Ever dream of being a rock star? Getting up on stage and creating music that has audiences clapping, screaming and coming to their feet? That was a dream of Jeff Santy when he was a youngster. “You don’t have to be a rock and roll star to feel like one,” he said. “You just have to get up there and do it.”
That dream has never left this retired teacher who, to this day, finds jamming on his guitar in his own band, the Lake George Music Club, more than a thrill. “It’s a big part of who I am,” he said. “Playing my guitar and watching people react to it is so rewarding. I just love it.”
In fact, Jeff loves it so much he wants others to have that experience too, and a few years back he opened his TuneSmith Academy. It’s a unique concept. Take “students” who have little or no experience with a musical instrument, and group them with others who have the same dream of playing in a rock and roll band. “You’d be surprised how many people are out there that have always wanted to play rock and roll in front of an audience,” he said. “It’s on a lot of bucket lists.”
For 30 years, Jeff taught high school English in Rhinelander. He grew up in Green Bay, and moved here shortly after receiving his degree from UW-Green Bay back in the 1970s. He was surprised to find he liked teaching, and that he was also good at it. Part of that was because he was always finding ways to incorporate his music into the classroom, where he taught grammar classes along with literature and other English language courses.
The love of performing for others is at the heart of Jeff’s drive, but his teaching acumen comes to the forefront when he accepts students into his TuneSmith Academy. And everyone is welcome to join. Age is no barrier, but there are a couple of prerequisites. “All I ask is that my students really have the drive to be a rock and roll star,” he said. “Age doesn’t matter, but they have to be tall enough to reach the keys of a keyboard, or be able to handle holding a guitar. Other than that, I’ll give them the tools they need to accomplish their dream.”
All those tools are set up in his cozy basement, where he teaches and coaches his students to become rock stars. He has about a dozen guitars in his collection, along with a keyboard, a drum set and plenty of amplifiers. “Those are the basic elements of a rock and roll band,” he said.
Jeff’s methods of teaching his students are more than a little unconventional. In fact, he can’t read written music himself. “Most rock and roll songs are just a combination of four chords,” he said. “Lots of people think it’s complicated, but it really isn’t if you break it down.”
And it’s that attitude he instills in his students. Many come to him with just their rock and roll dream. “One lady, who was in her 50s, came and told me she couldn’t sing or play a musical instrument, but had always dreamed of performing in a rock and roll band,” he said. “I told her I would teach her to play the drums, and she said she wouldn’t ever be able to learn that instrument. But guess what? She’s now in a band and is a very good drummer. And she’s having a blast.”
One student came to him who had cancer. “She was going through treatments, and told me she always wanted to play in a rock and roll band and figured what was she waiting for,” he said. “Life is short.”
While most of his students come to him with little experience playing rock and roll music, they all have definite ideas about what songs they would like to perform. That keeps Jeff busy learning about and researching different genres of music. Currently he has eight bands in his academy that vary in size from four to five players. Ages of these musicians range from 10 to 60, so the music selections go across the board. “Some musicians come in with dreams of playing heavy metal Christian rock,” he said. “Others want to learn how to play Beatles songs, so I have to research all the tunes they want to play to get the chords right and the words down so they can practice. It really makes me stretch my wings as far as being a musician goes.”
He also orchestrates putting the individual musicians into groups and finding them gigs where they can show off their talents. “I’m always looking for places where my bands can perform,” he said. “I have a couple that have kids, and you really can’t book them at bars, so if anyone wants to hear some rock and roll at their event, they should feel free to call.”
A teacher at heart, Jeff revels in the fact that his TuneSmith Academy students are having fun while learning many lessons that they can take away and apply in their own lives, no matter what their age. “Being in a band teaches many things,” he said. “You have to be considerate of the other musicians in the band, meaning you have to show up for practice and for performances. You learn how to cooperate with others and work together. My students learn listening skills, like how to play to a certain beat and stay in tune to the other members of the band. It also gives them a huge sense of confidence, because most of these musicians have never gotten up in front of an audience and performed. That right there is very powerful.”
In fact, Jeff believes it is these lessons that have made his own three children successful in life, and not surprisingly, all play in bands. His daughter Virginia is a communications professor, son John is a social studies teacher and another son, James, is a corporate manager. And of course Jeff’s wife, Joan, who is an elementary teacher in Rhinelander, has been this family’s mainstay and most enthusiastic supporter all along.
“Yeah sometimes we really get to rocking and rolling in the basement with the bands and she loves it,” Jeff laughed. “She really likes that these students come here to learn, and when we really get into the music down here in the basement, she’s up stairs listening and enjoying it herself.”
There’s no doubt that this talented musician is more than enthusiastic about sharing his love of music with others, and opening his TuneSmith Academy has fulfilled a dream he’s harbored all of his life. Along with teaching more students to play and appreciate rock and roll music, Jeff also hopes to expand his academy and someday acquire recording equipment so his students can cut their own CDs and even, perhaps, move from his basement into a more centralized location in the future.
But for now he gets great satisfaction teaching and watching his students perform, hoping they grasp a philosophy he has followed his entire life-that no matter what your aspirations, go for it. “You know, I have always believed that life is not about the destination, but about the journey,” he said. “And what better journey is there than rocking and rolling in a band while making your dreams come true?”
Editor’s note: For more information about the TuneSmith Academy, call Santy at (715) 369-1663.