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A Half Century of Teaching

Posted by ZEPP on Thursday, April 17, 2014

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This year is a sort of milestone for me, as it represents the passage of 50 years of my being a "professional" banjo and guitar teacher. While many others have achieved this same level of...what, "infamy?" is the first time I've done it, and I seriously doubt I'll get to comment on the completion of a 2nd half century of existing, much less teaching.

I say "professional" because, whereas I had been teaching friends and friends-of-friends for a couple of years by 1964, it was that year that I was hired by the Haddonfield (NJ) Conservatory of Music as a folk guitar and banjo teacher.  I was a 19-year-old college drop-out at the time, and brash enough to think I could do it; I was, nonetheless, a bit intimidated after being hired when I learned that many of the conservatory's other teachers played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, while several others were high school music teachers.

I mean, I was surrounded by musicians.  I was merely a banjo player--at that time, I couldn't even read music.  Almost all the other teachers were great people though, and many of them confided to me in so many words that they were amazed how well I could play without the ability to read!  Suffice it to say, I felt it incumbent on me to learn...

It was my only job then, so I had lots of time and was soon teaching 6 days per week.  The "Great Folk Scare" was in full swing, and in short order I had more simultaneous students than anyone else there had ever had--at the peak, I had more than 60 people a week on my schedule (mostly kids who wanted to be folk singers).

I stayed there until 1971 making a living for myself (and a few years later for my new family) by teaching and playing (funny, 7 years sure seemed like a long time back then). That year, my having finally put myself through undergraduate school, my family and I set off for grad school in Missouri.

So, just think, that 50 years since I started seriously teaching means the passage of a half century of posting signs on my studio walls saying:  "Practice makes calluses," "It's only a banjo," and "It's better to play the wrong thing at the right time than the right thing at the wrong time." (I've added a few platitudes since then, of course, but those go all the way back!)

Coincidentally, it's now also 50 years since I bought the Ode banjo that I still play.  (I've got to wait until next year to be able to make that claim for my beloved Martin D-35, though.)

The interesting thing to me is this: I still enjoy teaching.  My interaction with the thousands of people I've taught over the years has been especially rewarding.  Of course, there are many who fell by the musical wayside, but I have been in contact with a surprisingly large number of former students who have remained musically active, some as professionals (and still blaming me for it).  The very best part is hearing from some of these students of a half century ago and learning how something that I shared with them has remained so dear to them for such a long time.

Oh, while it has nothing to do with music or teaching, I should also point out that it's now been over 50 years since my mustache has been shaved off!

7 comments on “A Half Century of Teaching”

a g cole Says:
Thursday, April 17, 2014 @9:18:30 AM

ZEPP, You deserve the highest accolades

You deserve the highest accolades, Zepp. Anyone who has done what you have for 50 years has to be a good person. My congratulations!
Art Cole

guitarman8491 Says:
Thursday, April 17, 2014 @9:24:14 AM

Don..congratulations on your journey and having the abilities to teach others how to play! May you have another 50 years.

dbrooks Says:
Thursday, April 17, 2014 @5:20:27 PM

Congratulations, Zepp. You have given many people a lifelong gift. I recently tracked down on the internet the banjoist for the Stephen Foster Story who tolerated me as a high-schooler in 1963 or 64 and taught me the basics of Scruggs picking and Travis picking. He too gave me a lifelong gift of (amateur) music - both the appreciation of it and the ability to play a little of it. Through the monthly jam I lead, the tabs I write for folks, and the occasional lesson (generally mostly encouragement), I try to repay the gift I received.

roadstar75 Says:
Sunday, April 27, 2014 @3:04:12 PM

Well written summary of a career in music and a job well done.

Mad Martigan Says:
Sunday, February 15, 2015 @4:45:07 PM

One of these days I'm go name swing by your shop and look at some banjos! Are u still up in North Carolina? I'm in graduate school in Spartanburg Sc right now so I'm a little closer than what I was in Ky :)

ZEPP Says:
Sunday, February 15, 2015 @6:02:40 PM

Hey, Mad Martigan! Sad to say, but no, you're not. I closed up shop at the end of 2014, and retired. I am still teaching, but otherwise I am out of the business! I'd still like to meet you, though! Gimme a shout any time you're up this way.

Mad Martigan Says:
Thursday, March 12, 2015 @11:59:28 AM

Sounds good Zepp I'll let ya know when I get the chance :)

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