Master Teacher Interview With Steve Sveum
By Matt McVeigh, WMEA Vice President, Northeast District
Steve Sveum has been a band director in the Sun Prairie Area School District in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin since 1985. In that time his jazz ensembles have performed at numerous state and national conventions, including the Midwest Clinic with Wynton Marsalis. The jazz ensemble has also been a 10-time finalist in the national “Essentially Ellington” festival and competition, placing third three times.
Mr. Sveums’ wind ensemble has performed at the Wisconsin State Music Conference as well as the MENC (now NAfME) national convention. The wind ensemble is active commissioning new works for concert band. The Sun Prairie High School Wind Ensemble has hosted residencies with composers John Mackey, Jonathan Newman, Sam Hazo, Michael Daugherty, Michael Markowski, Wataru Hokayama, David Maslanka, Richard Saucedo, Charles Rochester Young and many others. The wind ensemble has also performed joint concerts with UW-Madison, Carroll University and UW-Stevens Point as well as an all Frank Ticheli concert with Mr. Ticheli conducting.
Mr. Sveum was a 2014 recipient of the Downbeat Magazine “Jazz Education Achievement Award” and has worked for Jazz at Lincoln as a faculty member of the Band Director Academy in New York, New York; Mesa, Arizona, St. Louis, Missouri and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has also been a clinician for “Essentially Ellington” regional festivals around the country. Mr. Sveum has worked for over 15 years as a faculty member at the Birch Creek Music Academy in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin and has been an Illinois district honor jazz ensemble director in three districts across Illinois. Mr. Sveum is a contributing author for the “Teaching Music through Performance in Jazz” series published by GIA. He lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin with his wife Lisa.
You have a strong reputation throughout the state and region as a phenomenal educator. What are some of the best things that you have done as a teacher to continue to grow and learn?
I continue to learn from anyone I can. My students teach me a lot, my colleagues teach me a lot, our state convention teaches me a lot, the Midwest Clinic teaches me a lot. I think it is important to focus on how to improve the fundamentals. How can we provide stronger basics that allow students to feel like they are improving and provide some of those “aha” moments.
After having experienced so much success in your career what are things that continue to challenge you as an educator?
Teaching in Wisconsin with so much documentation and paperwork seems to take some of the creativity out of the process. Technology has been helpful and also proven to be challenging to keep up with. Overall though, the challenge that I enjoy most is trying to find different ways to help kids discover the joy of music – I would love for them to be as inspired by it as I am – or even more!
What aspects of your teaching have evolved the most over the span of your career?
By being open to different ways of doing things, my teaching has evolved a lot… From not knowing anything about a rhythm section and how to hear what was going on, to knowing at least a little bit; From not being aware of the importance of overtones in an ensemble to being able to hear them in every ensemble we have. I think I have more ways of getting things accomplished now, just by being around a lot of great educators whom I have observed doing wonderful things.
Your career has been full of many highlights. Which highlights stick out?
A few highlights would be when Sun Prairie High School was Wynton Marsalis’ demo jazz ensemble at the Midwest Clinic and we prepared six Ellington compositions for the clinic. Wynton was masterful in his teaching at that clinic and the kids responded – it was incredible! Another highlight was when the wind ensemble shared a concert with the UW-Stevens Point Wind Ensemble with Frank Ticheli conducting. Mr. Ticheli worked magic with the band and I couldn’t stop crying after the performance – it was beautiful. My very favorites are when kids get excited about learning and practicing and realize how good they can be with steady work, discipline and listening.
What advice would you give to young educators?
Learn from everyone and never stop learning – once you think you have it figured out, you stop growing. Connect with friends and fellow educators, don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t think you need to have all of the answers. Work on your areas of weakness and don’t ever feel bad about where you are in the journey. Set up your program so it is sustainable; don’t burn yourself out!