Get to know: Jim Sturges!

Here's a transcript from a recent interview with one of our fantastic instructors.

Where are you from? San Jose, California. Actually, not far from here at all. I grew up right on the border of Santa Clara and San Jose.

Does your family have a long history here? My father was from Chicago and my mother was from Angel's Camp, up near Sonora, due east from here.

When did you start playing the piano? Under duress when I was 8. My mom decided I needed to have some musical training. There's no musicians in my family. None. As a matter of fact, my father's side of the family is all military guys. [My dad] fought in WW1.

So your mom just thought you needed something to do. Yeah. Well, my father was 57 and he already had 2 grown kids when he married my mom and she thought she couldn't have kids. So then, they had me. My mom didn't know the first thing about having kids and then she thought, "Well, you have to learn music. You have to be able to sing in church." You know, that was her big thing and so she started me on piano.

Did you start off loving it? I hated it. Hated it completely. Anyway, I had to practice an hour a day and I did. My mother had this mantra: "You're going to thank me someday. You're going to thank me someday," and, eventually, when I was 16-years old, I thanked her.

When do you think was the turning point for you? When I got in my first rock band. It was 1966, maybe. I was a pretty good piano player at the time. We were playing Led Zeppelin and Who covers and stuff like that.

What was the name of that band? I don't know if it had a name, this was in 7th grade. I kept playing in bands into high school and that's when I met Jeff Mayer. Somehow or another Jeff's name floated our way and we called him up, "Hey you want to be in a band?" and he said "Yeah! Sure. Why don't you come over?" So we went over to his house and when we showed up at the front door. Jeff's dad was like a marine-corps-looking guy; he had this flat top [haircut] and we were like these hippies. You know, like everyone had shoulder length hair or longer; so these guys jump out of this van with beards and hair and all kinds of stuff and his father is standing on the front porch of their very nice home in Los Gatos and he had this look of shock on his face like he didn't even want to let us in. So Jeff finally convinced him to let us in and we just started jamming and that was it. Jeff was in the band. We called it Clutch Cargo, after the cartoon. Later we expanded the group to 8 musicians and we were an R&B Funk band playing Parliament, Isley Brothers, The OJs, and we worked just a crazy amount of club gigs. That band was called After the Fact.

Did you go to college? I went to De Anza College and, at the time, they had the best jazz program around. We would have a seminar with one jazz legend after another. I stayed there for 3 years because the scene was so good and it was free. Then I went from there to San Jose State, which I didn't dig as much. I got halfway through my junior year and I just ran out of money but I got what I was looking for and I was happy with what I had.

I was working part time at a music store called Maple Leaf Music while I was in high school and the owner of that store was a guy named Bud Dimic who was probably the number one gigging jazz guitarist in the South Bay Area. I mean he knew West Montgomery personally, he was a big deal. So he was the first one that convinced me to teach. One day he said, "Hey I need a piano teacher, right now. Can you start teaching?" I said, "I don't know the first thing about teaching." He says, "Oh, it's easy. You know enough." So I was pressed into duty and I started teaching. Got my first student when I was 17 and I've been teaching ever since.

Do you enjoy teaching? I love it. It's great. I always thought of myself as more of a performing musician but, on the other hand, the more I taught the more I went "this is really great."

What advice do you give all your students? "Touch the piano every day." Don't let a day go by that you don't at least walk over to it and push a key because I've found that if I thought about practicing, it just made me want to run the other direction and so what I did to overcome that was I just would sit down and I'd force myself to push a key one, and then that would lead to another key and then that would lead to another one and then the next thing I'd know an hour would have gone by and I'd be fully engaged in it. I do that to this day, I never want to practice.

I heard a saying a long time ago that I've always remembered and that I tell my students: "Motion creates emotion" and it's not the other way around. Usually we don't feel like doing things but once you start going through the process and pretending like it then the next thing you know an hour goes by. So it creates the drive. Thats right. It does and you need that. I think it's a good life lesson to learn. So, yeah, I would say that's my number one thing.

Is the student of today different than the student of yesteryear? I think there's more of them. When I was younger, the teachers were trying to turn everybody into a virtuoso. It was a very high standard that you were constantly being measured up to and you were expected to get to that level. I think that that's good and bad. It's good to have a really high standard. It's bad to think that everybody who sits down to play music is going to have the mindset or the skills to do that. I think, as a teacher, you have to be able to set realistic goals for different students and realize that your number one goal is to help your students to love music. If they really love it, it's no problem making a virtuoso out of them. If they hate it, they're going to be an emotional wreck by the time they get there. 

It is interesting that if they love it, they really do figure the secrets out. It comes out through their practice. What about advice for teachers? I had this very good friend of mine that gave me a piece of advice: when you look at a piece of music, be able to define every single thing on the page. Have nothing that you don't understand. No word, no symbol, nothing.

So as a teacher make sure you're learning that so you can convey it to your students. And make sure you define things as [your students] go along because the only reason they're going to get disinterested or stop is because there's a ton of those symbols and words they don't get. I find myself repeating certain things over and over again: like what's forte mean? How come the instrument we're playing the "piano" when the word "piano" actually means "soft"? So we're playing "the soft"? Why is that? 

That's a great example of a great teacher because teaching is not always about constantly playing, right? You don't have to spend 30-minutes always moving your fingers on the piano. Sometimes it's conversation so that you develop this love and this interest of the instrument and that's how you're drawing them more into wanting to learn it and know more more about it.

What do you do to continually challenge yourself? My routine is, I practice about 2 hours a day, I sight read something that I've never seen before, daily. That's my first thing: I have a pretty vast amount of classical literature and I sit down and I play something out of that. That's just to keep my reading skills in place. I also still take jazz lessons from a teacher down in Los Angeles, and so I'll do a lesson out of that. Then, I work on writing and arranging music for my band that I'm currently in. I started a band with Mike Ruddy back in 2005 and so we have a jazz group and we gig around the area a lot.

What's the name of that band? Soulburst.

Last question. What do you like about teaching here? Oh, well, everything! [laughter] I love teaching here. No, it's really great. Jeff introduced me to coming here and the idea of just sitting here and people coming to me and me not having to go out and schlep around to find students, that was the initial attraction. And then I got here and you guys were so cool. I just love the atmosphere here. It's great. It's very positive.

Thanks, Jim!

Jim Sturges (1985)

Jim Sturges (1985)