by Mark Syslo
My name is Mark Syslo, and like most of you, I am enthusiastic about playing the horn! I am also an instrumental music teacher. I want to thank Dr. Mike Harcrow for the opportunity to tell my story about being an educator and horn player. I first knew I wanted to “share music with others” when I was in 11th grade. I attended Mansfield University of Pennsylvania to study music education and studied horn with Mr. David Borsheim. After Mansfield, I was hired to teach 4th to 12th grade instrumental music in the Greenwood School District in Millerstown, PA. While at Greenwood, I worked on my graduate degree in music education at Penn State University. After nine years at Greenwood, I was hired to teach instrumental music in the Parkland School District in Allentown. I am the band director at two elementary schools in the district in addition to being an instructor in the fall with the high school marching band. I have just finished my 26th year of teaching.
Over the years, I have also enjoyed playing my horn as much as my schedule allows. The idea that I “practice what I preach” in my classroom has never gone away. (What kind of music teacher who has not touched his/her instrument in years asks a student to practice?!?) Over the years, I have played civic orchestras, community bands, musicals, solo work, in church, etc. Having a full-time job allows me to accept playing that is rewarding, and not necessarily for pay.
Being a music teacher who continues to play and perform can be very demanding. Anyone who thinks being a teacher is easy truly has no idea what it is to be a teacher. My job requires working with colleagues, administrators, and students while wearing a smile constantly! Yes, constantly! I write music, schedule rehearsals that are not scheduled for me, reschedule lessons that are missed for a myriad of reasons, stay in constant contact with parents, AND save enough energy for Friday night football games for the first three months of the school year!
My job can be very draining, and staying in playing shape is important to me. Some days, the only time I have to practice is late in the afternoon when everyone else has left. That has proven not to be the best time for me to practice. My daily goal is to warm up before students arrive in my classroom. Many days, that never happens. I have recently become a member of the Allentown Band. Though that wonderful ensemble is a “band”, much of their literature is inviting to the horn player. Last year, the band performed at Carnegie Hall in NYC! That is an experience I’ll never forget! I am also a member of the Allentown Music Club. I get to play solo with that organization a couple times a year and truly enjoy making music as a soloist.
A few years ago, a great friend and I co-founded the Lehigh Valley horn ensemble. We meet twice a month and have a wonderful time playing the standards from the horn ensemble literature. Over the years, we have built a pretty sizable library with music for four, five, six, and eight horns. (Incidentally, we are always looking for new members. Contact me.)
As a horn player who teaches instrumental music, I have made it my duty to promote horn playing throughout our district. When I arrived at Parkland, we did not start students on horn, AND had no procedure in place to find kids to switch to the horn. Today, though I do not start hordes of kids on the horn (no one should…), all of my elementary colleagues start horn players every year. I love to say, “They have to come from somewhere”.
My horn playing has definitely made me a better music educator! Over the years, I have had the chance to play in a host of groups, some with great conductors. The efficient methods that good conductors use is vital in my job where teaching time and rehearsal time are never enough. I also admit that it is very easy to tell students to practice when I continue to practice. They learn new things on their instruments just as I learn new things on my instrument!
I get a lot of enjoyment from teaching students in my private studio. Working with my private students allows me to work on a level that I rarely reach with my elementary students. Each lesson is different, with different students who have different needs every time.
My family, of course, is the part of my life that keeps both teaching and playing together. When my kids were younger, accepting a gig meant time away from them. I used to be very picky in what playing I would accept. As they have gotten older, I have gotten more playing, AND it is easier to be away from them. My wonderful wife Mary is very accepting of my career and playing. This year, I ended up playing a gig on our anniversary. Though the timing was not great, bringing home a check and celebrating another day worked out just fine.
I do enjoy working on contemporary horn music and am constantly looking for new things to play. Right now, I am working out of one of Ricardo Matosinhos’ low horn etude books. They are challenging and require a good deal of thought! Long tones are part of my day as well. Everyone knows that long tones are great for sound. They are also my go-to exercise to maintain endurance.
I get a great deal of enjoyment from my work as an educator! The satisfaction I get from my work with students AND my horn playing gives me the energy I need to continue teaching and playing. Being an educator, though challenging at times, is extremely rewarding. Playing my horn makes it even better!