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music from the heart, music 4 Life

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– “When you go for happiness, it takes you to a different stage.”
It’s a philosophy music instructor Marek Sznyrgala abides by.
In this case, it’s also literally true.
A band of his Music4Life students will play a small set at the annual Blues & BBQ event Saturday, May 26, a new twist for the sixth annual community festival. Student performers have not been part of the lineup before, noted planning committee member BJ Jaggers.
“Many school and teenage children are oblivious to the foundational role that the blues plays in today’s pop music,” Jaggers said. “Music4Life’s performance at Blues and BBQ will help to sustain social interest in the blues, provide young musicians a chance to perform on a professional stage, and raise community awareness of the positive influence Music4Life places upon its budding musicians. We are excited for this year’s performance and hope to make them an annual participant.”
Music4Life students will take the stage at 3:45 p.m., and their director promises an inspired performance.
The North Liberty music studio and teaching center at 595 Ashley Ct. has been accepting students since 2010. Founder and owner Marek Sznyrgala has come a long way from his homeland, and his journey has shaped the kind of music educator he has become.
“We don’t practice,” he said. “We play for fun.”
It sounds a bit odd coming from a musician who was raised in a politically-charged communist Poland in the 1980s, studied at an elite international music conservatory, trained in classical music and learned four languages. Having a grandfather detained in a concentration camp, relatives who were imprisoned because of their communist opposition, and watching families torn apart by a Soviet-backed regime and its martial law prompted Marek to leave for England in 1986.
“I saw lives being broken,” he said.
It was in England that Marek’s musical soul began to sing.
He began experimenting with blues, jazz fusion and jazz improvisation, and played in bands as well as composed his own pieces. After returning to Poland for a couple of years, Marek and his wife came to the United States in 1999, where he would begin coaching business clients in Boston.
But it’s music education that he says is his true calling.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I have one student who told me, ‘When I play the guitar, I want fire to come out of it!’ So what do I do with a child like that? If I push him through the grind of education, he will lose heart. I have to teach, but at the same time keep that fire going.”
To that end, Marek uses a different method than the traditional ones under which he was taught, a style born of resistance to conformity, tempered with the rewards of discipline; one that both respects cultural roots and encourages new directions. He is purposeful in his expectation that kids should have fun when they play.
“I came up with this concept because it empowers kids. If you don’t have fun, it doesn’t work,” he said. “A lot of teachers are burning kids out because they are pushing them through a grind.”
That was his experience as a young musician; taught in a private school, he learned to perform music, and his academics, at a very high level.
“We were very good, but none of us liked it. We didn’t enjoy ourselves.”
His perspective now is that too much perfectionism kills fun. If children aren’t allowed to make mistakes, he said, students can’t learn from them.
“We call it ‘tweaking’ the music,” he said. “If Mozart had not been improvising and playing for fun, he would never have become Mozart.”
However, fun means something totally different to each student.
“Students have different aesthetics, they have different DNA, they have different values and musical tastes. We are sensitive to that,” Marek said. “Of course, we create a foundation in regards to musical theory, but if a student says, ‘I like Taylor Swift,’ we start with Taylor Swift. If they want to be Jimi Hendrix or Mozart, we’ll go there with them. And then within six months they are coming up with their own original songs.”
At Music4Life, students are encouraged to become their own teachers, to learn the music and the instrument well enough to be able to explain it to themselves and others. “The instructor then becomes more like a coach,” Marek explained. “A lot of music education is wrapped around the ego of the teacher, but if you have one guy walking around like a guru wearing self-importance on his shoulders, I don’t think it really benefits the students.”
What does benefit everyone–in all aspects of life, he said– is the ability to improvise.
“When kids improvise– especially teenagers who have been playing an instrument for 10 years because their mother told them they have to– once they start writing their own compositions, it’s a whole different game.”
Eventually, he said, it leads to the mastery of music. He hopes it also leads to a lifelong love of playing it.
“If I teach them for five years, and they don’t continue to play as an adult, even for fun, like when they come home from work or just to relax, then I’ve failed,” he said.
The confidence to perform is also part of Marek’s music-for-life philosophy. He uses the power of the YouTube to post videos of students playing, both to help them evaluate their own musical development and to get them used to thinking of themselves as performers.
Jaggers said Music4Life’s philosophy is the prefect flavor to blend with North Liberty’s annual music fest.
“Music4Life is an advocate for fostering an active interest amongst youngsters in many genres of contemporary music, including the blues,” Jaggers said.
Marek is also particularly pleased about the opportunity for his students to take the Blues & BBQ stage this year. As a North Liberty resident whose two teenagers attend West High School, he and his family love the community and its location.
“We want to contribute,” he said. “We want people to know what is going on with the students at Music4Life, and we want the town to be proud of them,” said Marek. “Hopefully, when they grow they will feel comfortable playing gigs in other places. We are empowering the students to perform.”
Mathew Fender, parent of one of Marek’s students, said Music4Life has already made a difference in his eight-year-old son’s confidence to play classical, jazz and other styles of piano.
“Marek makes them feel very relaxed, and allows them to be themselves and express themselves,” said Fender. “Unlike certain classes that people press you just to do certain things in certain ways, he allows them to make mistakes, and correct themselves. Marek helps them learn how to deal with that part of the learning phase.”
And the success is evident in the progress Fender has seen in his son.
“The program is fabulous. He loves it, and it breeds confidence in other things he does,” said Fender.
See Music4Life students perform at 3:45 p.m. on May 26 at the North Liberty Blues & BBQ festival.
Until then, they won’t be practicing, but they will be having fun, and playing from the heart.