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Music instructor has deep ties to Claremont

Dream jobs are hard to come by. Most folks toil in unfulfilling work, pay the bills and mark the days until their next vacation.

Some though, get lucky, and their work and passion intersect. You can count El Roble Intermediate School’s new music director Jeff Brown among the fortunate few. 

“This is the job that I hope to retire from,” Mr. Brown said. “However long that’s going to be.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the 37-year-old Mr. Brown is a dream candidate: he was raised in Claremont and grew up near the Village. He attended El Roble, graduated Claremont High in 1999, and from Cal State Long Beach in 2003 with bachelor’s degree in music. He earned his teaching credential from Cal State Northridge in 2008, and a master’s degree in music education from Colorado State University in 2017.

He’s married to Stephanie Collins, an art teacher at Upland Junior High, and together they have a soon-to-be two-year-old daughter, Emerson.

Mr. Brown spent time as a professional musician and worked in music stores after graduating from Cal State Long Beach. He then taught music for three years at North Hollywood High, six years at Grandview Middle School in La Puente, and last year taught at La Habra’s Imperial Middle School.

“But then this opportunity at El Roble came up and I couldn’t pass it up,” Mr. Brown said.

His enthusiasm for his new gig is palpable.

“I’m coming into a program that has strong musicians and really dedicated families,” Mr. Brown said. “I’m going to try and continue the positive momentum that is here, but I’m going to be building a curriculum that is rigorous and also enjoyable. I really feel like the students here are going to enjoy the challenge.”

He’s planning on leading the band in a competition parade in the fall, to graded festivals in the spring, and hosting some performances in town as well.

“My primary goal is to help kids become excellent musicians and really build a love for music and the practice and performance of music,” Mr. Brown said.

El Roble’s former music director, Taylor Estep, resigned last spring after one year on the job and a fiasco involving an ambitious but ultimately ill-advised proposal to take the school band to London for the 2020 New Year’s Day parade. The plan involved raising in excess of $700,000 to cover the trip, and despite early enthusiasm at the school, among some parents, and to a certain degree in the community, the plan was scuttled after it became apparent the financial support just wasn’t there.

Mr. Brown hopes to start fresh and provide stability for the school and its young musicians, and has some vaunted local models on which to base his goal.

“Back when I was a student here, Dr. Gary Ida was El Roble’s and CHS’s music instructor,” Mr. Brown said of the longtime Claremont music teacher. “And he had been here for years. And the feeling in the program, that constant steadiness, was a cool place to be. And I hope I can help provide that too.”

Another goal is to build a music culture at El Roble, much like longtime Claremont High Theater Director Krista Elhai has created over her 27 years at CHS.

“I would love to do that,” Mr. Brown said. “When I was in high school I did tech theater one year in her program. The feeling of camaraderie and the working together to put on the shows, it was great. It reminded me of the music program as well. We had that same feeling of camaraderie.”

Middle school years are perhaps the most pivotal for a child; they’re making the turn and deciding who they are in myriad ways. It’s a weighty assignment to be so intimately involved in their lives for nine months out of the year.

“It is, and I definitely recognize that,” Mr. Brown said. “In my programs in the past, I’ve done everything I can to be really welcoming to every kid who shows an interest, and to pay attention to what’s going on around campus with my students and all students, and be able to help guide, and create a place where it’s cool to play music, somewhere that feels safe to be yourself, or discover who you really are. It’s exciting, but of course it’s a big responsibility.”

One of the privileges of teaching has been to witness and in some cases affect teens’ and pre-teens’ journey through the inevitably awkward middle school years, Mr. Brown said. One instance, in the early years of his career, involved a painfully shy kid named Ivan who had no musical experience.

“He literally had his eyes completely covered by his hair,” Mr. Brown said. “He combed it forward down to the tip of his nose. He was very clearly not wanting to engage with people and being very quiet and self-conscious, like, all the time.

“And at the end of the year, before our final concert, he shows up and his hair is combed back, his face is out, he’s smiling, and he’s like, “Mr. Brown I’m ready; do you see my hair?’ And after that he joined the advanced group and was a member of the drum line. It happens in smaller ways too, but that one was big and made me very proud to have provided him that opportunity.”

So, the good news for Claremont middle schoolers and parents is El Roble has a young, experienced, energetic and committed music director. And it looks like he’ll be around for a long time.

“I’m excited to be here,” Mr. Brown said. “This was the job I’ve been hoping to get since I started teaching. And now that it’s happened, I’m here to work hard and keep building a program where kids are successful and happy and stay involved in music, hopefully throughout their life.”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com