For more than a quarter century, Paul Landsberg mentored budding talent in the Selkirk College Contemporary Music & Technology Program studios and classrooms on Nelson’s Tenth Street Campus. It’s an amazing legacy of learning that’s turned out graduates now spread across the vast music industry.
Like so many tales of people drawn to the allure of quaint West Kootenay mountain life, Landsberg’s path to 28 years of teaching started by taking a chance.
Retired Selkirk College Contemporary Music & Technology Program Instructor Paul Landsberg (with wife Laura on the left) at his last graduation ceremony this past April. He was one of the four original faculty hired to create a unique experience for students interested in pursuing a life in the industry.
“I was living and teaching in Boston when Darcy Hepner called to say he was up in Canada starting a contemporary music program and could I fax him my resume,” Landsberg recalls. “It was 1989, so I said ‘sure… what’s a fax?’ He said to go down to the local copy centre and they will do it for you. He also told me to rent the movie Roxanne.”
Despite being in the dark about the latest technological advances in communication, Landsberg was well tuned to his craft. Still in his early-30s, the talented guitarist had already spent two decades playing and performing. Added to the mix was eight years teaching at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Hepner was a musical colleague who Landsberg had performed with while in Boston. A saxophonist who had spent time on projects with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Mel Torme, Hepner was the first instructor hired by Selkirk College to spearhead the brand new Professional Music Program.
After successfully faxing his resume, Landsberg visited Nelson for an interview and was offered a position as one of the faculty members charged with pulling together the program for the start of the 1989-1990 school year. Along with Hepner, Steven Parish and Jeff Link, the four original instructors were asked to create what was a unique post-secondary program for its time in Canada. Following the Berklee model, the program focused on contemporary music for students interested in acquiring the skills needed to work in a variety of different roles in the industry.
“It was a pretty cool project,” says Landsberg. “I mean, here you are in the middle of the mountains and you get to start a music program.”
Ladies and Gentleman… The Beatles
Landsberg was born in the Bronx, but grew up across the Hudson River in New Jersey, a half hour’s drive from New York City. Growing up in the early-1960s, Landsberg was a child of a golden age in popular music.
“It was a sign of the times,” says Landsberg about his early musical influences. “I remember my parents letting me stay up late to watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Where I grew up, it was all baseball and The Beatles. I became infatuated with music because it didn’t seem likely that the Yankees would be interested my pitching abilities.”
Though his home was not well stocked with instruments, Landsberg’s father managed a Sam Goody store, which at the time was the world’s largest record store chain.
Landsberg grew up with a family that loved music. His father's sound system was ahead of its time and was even featured on the cover of Audio magazine in 1963.
“We were a lower middle-class family, but the one luxury we had was an unbelievable living room sound system built into the cabinetry,” says Landsberg. “My dad could buy the audio gear at cost and his one hobby was to bring home a record album every night and record it on his state-of-the-art Tandberg tape recorder. Then he would bring it back the next morning and put it where the scratched and warped records go.
“My dad didn’t play an instrument, but I am so thankful that he loved music… all music. I grew up on Frank Sinatra, Woody Guthrie, Miles and Coltrane, Doc Watson. He loved music, there was no genre he didn’t like… classical, country, blues. That was my musical education because anything I have to play I have a reference in my mind, I know how it goes down.”
Landsberg picked up drum sticks in Grade Four and by high school was part of the marching, concert and jazz bands. Away from public school, his garage band played Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Landsberg would cut class with his friends so he could travel into New York City to watch free concerts by the likes of Pete Seeger and join peace marches through the streets with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
After high school, Landsberg took some time to travel through the western side of North America, picking fruit for farmers in the Okanagan and making it as far south as Mexico. Finally landing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Landsberg began his formal music training and after one year moved onto Berklee. Taking a 12-month hiatus from post-secondary to travel with a top-40 cover band that played five sets a night in hotels in the eastern United States, Landsberg again made his way back to Berklee to teach.
After eight years of gigging and teaching in Boston, Landsberg was excited to get the call from Hepner in Canada.
“As an in-demand freelance guitarist, I kind of lost myself and started to not know what I would play for myself,” says Landsberg. “I thought I would come out here for a year or two and not have tonnes of gigs. I wanted to help start and design a program, it seemed like a good challenge. In my mind I wanted to meditate a lot, write more music and re-find myself.”
Making Music Happen in the Mountains
The creation of the Selkirk College Professional Music Program was spearheaded by former president Leo Perra in the late-1980s. At the time, the Canadian International College (CIC) was the primary tenant at Nelson’s Tenth Street Campus where mostly Japanese students attended to get a start in English language immersion.
The original Selkirk College Contemporary Music & Technology Program faculty included (L-R) Jeff Link, Program Chair Darcy Hepner, Paul Landsberg and Steven Parish (who continues to teach at the Tenth Street Campus).
In an effort to bring more life to the campus, CIC asked Selkirk College to consider some programming that would help enhance the international student’s education. Perra had a proposal for a unique music program aimed at providing the tools to those interested in pursuing careers in popular music. With help from the Selkirk College Board of Governors, the Ministry of Advanced Education approved funding in May of 1989. With an extremely shortened timeline for a Fall Semester start, the new faculty were hired.
“It was like, here’s a credit card… make a program happen. It was wild,” says Landsberg.
The first cohort had 25 students and classes began in October, 1989.
“It was very local, pretty much everybody who played in the bars,” Landsberg says of the first class.
Program Continues to Build Exciting Careers
This fall, the Contemporary Music & Technology Program will begin its 29th year of instruction on the Tenth Street Campus. With the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s taking a toll, CIC packed up in 1998 and paved the way for Selkirk College to become the primary tenant on the Nelson-based campus.
The two-year diploma program has had as many as 100 students and averages 80 in its studios and classrooms. With strong ties and transfer agreements to the Berklee College of Music—where students can complete a Bachelor’s of Music—the program has evolved with the times to ensure students learn all aspects of today’s industry and graduate with a multitude of options. The faculty has grown to 11 musicians who combine their teaching ability with ongoing performing of their own.
“The smallness of knowing all the students in the program is the best part of the program,” Landsberg says of his 28 years of teaching. “We give them a fantastic education. The students really appreciate that they are learning from people who are active and really do it.”
Landsberg mentored thousands of students over his 28 years at Nelson’s Tenth Street Campus and all the while continued to dazzle budding talents with his chops on the guitar.
Music program alumni can be found on stage, in studios and in classrooms all across the world. From chart-topping artists like Kiesza to those who create away from the limelight, the success of the program has been the program’s dedication to quality in a setting that inspires artistic output.
“Not everyone comes with stars in their eyes,” says Landsberg. “I think the feeling is just wanting to do music for a living and to do something they love as their job. Touring and performing is just one facet of the program, there is the production and writing and understanding the music business. Just because a graduate didn’t end up being someone you have read about or making a good living running a studio, doesn’t mean the education here was unsuccessful.”
Landsberg’s story is one of the featured tales in the book Journeys Taken: Selkirk College – The First 50 Years which is for sale at all campuses and other bookstores in the region.