunities are tougher too. I mean, so when I started out, you could go to a bar or restaurant and there would be a 4 or 5 piece band or hotel lounges with a show band, businesses have gotten large and cheap about that stuff. They would rather have a jukebox or one guy with a guitar and a microphone just singing. Pushing your own way and making you own way I think is even harder than ever before. When I first learned about Pit Orchestras on one of the band trips to NYC, they were huge, but more and more that gets downsized today because producers want to save money.”

What are your plans for this upcoming year?
“I’m kind of excited because told myself several years ago that I wanted to get together with somebody who is very proficient at teaching jazz improv and so just last month, I have started those lessons. This lady was a pretty successful lady in NY and she moved to Chicago quite some time ago. I had a student about 15 or more years ago at Stevenson and she started taking lessons with this Audrey Morrison and I started seeing after about a month or so that she would come into jazz band with all of this confidence and understanding and her improvised solos were just blossoming in front of me and I thought okay, I have played in many jazz bands before, and that student made me want to go more into the improv mode for jazz band when I had some time. So I thought this student is passing me up and I know that when I have time, so now I am doing it! I’m playing in the Buffalo Grove Community Band and Jazz Band and it has one day a week rehearsals and it’s a few gigs a year and that’s okay. I would like to get myself to a place to find a gig with a big band in a jazz setting! There is nothing more fun for me now than playing in a big band as a trombone player.”

Do you have any words of advice for people going into what you have done?
“As it is the case for high schoolers going off to college, my father wanted to assert some opinions and here’s what you ought to do things. I wanted to go off and just be a performing trombone player and my father was in business and had his own business and he was very assertive that I take business classes. I took those classes and ended up doing that as a background with education too. They are important classes and it is just legendary that people who are passionate about their music and tune out everything else get taken advantage of and don’t manage their well-being if they’re not financially savvy. I’m grateful that I have that understanding of the business and the financial world and I would say that people should take the basics and definitely some music business classes if possible in college. When I was leaning towards teaching too, my parents were skeptical about how teachers would make a living. I think, for me, the stars aligned in a way I can’t explain or understand because I have been fortunate enough to only have had 2 jobs along with recording in my career. 10 years in Houston and I landed with a guy who was a terrific mentor. I brought what I knew back to Chicago at Stevenson for 24 years and low and behold, this is under extreme thread of turning something into not at all good but I was in all of this when teachers paid into pensions and states and schools aid into pensions and right now, I have modest wants and needs, and I have a pension that will take care of me for the rest of my life! My advice to people is to follow your passion, not to be cliche, but be smart about it and think about how do I trust when I’m young and what I see most is my immediate passion for what interests me now, that I got to step back and take a view of my future too. Later in life, paying the rent, buying the groceries, or even a family! Take coursework that makes you knowledgeable about how life works. Getting to expand your horizons, like in philosophy, this is how the human life works in the world, so take as many courses as you can! And finally, keep updated with technology! It is moving all the time and so someone who is getting started needs to keep up, regardless of the industry you will be going into.”