Jubilation Foundation Teaching Artist Fellow John Phoenix Leapai

John Phoenix Leapai

Seattle WA
Fellowship: 2020

“I love music. I know it works. Trust the art work to uplift the spirit.”

What led you to be a teaching artist?
My connection with music. As a youth I struggled with mental health; music was therapy. I also began songwriting. This helped me survive my teen years. In 2004, I took on my first student who was struggling with anxiety and depression. The song recording project we walked through brought healing.

Teaching philosophy:
Inspiration and authenticity. What’s the point of learning if you’re not inspired? Bring your authentic self in order to guide your learning process.

How have you evolved as a teacher?
So many ways. I started strictly out of passion. I grew up in the church. My teachers took me through a rigorous route: theater, singing, learning my part. I knew I had a lot to offer, but didn’t have a script. But I felt confident in my passion, so started teaching others how to write songs, teaching at my cousin’s house. He had a studio.

Started talking to mentors who said, you can do more with it, just kept doing it. I started partnering with nonprofits, had conversations and networked with other Teaching Artists, and many folks in the music scene. Learned how to have meaningful conversations, community-building conversations. As I continued to develop skills, I was able to meet more students. The more students attended, the more I understood how to engage what I learned, about the different neighborhoods I was walking into to teach music production. Most of my curriculum is Hip Hop based, so I work with students who are interested in this music style or come from the inner city.

I went through [Jubilation Foundation grantee] Teaching Artist Training Lab. I loved it. Learned there was a community for artists, for doing what I was doing; it brought connection with others like me. Got to share stories, sharpen our tools, then jump back into our worlds and do it. TATLab had a storyline about things to do on a regular basis. They discussed the business side, so I went back to school and got a BA in business management. I went from freestyling to knowing how to do lesson plans, organize what I was thinking in my head, and put it in a format. I learned to gauge skill level. Gave me more confidence.

What is an example of a good day teaching for you?
Jesus. He always came in right after my day started at 10. He came in fresh, not knowing too much about music, but loving it. One day we just started clicking. “John, John, I got this song for you.” So I’d say, “Let’s record it.” We finish, do a rough draft mix. He loves it. Asks, “Can you collaborate with me?” I had stopped writing my own music, was focused on school, how to be a better TA. So we record our verses. Listen. The satisfaction on his face! “It sounds so good.” High fives. “Great job!”

You walk about with a humble feeling. This is what it’s all about, to experience the joy and confidence he has. He reminded me of why I do this work.

How do you deal with challenges?
When kids are in a bad mood, we freestyle. Turn on the music. Classroom management, manage the mood, manage the energy. Mighta been a huge fight earlier in the week, can sense the morale of the whole campus, low energy.

If they’re not feelin’ it, I’m gonna find that track, like a DJ at a party. Music is powerful that way. Turn it on, try your best. Put on your big boy pants. It’s a commitment. Use the art work.

You celebrate the joy and love of the art. The arts come into play, we throw the party, we change the mood. We trust the art, have faith it will work, eventually those moods are lifted and the kids are smiling again, teachers see it and get happy, security guard sees no more fights, the principal sees it. That’s the power of music.

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