London Silas Shavers is on a mission, and following his lead are some of the most serious and dedicated woodwind students in the United States.
A native Chicagoan, London made his way down to Tennessee fifteen years ago to pursue his doctorate, but ended up finding what he was truly looking for when he started a private woodwind studio with just seven students, growing to twenty by the end of his first year. Fast forward more than a decade and his studio sets the standard for excellence in performance and academics. His students have included three National Merit Scholars (one of whom was accepted to every Ivy League university), two Eagle Scouts, and All-State First Chairs for every instrument he teaches privately.
What’s London’s recipe for success? Wouldn’t you like to know.
Recently, on a rainy afternoon following the photo shoot for this publication, London and I sat down over a bowl of phở in Vancouver, Canada, to talk about the highs and lows of running a successful private studio. I asked him why most private studios fail. His answer was quick and direct: “Most teachers treat their students as cash cows instead of investments. I’m tough. I deal in brutal honesty.” For those who maintain private studios, those words can be taken as a stinging criticism. Take them as you will.
Embracing one’s own journey is the first lesson taught in London’s studio. “I’m a guide, but they have to walk that path and go down the rabbit hole. They have to understand that I am there for them. Students respond better when there is trust. I never ask them to do something I haven’t done myself. I need to explain to them the why and how. And that I will be there to fight that battle with them. We work as a unit.”
Every one of his students is on her or his own journey. Some study music with the goal of being professional musicians; others do it purely for the love of music. One student, Sarah, studied with London for just one year, during which time she went from average oboeist to All-State First Chair. Following this prestigious appointment, she quit the oboe, her goal of achieving First Chair having been conquered.
“I want to build something. Start them off right. Like a piece of clay. They start with nothing and when they are done, they have a scholarship waiting for them.” Interestingly, almost all of London’s students excel not only in academics, but also in earning entrance scholarships to the colleges they are accepted to. “As a student, you may not be successful [to begin with], but you need to have a fighting chance. You need to give the kids honesty. We’re all students. My students are my best teachers. They are like jigsaw puzzles, where I get the opportunity to learn. Sometimes the best lessons don’t even involve taking the horn out of the case.”
But what is the fundamental key to London’s students’ achievements? “My studio is successful due to unbelievable parental support. The first lesson is an interview. I sit down with the parents. I tell them, ‘This is what I need. I need your support. If you can’t give me the tools to help your child, I’m not the teacher for you.’” Tough words for a parent to hear if they aren’t fully committed to their child’s development.
“I don’t treat the kids differently. The standards are still the same. Log your practice times, record yourself. Perform with your fellow classmates. Perform in clarinet choirs and quartets.” In the end, the recipe for success changes with each student, as each one is motivated differently, according to her or his own goals. “They don’t practice out of fear. They generally want to do better. One bad lesson and we move on. Two, so be it. Three and we’re having a chat. I rarely have to take a student to task for not practicing.”
One thing is for sure: there is no room for egos in London’s studio. “I don’t approach any artist or student differently. They put their pants on the same way that I do.” On achieving All-State First Chairs for every one of his students: “It’s not a matter of who wins which one, someone’s going to take that chair.” Studio-mandatory mock auditions, peer-to-peer feedback and constructive criticism, healthy competition between students, and you have more fun than you do at a Friday night football game. One thing is clear: London loves what he does and is committed to it with every fibre of his being. He truly lives it.
If you ever have the opportunity to spend time with London or his students, you’ll hear one phrase over and over again: “Remember who you are and take your place.” It’s classic London Silas Shavers. Personally, I often repeat this to Backun Artists as they prepare for a big audition or take the stage for a big performance. Indeed, they are words to live by.
London Silas Shavers is a Fine Arts Instructor at Northwest Mississippi Community College–Desoto Center. In addition to his teaching, festival adjudication, and ensemble conducting, Shavers performs throughout the United States and abroad as a soloist and chamber musician, and is an active woodwind clinician, recitalist, and composer. Shavers holds degrees from Valparaiso University and Western Michigan University, and completed doctoral studies at the University of Memphis. London Silas Shavers is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets and his line of Backun/London Silas Shavers Mouthpieces.