UWF Grad Neil Teller Performed in Two Jazz Groups While Pursuing Two Majors

Pensacola – Neil Teller, a 2017 graduate who double majored in music performance and telecommunication and film, performed both in the jazz combo and jazz ensemble.

He started playing the saxophone when he was about 10 years old, and it has since become his favorite instrument.

“My favorite thing about the saxophone is its voice, its sound, the tone and things that I can do with it to make it speak a certain way,” Teller said.

He was greatly influenced by his first saxophone teacher.

“Playing saxophone is special for me because of how I started,” Teller said. “My first teacher really motivated me to be what I’m working towards now, even though I didn’t really know it at the time.”

While Teller was a junior in high school, he decided to dual enroll and pursue an associate degree in fine arts at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, his hometown. After he graduated high school, he came to Pensacola and met Dr. Joseph Spaniola, associate professor and director of jazz studies and music theory at UWF. Teller then began his journey to become a professional musician.

Spaniola said when he first met Teller, he exhibited a sense of focus and curiosity that, in his experience, are great indicators of potential in a student.

“Neil is a wonderful student,” Spaniola said. “I have had the pleasure of working with him in my performance ensembles, in my academic classes and in a directed study course.

“He is eager to learn.  He applies himself, and his curiosity takes him beyond simply learning the material that is presented in a course,” Spaniola said.

While at UWF, Teller studied full-time, worked a part-time job and participated in the Lamont program run by UWF. The Lamont Community Music School offers free music classes to students in elementary, middle and high school. Spaniola said about seven students from UWF teach music classes Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

Teller taught music to four or five students of different ages and different levels of knowledge at the Dixson School for the Arts in Downtown Pensacola, where the Lamont program takes place.

The program is coordinated by Dr. Hedi Salanki-Rubardt, distinguished university professor. Spaniola said Salanki-Rubardt was “instrumental in finding qualified UWF students to participate.”

“It is truly a win-win situation,” Spaniola said. “The UWF students who participate share many of the same qualities that Neil exhibits: focus, dedication, drive and curiosity. This is an excellent example of how these traits serve Neil so well in his academic life and show how these traits have the potential to propel an individual into a professional career.”

Out of the seven members of the UWF jazz combo, three performed in both the jazz combo and jazz ensemble. Teller was one of them.

“In the big band, it’s less of an individual sound, it’s more about the group,” Teller said. “I mean, there are solos, but anything other than that is arranged. There are individual moments, but it’s more focused on the group.”

The jazz combo on the other hand, involves more improvisation, individuality and creativity.

“There’s a different kind of preparation,” Spaniola said. “It’s much more demanding of the player on the jazz combo. A combo setting is more like a conversation – it’s different every time.”

Teller said the key to prepare for a concert is practice. He plays the saxophone every day for at least an hour and a half and if he makes a mistake, he goes back to that section and plays it again.

He said he makes mistakes every time he plays, but that what really matters is the way you recover from them.

“I think I like combo a little bit more because I get to play more,” Teller said. “There’s more room for me to express what I have to say.”

Earlier this semester, Teller got the chance to play with Wayne Bergeron, a well-known jazz musician who worked on hundreds of recording projects with artists including Beyoncé, Tito Puente and Billy Joel. He also won the Pensacola Student Jazz competition at the college division.

Bergeron performed with the Gulf Coast Collegiate All-Star Jazz Band during Pensacola Jazz Fest, and Teller played with them in the first chair alto spot.

Teller, who recently graduated in May, is applying for jazz studies master’s programs at Loyola University in New Orleans, Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, and Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

Teller said his ambitions are really simple.

“Eventually, if I could make a living as a musician, I think that’s the goal,” Teller said. “I want to be able to live through my playing. I want to be able to do this all day.”

Written by: Juliana Lievano, Student Intern for CREO.