Teacher Feature: The Path of a Performer-Educator

Sometimes it feels like I fell into being a singer/songwriter and performer by accident, And sometimes it feels like I planned it all along.

I’ll try to explain. I started getting serious about writing songs when I was in high school, and it quickly became essential for me to have a creative outlet just to function as a human. I majored in euphonium performance for my undergraduate degree at CU-Boulder so I could develop my musical skills and better understand music theory. I kept my creative side a bit of a secret in those days. For some reason, I didn’t think it would gel with the culture of a music school. Most of my colleagues were either honing their skills for orchestral auditions or pursuing careers in education. I’m sure my life would have taken a different path if I had been more honest with myself about my intentions in those days, but the path would still probably have led to a life like the one I have now.

When I finished my master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I felt adrift. I had a handful of private students and a job at a bagel shop. Fortunately, my friend Jamie Kember asked me to play guitar for a band he was starting around this time. He had visions of a tight, well-rehearsed horn band with a contemporary twist. The band was to be called The Big Payback.

Playing in a group gave my life a sense of creative direction when I needed it most. 

I started writing both music and lyrics for a group of musicians who were frankly better than me. I pushed myself in new directions. All my previous original music had been written for me to play and sing. This was the first time I was writing for someone else.

Over the years, I started expanding my circle and playing with more and more musicians. I sat in once with a group called Five Points Jazz Collective, and I was a regular member before I knew it. Connections in that band led me to join several other groups, including the country/Americana outfit Driveway Thriftdwellers. I never thought I would play in a country band! Every different style of music I play feeds back into my creative process.

Today, I wear many different hats so to speak. 

As a singer/songwriter, of course, I write songs. Creativity requires a certain amount of space in one’s life, so sometimes my job is to carve out time and get myself in the right headspace to even consider writing music. There are days when I do have the space and time, but the inspiration just isn’t there. I have to be OK with that and move on. Over the years, I’ve tried to get myself to stop worrying that the inspiration will dry up completely. Because it never really does.

As a performer, I play in five or six or seven different bands (I lose track, and it kind of depends on your definition of “play” and “band”). My role varies from group to group and from day to day. Sometimes, I’m almost a musical director, arranging songs and coordinating rehearsals for a big tribute show. Sometimes I’m leading the charge creatively and bringing in new song ideas, or even complete songs. Sometimes I’m the booking agent, negotiating band fees with club owners. Sometimes I’m just the one trying to play it cool and keep the band together when personalities clash.

It’s also part of my job to promote the brand of each group. I maintain websites and social media accounts. I help to design album packaging, social media content, and website graphics. When someone orders CDs or merchandise online, I package everything and head to the post office. I record and edit all sorts of promotional and performance videos. I register works with performing rights organizations and deal with licensing for cover songs. And of course, I do all this for my own singer/songwriter persona as well. 

Being in Dane County as a musician has advantages and drawbacks. First and foremost, I feel quite lucky to be part of such a caring and supportive community. I have musician friends who really understand and relate to me. I have a wonderful network when I need advice or just to blow off steam. The musical landscape of Madison has changed considerably since I came to town. The focus has shifted towards bringing in out-of-town touring acts, and it seems harder for local, original music to have a home. Fortunately, Madison is a large enough market that there are always opportunities out there. And many of my bands regularly perform outside of Madison as well.

Having a diverse musical background gives me a well-rounded toolkit that I can apply to teach any style or genre of music. 

My career as an educator has run in parallel with my performing career. When one of my students shows an interest in songwriting or composition, I try to foster it as much as I can. Sometimes that means encouraging the student to write down ideas in a notebook. Sometimes I try to help a student learn a piece of gear or software that can help with the composition process. 

Managing all my roles has certainly helped shape me as a teacher. I really enjoy leading ensemble rehearsals at Prairie Music & Arts and getting students prepared for a big performance. I’m able to figure out what each student needs from me, in the same way, I figure out what each band needs from me. 

Being a songwriter, performer, and educator has its ups and downs, but it’s the only life I know. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

About the Author: Kyle Rightley is a guitar and low brass instructor at Prairie Music & Arts as well as an award-winning performing musician and singer/songwriter throughout the upper Midwest region. Find out more about Kyle here.