Spotlight On Alumni: Steve Sloan
Steve Sloan studied with me at The University of Akron for his BM, in the mid-2000’s. He was a terrific student and a consistently positive presence in the studio. I’ve followed his life since then with great interest, and was thrilled with his recent news, both on the professional and on the personal side. I asked him to write a recollection of the path he’s taken for this blog’s readers and happily, he obliged. Steve writes:
My relationship with the guitar started when I was 11 years old. In my grandmother’s attic, I discovered an acoustic guitar that belonged to my late Uncle Don. Every time I visited grandma’s house I would get that guitar from the attic and start banging on it. It wasn’t long before I asked my parents for guitar lessons. With my uncle’s guitar, I started lessons at the local music store learning from that blue Mel Bay guitar method book. I remember coming home from my first lesson excited to show my parents the E, F, and G notes on the first string. Despite my interest in learning to play, at 11 years old I had not figured out how to practice much on my own. Because I wasn’t practicing, my parents decided to discontinue lessons.
Just two years later, at age 13, I rediscovered music. I got that old guitar out of the closet and started playing it on my own. My parents, noticing my renewed interest, found me a new guitar teacher that came to the house. Shortly after that, I discovered Metallica and my parents bought me my first electric guitar. Listening to and learning Metallica songs became an obsession for me and I would spend the rest of my teenage years playing mostly heavy metal-style electric guitar.
At some point during this period, my guitar teacher gave me a cassette tape(!) of classical guitar music called Spotlight on Guitar. The first track on that tape was Sevilla by Albeniz, as played by Manuel Barrueco. I was completely blown away that all that sound was coming from one guitar. From then on, I was hooked on classical guitar. In my senior year of high school, I found a new guitar teacher to help me prepare for college auditions on the classical guitar.
The first time I met Stephen Aron was during my audition for his studio at The University of Akron. My audition pieces were Etude No. 6 by Leo Brouwer and a Sor Etude. Before starting classical lessons, I had an inflated sense of my skill level on the guitar. In my mind, I was going to receive a scholarship solely based on my playing ability. That is hilarious to think about now. I had a lot to learn, but I had come to the right person and the right school to learn it.
During my first year at Akron, some of my first lessons with Steve were technique-oriented. I was basically a beginner on classical guitar and my electric guitar habits needed fixing. Some of those first exercises he showed me I still use in my warm-up routine.
I remember my first performance in Guzzetta Hall at the University was for the Guitar Ensemble concert. Steve had selected a guitar duo for me to play with my classmate, Jonathan Gangi. The piece was Micro Piezas by Leo Brouwer. Jonathan and I worked hard all semester working on this harmonically adventurous piece that sounded strange to our ears. But with Steve’s high expectations and patient coaching, we somehow pulled it together. I remember standing backstage with Jonathan just before taking the stage. He looked at me and said, “holy cow, your neck is all red!” I was so nervous that I broke out in hives. It is funny to think about how nervous I was for that ensemble concert.
During my sophomore year at Akron, I started teaching guitar lessons at Lentine’s Music store in Fairlawn, Ohio. The job opportunity came to me from another Akron student who was overloaded with students. I was hesitant to take the job because I didn’t think I was good enough. But Steve assured me that I could handle it and that I would learn as I went along. It turned out to be a great first teaching experience for me. I even had one student go on from there to study with Stephen Aron at Oberlin Conservatory (Philip Lutz).
One of my ensemble experiences at UA was the Flamenco Ensemble, led by then-MM candidate, Mir Ali. This group played several concerts in town, as well as at the University.
For my Junior Recital, Steve encouraged me (as he does with all of his students) to book a concert tour leading up to my recital day at the school. I was able to book five performances at local public libraries and churches. This was a huge confidence builder for me, both as a performing and in making cold calls to venues.
Once I made it to my final semester at Akron (Spring 2007), I had finished all my coursework except my senior recital. This allowed me ample practice time and the freedom to book a much larger concert tour that this time was combined with my graduate school auditions. I booked five concerts in northeast Ohio prior to leaving town for my auditions in Tennessee and South Carolina. I also booked concerts in Tennessee, North, and South Carolina. It amounted to an awesome two-week road trip for auditions and concerts. In total, I played my program twelve times.
Also, during my last semester at Akron I entered a couple of competitions. I won first place in the first-ever James Stroud Classical Guitar Competition.
After my senior recital at Akron, I recorded an album with the help of my friend and UA classmate, Adam Keeler. He served as recording engineer and editor. The CD, entitled Constellations, featured ten pieces from my recital program, including Constellations by Armend Coeck. It was very exciting to get those pressed, shrink-wrapped discs in hand—proof positive of my accomplishments while at U of Akron.
(I recall some of my other classmates while in Akron were: Adam Sarata, Kurt Reed, Mike Peplinski, Chris Klug, Jonathan Davis, Mir Ali, Dan Korban, Doug Pace, Mike Raglow, Seth Guillen, Rich Grisak, Cheryl Fitiak).
For my master’s degree, I decided to go to The University of South Carolina. I liked the guitar professor there, Christopher Berg, and he offered me a teaching assistantship. Plus, it’s South Carolina: it rarely snows! Christopher Berg helped me with my playing immensely. His thoughts on right hand technique are noteworthy, specifically with regard to the flexibility of the tip-joint. By keeping the tip-joint loose and working on speed exercises from his Mastering Guitar Technique book, I saw noticeable improvement both technically and musically.
When I moved to Columbia, I also got a job teaching guitar lessons at a local music academy. Between that, my teaching assistantship, taking classes, and trying to find time to practice, I was very busy! It was worth it though, because I was able to complete my master’s degree without adding to my student loan debt. (I finally finished paying that off last year!) One highlight of my time at USC was playing a concerto recital. I performed Rodrigo’s Fantasia accompanied by an organ. The organist did a fantastic job of imitating some of the orchestration by using different pipe sounds. It was a great alternative to the piano accompaniment and a wonderful experience.
It was during this time that I met my wife, Mandy. We had Post-Tonal Theory class together; she was a saxophone major. The only way I could get through that class was to ask for help from the smartest person in class, oh, and she was the prettiest girl in class. After graduating, we were both making money teaching and gigging so we decided to stay in Columbia. We have played some duos together. There isn’t much repertoire for guitar and saxophone duo, so we made some new arrangements and performed for the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. Mandy maintains a full studio of saxophone students both at home and at local middle and high schools. She hosts two recitals/year for them and directs a week-long saxophone camp every summer.
Shortly after arriving in Columbia, I had the opportunity to take over as director of the Columbia Guitar Orchestra. It was a group of about 12 amateur guitarists, most of them of retired age, with a couple of high school students in the mix. We met on Sundays for rehearsal and played two concerts each year. I started out playing along with them, but then moved to conducting with a baton. We played some great ensemble music, from Tchaikovsky to the Beatles. It was a fun experience that I wish could have continued, but as time passed, and I kept adding more things to my schedule, something had to go, and eventually the CGO was dropped.
One excellent and significant career move I made was getting training in the Suzuki Method. For this, I owe a big thanks to my University of Akron colleague, Mir Ali. He strongly encouraged me to pursue this path. For a long time, I tried encouraging my private students to try classical guitar because that’s the style I really wanted to teach. Sure, I enjoy teaching popular styles, but classical guitar is where it’s at! The Suzuki Method offered me an avenue for teaching the classical style to very young children. Before I taught with the Suzuki Method, I would have only the occasional classical student; now I only have a handful of students who aren’t playing classical music. It is so much more satisfying and, in a way, easier to teach classical guitar because it’s truly what I know best. Getting the Suzuki training also allowed me to pursue a niche market in my city. In Columbia, there are several competing music academies that each have several guitar teachers. But I am the only Suzuki-trained guitar teacher in town. It’s a fantastic method for teaching very young children and as it turns out, I just love working with them. One key element is to have fun with them by using toys and games to work with a small child’s short attention span. I have been teaching with the Suzuki Academy of Columbia since 2014 and now have 16 students. Some of them have been taking lessons the entire time.
Since 2012, I have also been teaching at The University of South Carolina, Aiken, as an adjunct instructor. I started out just teaching applied lessons, but the position has grown to include Introduction to Music, World Music, and Music Technology courses. For the past four years, I have had a full load of three lecture classes along with applied guitar students; they have ranged in number from 4 to 15 per semester. The private students I teach there take lessons as an elective and are often beginners.
Buying a house was a an exciting experience. It was a buyer's market in 2014 when we were looking. There were so many houses on the market that we probably looked at 50 houses! Having a floor plan that worked for private lessons for both Mandy and me was essential. So, in the end, the house we bought has a front room perfect for teaching. We also love the mature trees in our yard. Seizing this part of the “American Dream” as a couple of essentially free-lance musiciasns was a heady experience.
I have also kept up a private studio of house-call lessons for the last ten years. Once a year I host a backyard recital for them at my house. I setup a PA system and my back patio becomes a stage. I am very happy that one of those students auditioned for and was accepted to Berkley College of Music. He just graduated high school and plans to enroll next summer.
It is incredibly satisfying to realize that my wife and I are able to make a living solely through teaching and performing music.
I have worked with Marina Alexandra to help with the Southern Guitar Festival and Competition. As a fund-raising event, she organizes a guitar concert-dinner party called the Guitar Gala. After performing for one the Guitar Galas, I loaded all my gear into the car and went back inside to say goodbye to everyone. But that turned into another hour of hanging out eating and drinking. When I finally made it back to my car to leave, the back window was busted out and my Michael Thames guitar was gone! I was in shock and couldn’t believe it. I called the police and made a report. The officer said it would be considered grand larceny because of its value, but I wasn’t expecting them to do a great deal of work to find it for me. I went to every pawn shop in the area and contacted all serious guitar dealers so that they would be on the lookout for it. I also listed it on a website called Stolen Guitar Registry. After 2 months of searching, I felt sure I’d never see it again. Then I got a call from a county investigator saying he may have found my guitar. He had! So, some guy tried to sell it at music store and only wanted $50 for it. The store clerk had never heard of a Michael Thames guitar before, so he did an internet search to try to find the value. And what he found was my listing on the stolen guitar website. So he called the police and they came and confiscated the guitar. They couldn’t charge him with anything though, because he told them he’d bought it from someone else. I didn’t care; I was just so happy to get it back, and it was in perfect condition!
In December, 2018 I released my new solo guitar album, A Peaceful Escape. This project had been several years in the making; I recorded each track in my home studio. The pieces I chose for the album are all by living composers with one exception. The CD starts off with Sunburst by Andrew York and what follows are 14 other tracks in the same vein. All the music is in major tonality creating a peaceful mood from start to finish. The cover photos were taken on the shore of Lake Michigan at Little Sable Point Lighthouse, a location we visit almost every summer; it’s my peaceful place.
The disc is completely self-produced and published. It was challenging to figure out all of the pieces that had to fit together and in the right order to complete this project. One of the most challenging and costly aspects was to procure mechanical licenses. My first strategy was to contact each composer and ask for their permission and how to pay them. But that was going to be a lot of legwork, and I didn’t always get responses. So, I found an online service to use as a go-between (easysonglicensing.com). They were amazingly helpful because they actually had a person to talk to on the phone to answer all my questions. And without them, it would have been nearly impossible for me to get the international licenses I needed. The other big challenge of this CD project was figuring out digital distribution. It turns out you can’t just upload your songs to iTunes or Spotify—you have to go through a distributor. There are several different companies that will do this with varying pricing formats. I decided to go with CDBaby because they are partnered with Disc Makers, who I used to print my physical CDs. They have been great. I knew that it was not going to be a huge money maker, but I am happy that I have at least broken-even on the amount I spent. It paid for itself! Also, I received a nice review from Soundboard in the March 2019 issue. Check the CD out, and my website, in general, here.
I played a CD release concert at USC Aiken with a great crowd because the marketing department was gracious enough to do a press release. I also did a couple of concerts in Columbia celebrating the release, also with terrific turnouts.
My latest project is being a parent! My son, Walden was born June 2019. I can’t wait to teach him how to play guitar.
Thank you, Steve, for sharing with us all your journey. Congratulations on your many accomplishments and good luck moving forward, with hopes for health and happiness, and many more exciting adventures, sure to come!