"Chris McKenney consistently leads ensembles in a creative and inspiring way. Every time I listen for a minute to one of his ensembles, I'm amazed by the level of skill and musicality they express." - fellow music instructor at The Real School of Music in Burlington, MA.
Guitar instructor, ensemble coach, and RealJams Academy faculty member, Chris McKenney, shares his story about starting music very late and finding a way to make it the perfect career.
The following article is part of our Faculty Spotlight series, which highlights the stories and experiences of Real School instructors.
Guitar, Ensemble Coach, and RealJams Academy Instructor Chris McKenney, Real School of Music, Burlington, MA
Can you carry the highest number of students in the school, keep a strong student retention rate, coach ensembles, and work long hours for RealJams Academy? If you have a motor and a passion for what you do like Chris McKenney, the answer is yes.
Chris and a great team of teachers from Minuteman Music Center chose to merge their operations into Real School 6 years ago. Since then, he's carved out a reputation as a tireless and respected guitar instructor and ensemble leader.
In addition to teaching, Chris heads up Real School's Student Wellness Initiative, which provides faculty and staff with clear, concise direction as to what, specifically, should be done when troubling or alarming situations come up with students. With the Student Wellness Initiative, students and parents are assured at all times that our students’ well-being is of the utmost importance to us, and that the line of communication is always open between us.
Recently, when reflecting on their time at Real School, one of Chris' parents said, "The faculty, especially Chris, are amazing. My daughter has worked with four different instructors on four different instruments over the past five years and they've all been fantastic. Thank you to Chris and all of the Real School teachers!"
Chris shares his journey from starting guitar at the ripe old age of 17 to finding a niche and a career teaching at Real School and performing with his band, SUPERSONA, which also features drum instructor Evan Gianoulis.
At what age did you begin music lessons? What instrument(s) and where did you take lessons?
Chris: It was very late when I started. I first got a guitar at 16 but I didn't start playing until I was 17. I was first a student of Frank Wallace, an extraordinary composer and classical guitarist based in Antrim, NH. He showed me scales and harmony at a basic level and I was off and running.
I had basically checked out of high school mentally and was only focused on guitar. Then I took lessons for a year or so with Dave Tonkin, a genius guitar player from Concord, NH who was the jazz chair at the Concord Community Music School. He taught me to read and honed my ear with some great exercises and really helped me become musically aware, even if I wasn't the most dedicated student.
Also, I was fortunate to know other musicians and get into bands right away. I studied English in college but by the end of four years I was gigging multiple times a week in a few different bands or groups.
Who were some of your early musical heroes and inspirations?
Chris: I was really into the Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains when I was a kid. They were really popular right when I started to notice music. Fortunately there was a ton of great rock and roll in the early 90's so I could hear great stuff all the time.
Did you participate in your school orchestra, band, choir, or other school-sponsored music group?
Chris: I didn't. I was almost out of high school by the time I even picked up a guitar. Actually, it's a miracle I took it up at all that late in the game!
Who were your favorite music teachers and why?
Chris: The only two music teachers I ever had in an official capacity were both tremendous, however not having a formal education beyond that meant that I learned a lot from my coworkers and band mates over the years.
Do you have a favorite early musical memory?
Chris: Willie Nelson in my dad's truck when I was really young. I remember noticing that the words followed the music.
What are some of your favorite things to do outside of Real School?
Chris: My band SUPERSONA and the local music scene take up most of my spare time. Otherwise I have a dog and a lot of friends and live in Somerville so there is always something to do.
Why did you apply to Real School? What do you like best about working here?
Chris: I started here when my old lesson place was acquired by Real School. I love it here because I have a job working with kids doing exactly what comes naturally to me, which is playing and teaching music.
What are you most proud of in your teaching career so far?
Chris: One of my students has gone on to study composition at Stanford, and many of my students are very active in their respective music scenes. It's really gratifying to see so many continuing to play alongside their busy college or professional careers.
How has playing and teaching music been a positive influence in your own life?
Chris: It's helped to make me a more confident person because I've been able to structure my life to my interests and turn it into a career. That's something that I like to pass on to my students, regardless of what path or profession they choose.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who are looking to develop their skills?
Chris: Get into a band immediately. Playing in an ensemble will accelerate your development, especially if it's led by an experienced and qualified instructor. You'll improve your listening skills by learning how your part and others fit into the song. You're also more motivated to practice because you don't want to let your bandmates down.
What advice would you give to music parents or caregivers?
Chris: Don't try to do instruments on the cheap. Sometimes parents think they're hedging their bets by buying a cheaper piece of equipment but the reality is that they're starting their kid off in a hole. A lot of time cheap gear like that is just a toy, not meant to be seriously played.
What are your future plans? What are your career and/or musical goals?
Chris: I just want to keep writing and performing original music, and to continue to improve as a teacher everyday.
If you weren't playing and teaching music, what would you be doing?
Chris: If I wasn't playing music, I would just rather be in the woods all day!
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