During the summer of 1995, Kyle Johnson walked into Snake River Brewing and was awestruck by the sounds of keyboardist Keith Philips. Kyle introduced himself and began taking lessons with the late musician — the two developing a close friendship.
“Keith was my hero and mentor and I still get choked up talking about him because he was so amazing. I’d been playing piano my whole life. It’s just when you get a good teacher you suddenly feel like you’re moving in the right direction. He carried me in that direction for 20 years,” says Kyle.
Kyle has pursued many occupations in Teton Valley — guiding, serving as a counselor at C-V Ranch, teaching adaptive skiing, working as a carpenter, teaching piano lessons — but his journey as the founder and executive director of Teton Music School, just began last year.
Inspired by his years learning from Keith, Kyle wanted to create an inclusive space for music to be practiced, shared, and appreciated. “Music education in this town does not have an organized entity,” he explains, so he made it his mission to create a place for students and teachers to meet and explore the world of music together.
In January 2019, Kyle sought out a board of directors — mostly friends and the parents of some of his students — to help turn this dream into reality. Together, they took the necessary steps to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and secured a space at the Center of the Arts. By September, they had about 50 students and three teachers, and today, they reach over 100 students and employ eight teachers who specialize in everything from ukulele and gui-tar to cello, saxophone, and vocals.
“These teachers are really, I think, some of the most entertaining and inspiring people in the community. This is a good representa-tion of the talented musicians that are in this town. I wasn’t sure who I could get to teach, and I was really pleased I was able to get these folks,” says Kyle.
In addition to lessons, the Teton Music School added a high school and middle school band, and summer camps. “Not everybody is a soccer player, a lacrosse player, or a theater person. There are people who all they really want to do is jam out,” says Kyle. “These kids needed a place to play.”
Teton Music School has invested in a state-of-the-art PA system and instruments so students have the opportunity to play together as a band. “We are developing student ensembles in all different ways, like rock bands, chorales, jazz bands, and bluegrass. It’s really awesome to see kids working together as a team to take the skills they’ve developed over the years individually and bring those skills into a group setting,” he says.
But establishing the school hasn’t been easy. “We’re like a little kid learning to walk. It seems like it’s been challenge after chal-lenge after challenge. I’ve never worked this hard in my life, with the exception of raising small children,” says Kyle. Yet, despite the inherent obstacles of starting a nonprofit organization, Kyle has found success within the community. They’re offering private les-sons and a variety of summer camps — including a music produc-tion and digital recording camp and a vocal performance camp. Teton Music School also recently partnered with One22 to provide scholarships for families who can’t afford music lessons.
The inspiration behind Kyle’s collaborative and community-minded school are those decades he spent learning alongside his “hero and mentor.” Through Teton Music School, Kyle is able to pay it forward — inspiring and educating the next generation of musicians.