Interview with Guitar Teacher and Musician, Joe Arteaga

Interview with Guitar Teacher and Musician, Joe Arteaga

A passion for music forms the rhythm of Joe Arteaga's days and nights. He performs several times a week at venues in Chicago and beyond, teaches drums, guitar and piano at a private music school and is headed back to college this fall to complete his degree in music education with a focus on jazz studies.

Joe's talent has been recognized on both professional and educational levels. He currently is part of the Leadfoot a four-piece bluegrass band that is receiving recognition and recently finished a tour of the Colorado bluegrass scene. He is additionally is one of eight members of The Super American, Happy-Fun Good Time Jamband, which performs regularly at local festivals and weekly at Chicagoland clubs including the The Cubby Bear. At his ‘day job,' he fosters a love of music in students at the World Folk Music Company.

While music was a top priority when Joe was a student at Evergreen Park High School, he admits grades were not. He graduated and worked what he describes as “a million different jobs, trying to make ends meet” while he tried to launch his career as a musician. He soon realized professional training would be crucial to his professional music goals, and started to audition for admittance to undergraduate music programs.

His initial audition at Roosevelt University didn't go well: he was told he would have to practice 10 hours a day for a year to become proficient enough to succeed in the program. Meanwhile, his high school academics hit a sour note with admissions officers. Determined, he attended community college for a year to prepare to transfer and continued to work at his music. A second round of auditions not only gained him admittance to Roosevelt, but also a scholarship…which he turned down in favor of a scholarship to Saint Xavier University. After a year of percussion studies there, he won a music scholarship to Northern Illinois University. He became immersed in program for a year, but financial considerations led to a hiatus from school.

At the time of this interview, Joe was gearing up add classes at Chicago State University to his schedule this fall. While attaining his degree in music education, he plans to continue to teach and perform. “You get paid to express yourself artistically on a regular basis, and have a good time doing it. That's really cool to me,” he says.

You & Your Career

What led to your initial interest in music?

I go my first drum set on my birthday when I was in eighth grade, so 1988 is when I really started getting into music. I had really eclectic taste from the beginning, and started playing everything from heavy metal to jazz to polka to Irish music, practicing two to eight hours a day, depending on the day; on weekends, I practiced six hours if I had the time. I always wanted to make a career out of it.

Tell us about your career as a teacher and a musician.

I feel lucky I can make a living at it. Not everybody can. For years after I graduated from high school, I did a million different jobs trying to make ends meet. A friend told me about World Folk Music Company, the store that I teach at. I initially taught beginning guitar and drums lessons there one day a week, then someone who worked there moved, and I took over all of those piano and guitar students, so I was able to teach four days a week. It's a generally good-paying job, and I start after 3 p.m., so I decided to go back to school to pursue a music performance degree. So I've been teaching and going to school, and as the years progressed, I started playing for different bands and networking. I'm getting called regularly to perform, so I've been able to make a living between playing gigs and teaching.

I play in a few different bands. Leadfoot is a bluegrass jam band that mixes traditional bluegrass with more of an edge, adding different styles of reggae, jazz, funk and rock for high-energy, bluegrass-based music. It's an original band, we all do a lot of writing, we all sing. We have started to do quite a bit of touring. We just went to Colorado where that kind of sound is popular; Chicago doesn't have the greatest bluegrass scene. We have a gig every week, we play 10 to12 gigs a month. The other band I play with regularly is. The Super American, Happy Fun Good Time Jam Band. It's a collaboration of eight jam band musicians from different bands. Twice a week at a regular spot, we get together and play Grateful Dead, Phish, Rolling Stones and so forth, make a little money and have a good time.

I also have other little projects I do. I have played on about 13 different CDs, I'm always putting little projects together with little groups here and there to record an album. I used to be with a band called Treologic that was pretty successful and got some good reviews like from the Chicago Tribune. It hasn't been picked up by a major label yet, but they were talking to an indie label when I left the band.

You have expertise on percussion, guitar and piano. Which is your favorite and why?

My favorite is percussion, because that's what I started off on, and that's what comes most naturally to me. My second favorite is guitar; the way I play is very percussive, I do a lot of finger style. What I like about the guitar and piano is that it's different from drums in that you can actually have the melody, chord changes and write songs. It's hard to do that with the drums. There are things like the marimba and the xylophone that are melodic instruments, but its not the same as playing something like the piano or guitar. As far as the drums go, I love to be loud and the tribal feel of the instrument. Drums and guitar are my lifelong study. Piano is a secondary thing.

When did your interest in music start?

Two of my friends from junior high were both drummers. I remember the first time I heard the drums and watched them play; it made me want to smile and I fell in love with it. They sat me down, and said “try playing this beat.” I played the beat that they played the first time, and they freaked out because it had taken them a long time to learn a beat, and I just sat down and played it. From the first time I played the drums, I knew I wanted to do something with it. From then on, I begged my mom for a drum set and I finally got one.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working as a guitar teacher? As a professional musician?

From being a teacher, one of the rewards I've noticed is when I put on a recital. You go through the whole process of teaching the kids to play their instruments. When you actually get them up in from of people playing a song and performing, it's great to see how happy it makes them and how excited their parents are watching them play. The parents tell you that the kids like to come and that they look forward to it. To me, that's really rewarding, it seems like you're actually making a difference in this kid's life, that your life has some kind of meaning and that all the hard work you put into it has paid off.

As far as playing, the most rewarding thing is that you are actually making a living doing something you like to do. You get paid to express yourself artistically on a regular basis, and have a good time doing it. That's really cool to me.

Who are the biggest inspirations for your career?

I tend to get inspiration from everything. I don't necessarily get all of my inspiration from just musicians. I get most of my inspiration from people that have a passion for something and who actually pursues their passion, no matter what it is. A guy who starts his own construction business and works hard and does well with it because he's very passionate about it is very inspiring to me. You see all the hard work they put in. The same thing goes with a musician, you see all the hard work they put in and they really enjoy it, that's really inspiring. You can find that inspiration from anything: a movie you are watching, a song on the radio or just seeing people work hard.

What ranks among the favorite achievements that you've completed in your career and why?

Just getting into college was a great achievement for me, because I did so poorly in high school that my high school guidance counselor told me my grades were so bad I couldn't get into community college, which wasn't quite true. But to be able to pursue an education is huge for me. It took me a long time to do it, and I worked really hard to be able to do it, putting in tons of time practicing to get ready for auditions. Getting in and being able to do it was really big. It made me proud.

I was offered a scholarship to a few different schools: Roosevelt University, St Xavier, Northern Arizona University ( and Northern Illinois University. The one that stood out, because it took me two years to get it, was Roosevelt. The first year that I auditioned at Roosevelt, the first person I auditioned with told me I had no potential, that I would have to practice 10 hours a day to be accepted to the program. So then I worked my butt off, and the next year I went back and got a pretty big scholarship. That was a pretty big achievement.

What are some of your professional goals for the future?

I still play on pursuing music as a career. Eventually I'd like to get a recording studio in my house, so that I could record my own music, record other peoples music and eventually teach out of my own house, I'd like to be on the road, tour with my bands, and and have the recoding studio. If that happens, I'll be retired. To me, that's not working.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your music education (schools attended, degrees, specialties, activities, memberships, scholarships, other details).

I'm still working on my degree; I'm going to be finishing my music degree in education at Chicago State in the fall. Hopefully I'll be done in five semesters, or four if I take summer school. It's an inexpensive school, five minutes from my house, and it has a pretty decent jazz program and a decent music education program. When you're paying for school yourself and don't have a lot of money, you have to take that into consideration. It's not that expensive of a school and it's in an area of Chicago where you play a lot of gigs and teach a lot of students so that you can earn a decent living while you're in college. That's why I chose Chicago State.

I initially went to Saint Xavier because they were recruiting, and they were giving out a lot of money. It was a small, hands-on program; there were only two percussionists, me and one other guy. So for private lesions, ensemble classes, so we got a lot of attention. That year helped me to get into Northern. If I didn't go there first, I don't think I would have been able to get into Northern.

I went to Northern for one year as a jazz studies major; because I was on scholarship, it was an extremely demanding program. Out of that year I got more out of school than I have at any other school. You'd practice six hours a day, then do homework on top of it. Life was so scheduled, you had to be on top of everything to make it all happen. That was a Top Ten percussion program as far as schools go. I was in six different band oriented things per semester, so that's a ton of work; that's six ensembles you're practicing for, plus your homework, you have your four general classes, music theory, ear training, art history, freshman percussion. I'd leave my dorm room at 8 a.m. and the work wouldn't stop until midnight or 1 a.m. It's really hard while you're doing it, but you when you are done with the semester, you look back and say wow, I got a lot out of that.

Saint Xavier didn't have a jazz program, and what drove me to Northern was that they had a top notch jazz program, and a top-notch percussion, world music and ethnic program -- the best of everything. I have eclectic taste in music, and they offer everything. If you're serious about trying to play different kinds of music, then you have to go to a top 10 school like that. Some schools are stronger in different fields. Saint Xavier's is more oriented to music educators or opera singers.

Even with all the scholarships, it was really hard to make ends meet. School is very expensive, and there wasn't much work for me in Dekalb. I found myself going back and forth to Chicago from Dekalb every weekend to play gigs make money. They say people gain weight when they are in college, but I actually lost 20 lbs when I went to school. I lived in the dorms and I missed meal service all the time, but I had no money to eat out. Even though I loved the program at Northern, it made more sense for me to get a degree in Chicago so I could work and pay for school at the same time. Going to Chicago State, I can live very comfortably while going to school.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education in music?

I would have gotten better grades in high school, that's for sure. I actually had to go to community college for one year so that I could transfer.

What factors should prospective guitar students consider when choosing a school?

The most important thing is to find a school that offers exactly what you are looking for. Don't just go to a school that offers you money. If you plan on staying there for four years, or even one year, that's a long time. It you're going to dedicate yourself to it, make sure it's someplace that you will be happy, because otherwise it could you turn you away from, lose sight of why you started playing music, what makes you happy.

How can prospective music students assess their aptitude?

The main thing is contact a school you want to get into, ask about audition requirements to get into the school. Visit the school and do a tour, sit in on some of the classes, see what the classes are like, and check out some of the players that go there. That can be a very humbling experience to see how good the current students are; you might realize you have work to do. If you realize that you have work to do, take lesson, contact universities close to your area that might have students that can tutor you, you can also pursue lessons with someone who has been through music school. They can give you direction.

Are there different considerations for students seeking lessons at private schools such as where you teach?

At World Folk Music, we teach all levels, anything from beginner to advanced, depending on what level you are at and what you want to get into, we have teachers for everything. We start students as young as infants with music classes.

What are considered some of the most respected and prestigious music/guitar schools, departments or programs?

It depends on what you are looking for. There are so many schools out there. Most of the state colleges generally have a good or excellent programs, and many private schools have excellent programs too. Then there are schools like Berklee College of Music in Boston and Juilliard that have great programs

How important are performance experiences to students?

You learn just as much playing with other musicians, if not more than playing by yourself. It's one thing to practice a song a million times by yourself, but when you are playing with other musicians, where people are reacting off of each other's playing, it's a completely different experience. You have to learn how to play with other musicians and learn how to use your ears. That's just as important as any lessons you might take. You can say you want to be a jazz musician and get a degree in jazz studies, but you can't do it until you get out there and start playing it.

Job Information & Advice

How can the reality of a career as a musician and an instrumental teacher differ from typical expectations?

When you're young, everyone dreams of being a rock star, being up on a big stage. What you have to keep in mind is that being a professional musician also demands that you are a professional, you have to carry yourself well, show up on time, be well prepared. There's a whole business end to it that people should keep in mind while pursuing music as a career. You're still out there working every day. You still have to pay taxes just like everybody else, and you still have to work hard like everybody else. It's a lot of phone calls, a lot of aggressive networking. And you have to be good with your money. Some months you might make great money, but than there might be a couple of months where you don't get as many gigs or you don't have as many students, so you have to have money tucked away.

What are some common myths about the music profession?

It's definitely not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. Most of the people who get the girls are the people in the audience. By the time we're done taking everything down off the stage, everyone is gone. We're working well after everyone is already drunk and gone.

How has the Internet affected the music profession?

Its one of the best tools for networking, promoting your bands, finding information on places to play, to find directions to a gig; it's a great learning tool.

What are some of the contributions music makes to society?

Everybody needs music, its one of the few things that brings people together in a good way. Some things bring people together in a good way, and some things bring people together in a bad way. When you go to a concert, and see so many people in one place celebrating the music on the stage, I think that's great. It's a very positive way to bring people together.

What are considered the hottest music specialties developing over the next decade?

It's always good to have something to fall back on. Electronics are getting big into music nowadays. As technology grows, and gets bigger and faster, you get people mixing technology and electronics with the acoustic side of music, so its good to understand how a computer works. It's never bad to have something to fall back on; you find a lot of musicians these days who are recording out of the house on the side, and who also use the computer to do graphic design and design web sites for other musicians.

What challenges will be addressed by the music industry in the next five years?

One of the problems is the media. VH1 and MTV are dominant; in a way, that's all the music you see. The music you see on TV is a big fashion show. You don't see to many shows or videos on some of the really good music in the cities, the good jazz and funk music that's out there. You tend to get the Top 40 hits, and the bands that fit a certain image on TV. If you are a musician that is trying to pursue something besides grunge rock or anything else you might see on VH1 or MTV, you're going to have a hard time. You are going to have to play a ton of gigs and do a lot of touring to make ends meet as opposed to other bands get big because they look and play in a way that fits a certain genre. That's the difference between bands that sell a ton of records, and bands that are playing very obscure, abstract music and tour and do 200 gigs a year to make ends meet.

Closing Remarks

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about attending guitar school or music school, whether they want to play for fun or for a living?

Follow your hearts and do what makes you happy. If you really enjoy playing music and you really want to do it for a living, go for it.

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