Every community needs a few teachers like John Snell

Teaching must be much like golf. There is always hope. It’s always possible that the next shot will be the 300-yard drive to the middle of the fairway, or the short iron to just inches from the cup. For a teacher there’s always the hope that today is the day when the student finally gets it, the day when all the hours and hours of work pay off.  Maybe today will be the day the student finally writes a well-crafted sentence, or solves the difficult problem.

For John Snell it might be the day the student stumbles flawlessly through an American jazz standard on a guitar. “Misty” perhaps, or “Moonlight in Vermont.” Or maybe it’s the day when the student finally builds an E-flat-7th chord without any help.

I met John six or seven years ago. Retirement, I knew, was looming within the next few years. I’d always been able to bang out a few chords on a guitar and decided maybe more time to pursue it was somewhere in my future. A local music store gave me John’s name and I called him. The conversation went something like this:

Do you teach adults?


Do you teach tone-deaf adults?


Do you teach tone-deaf adults with the rhythmic sensibilities of a baby elephant?


I’d found my guitar teacher. I’m probably not really that lacking in talent (John may disagree), but music is much like everything else I’ve ever pursued. I have to work very hard to be just OK. I need the teacher with patience. I found it in John.

Every community needs a few John Snells. They’re the people we don’t read about in the paper. Instead they quietly go about making communities better. They do it every day in countless ways. Many, John included, are retirees who aren’t ready to give up a vocation that at some point morphed into an avocation.

John and his wife, Sharon, who died last year one month before they would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, moved here a few years ago to be near kids and grandkids. He’d retired from teaching high school music, but he was hardly ready to give up either music or teaching.  Thus began a second career of sorts. It didn’t take long for him to hook up with the bands at the Fruita schools, something that still occupies a great deal of his time. He left his name and number at a few music stores. People like yours truly called him. Today there are a dozen or so of us who make the trek to Fruita once a week to spend the better part of an hour with a master of the instrument Andre Segovia called “a small orchestra.”

We sit in John’s small studio and, in my case, work on the jazz standards, tunes from the Great American Songbook. We, or at least I, take hours and hours — sometimes days — to arrange a song. John does it in minutes.

Last week there was still 10 minutes left in my allotted half hour, which always stretches to at least 45 minutes. John flipped through a songbook and stopped at “Bye Bye Blackbird.” He’d done his own arrangement by the time I left.

We students try our darndest to make what we play sound something like the warm, melodious tones John coaxes, seemingly without effort, from his vintage Gibson. I can’t speak for the other students, but try as I might, I doubt that I’ll ever get there.

But then how could I? It takes true talent to play with Henry Mancini, as John did once at Red Rocks.

I don’t think playing with legendary musicians is what John Snell is all about, though.  At least he doesn’t talk about it much. He does talk, a great deal, about the kids in Fruita. When they enter a competition and get superior ratings, we hear about it. Last week he finished a lesson with me then was off to a fundraiser for the Fruita bands. Several band members had just done well in a competition and they needed to raise some money for the next band trip. Those are the things that really matter.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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