The Center for Musical Arts is proud to work with knowledgeable faculty with unique backgrounds. In this interview with saxophone, clarinet, flute, and jazz improv instructor Rex Spease we explore Rex’s military and rock band backgrounds, the importance of improvisation to musicians, and more. Watch or read the interview below.
Center for Musical Arts: Hello, I’m Erica Reid. I’m the Marketing Manager for the Center for Musical Arts, and I’m continuing our series where we get to know the faculty members at the Center. Today, I am sitting down with Rex Spease. How are you doing today, Rex?
Rex Spease: I’m doing very well. Thank you, Erica.
Center: Thanks so much for spending the morning with me. Could you tell me a little bit about your role, your history with the Center, and what you teach?
Rex: Okay. I began teaching at the Center in 2018, and I teach saxophone mainly, and some clarinet and flute for beginners. Mary Jungerman takes the more advanced students on those instruments. I’ve been doing it for, like I say, for three years, and I’m also a participant in concert. We’re going to have an upcoming concert on the porch in April and May, and I’m going to be doing that. I just love to play and I love to teach, and my students range in age from fourth or fifth grade, all the way up into the 60s. So, I like that. It creates a lot of variety for me. It’s fun, very fun to teach.
Center: That’s great to hear about. Can you tell me a little bit more about your teaching philosophy? I love this idea that it includes all age ranges.
Rex: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think as an instructor that it’s good for me, and my responsibility actually, to meet the student where they are musically and encourage their present abilities and encourage growth in their interests and give direction for further growth.
I have a student who is very interested in history, in 19th century history, and so I’ve gone out of my way to find some music from that era that would make it more meaningful to him as we study music from that era. I just really enjoy getting together, and my philosophy I guess I would have to say, is to encourage and define the parameters for what it takes to get there and ask the students to practice and ask questions, trust themselves. It’s all just a lot of fun.
Center: I love to hear that you go above and beyond to find the way that the music connects to your students. It’s something that has come up in a lot of these interviews. I think that’s something that draws the Center faculty to teaching — the ways of, “How do we find something in your life that makes you more passionate about music?” Do you find that to be true and interesting?
Rex: Oh, absolutely. That’s very true. We talk about a lot of different things. I always ask them how school is going and just good to hear them say, “Great,” and we’re going to build on what you’re learning in the academics of school and hopefully make you really, really like playing the saxophone or clarinet or the flute. So, it’s just a great time for me and for them, I hope.
Center: So, I’m always curious about what drew you to your instrument. What brought you first to saxophone in the first place?
Rex: Well, I began on the clarinet back in fourth grade and played that for a few years before picking up the saxophone. What drew me to play the saxophone was a rock band, a local rock band that I was in, wanted a saxophone player. So I thought, “Yeah, sure I’ll do it.” So I had to borrow somebody’s saxophone, I hadn’t owned one yet. So, that’s really how I got started in it.
But then later after that, after my “rock years,” I started to study jazz. I had taken a very sincere interest in the saxophone and I wanted to pursue it. And so, jazz seemed to me like the next avenue for growth on the saxophone, and I liked hearing it. I was in the United States Navy music program and they gave me a really good basic interest. I had bands and individual instruction. And so I really, I guess, started to grow musically as far as jazz while I was in the Navy for four years, and I just stayed with it and it’s where I am today, teaching it. It’s fun.
Center: I think that blend of the rigor of the military and the expression of music, that’s an interesting partnership.
Rex: Yes, it was. It was an interesting four years. Notice I didn’t say 20 years. [laughs] I don’t know that I could have taken it for that long. The military lifestyle wasn’t for me, but the same time I look back and think, “Wow, I had such a great instruction program at the school of music in the Navy.” And, I really grabbed onto it and took off after my Navy years and started continuing to play and study.
Center: So, let’s pivot from the rigor of the military and talk about jazz improv because you also teach jazz improv at the Center. Why is improvisation important for musicians, or how does it benefit musicians?
Rex: Well, I think that a lot of students are looking for something maybe other than what’s written on paper, as far as music, on manuscript paper. And, I took an interest, again, back in the Navy, in jazz and improvisation. It’s an excellent way to encourage students to further their study and grab onto what goes on in jazz improvisation, which boils down to knowing enough music theory to look at the chord symbols and know what notes to play on a given chord, and sometimes play outside that chord if they really want to get modern.
It’s an excellent way to teach it, and I use the Jamey Aebersold, which is a series of jazz improvisation books that’s been, I think it began back in the 1960s and still thriving today as far as a way to teach jazz and to encourage students to practice and look at those scales, even if it really bugs them to have to do scales. A lot of students rebel at the thought of playing scales, but it’s very helpful–
Center: Gotta have the foundation.
Rex: Gotta have that foundation, and most of them were very good about it. Very good.
Center: So, what are you doing when you’re not teaching or listening to music or playing in rock bands or jamming on the Center porch? What are you doing outside of music in your life?
Rex: Yeah, I haven’t played in the rock band for quite some time, but I do, I play gigs, like a lot of the people at the school do and students as well. I like practicing. I practice when I’m not teaching and I like just doing what I can to further my interest in music and just keep with it.
Center: All right, you cheated, because you said more music. [laughs]
Rex: Yeah, yeah. I know, yeah. [laughs]
Center: That’s okay. Well, so is there anything else that we haven’t covered here that you think would be useful for prospective students who want to learn saxophone, clarinet, basic flute, jazz improv, anything else you decide to pick up and teach?
Rex: Well, I hope that the people who see this, hear this, take it to heart. I hope they can tell that I’m pretty enthusiastic about what I do and that it’s a lot of fun and it’s an excellent way to teach kids to think outside of the written music for jazz improv, and to take a chance, and it’s really, really a lot of fun. The look in the face of kids, or adults for that matter, who finally catch on and venture outside of the basic note on paper, structure, and play of their own melody, it’s just fantastic to see that kind of recognition on their faces that they, “Hey, this is fun.” It really is.
Center: Well I’ve certainly felt the passion today. Thank you for taking some time to talk with me.
Rex: You’re welcome. Thank you, Erica. Appreciate it.