Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Knowledge is Power; Music is Power

BOSTON--(Dec. 2007)“See, this is how you’re playing it: Moooooootherrrr Maaaaaaary cooooomes tooooo meeeeeee. Speeeeeaking wordssss ooof wisdoooooooom. Leeeeeet eeeeeeeeeet beeeeeeeeeee.”

Pedja Simovic strums the iconic Beatles tune in slow motion while singing to demonstrate the importance of rhythm and keeping in time.

“I know, but my fingers can’t move as fast as yours,” his student Michael Powell laughs.

“That’s what we need to work on. You should practice playing the chords on your guitar with your eyes closed. You will see how much faster you’re able to play. Try it now,” Simovic says with his heavy Serbian accent. He smiles with a twinkle in his eye to his less than confident student.

The student reluctantly complies. After 15 minutes, Powell’s fingers are already picking away at the Beatles classic “Let it Be” quicker than before.

On this cold November evening, Simovic finishes his second to last lesson of the day and shakes his student’s hand to say goodbye. He remains in his 12 by 12 concrete room at the end of the hall at Page Music Center composing his own melodies. Nestled between Island Hopper Southeast Asian Cuisine and Bhindi Baazar Indian Cafe on Massachusetts Avenue, Page Music is a hidden treasure for the musically inclined. It is also home to a hidden gem.

Primary guitar instructor Predrag (Pedja) Simovic from Nis, Serbia, unleashes the inner rock star in everyone that waits to take the spotlight. Simovic is making more than just a living by making music; he’s making a difference too.

Whether it be a 12-year-old boy looking to put down his plastic guitar video game or a 25-year-old man looking to improve his classic rock skills, Simovic’s got enough riffs, licks, hammer-ons and techniques to quench any musician’s thirst for guitar-playing.

“I always considered teaching to be of high importance. If I was taught by great people and they got me involved into the best thing that happened in my whole life, then I owe to do the same for as many people I can, because I know how that feeling feels when you enlighten yourself and you see that you become one with music and there is nothing that can separate you anymore,” reveals Simovic.

He has come a long way to achieve his dreams. The unstable political climate of his environment helped develop his musical appreciation. Simovic was born in 1983 in the region once known as Yugoslavia, which has since been broken up into a series of countries. Serbia still faces complicated tensions with its neighboring province Kosovo as well as the United Nations.

In 1999 as a result of Serbia’s alleged police force and military actions against the people of Kosovo, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) dropped bombs to quell the situation.

“At that time I didn't know what was happening and didn't see things the way I see them now. The only reason for that was my parents did everything they could to keep me stress free of the situation,” recalls Simovic.

Currently, NATO is preparing for another possible outbreak of violence according to the Associated Press as Kosovo is demanding for independence while “Serbia has offered broad autonomy but insists the southern province remain part of its territory.” Although Simovic disapproves of the political response of NATO and the United States, he still managed to later embrace the culture to fit his musical aspirations.

By the age of 12, Simovic had already developed his love of guitar and found solace in his music. A major turning point for him was when he got to playing his dad’s acoustic guitar, which he says was “decent.”

“After working on that one my dad got me an Electric from his friend, which was a copy of a Gibson/Les Paul by a Slovenian company ‘Melodija.’ On that one I really improved a lot because I was motivated more playing through an amp.”

He finished a six year music elementary school after just two years of playing and realized that his “talent was huge” and that his “hard work and determination was definitely paying off.” At the age of 15, he enrolled in a music high school and scored first place on the entrance exam. A year later, he applied and enrolled at the London Guitar Institute forcing him to leave his country behind.

“Leaving Serbia (Yugoslavia) was not easy at all for me,” says Simovic as his usual carefree smile slightly fades. On top of leaving behind his long term girlfriend at the time in tears, he also had to say goodbye to his family, friends and lifestyle.

“From that point on it was either back to Serbia where the bombing was still going on and people were dying for no reason or fault of their own, or continue to pursue my dreams and goals,” says Simovic.

“I chose the second one, and kept the courage and determination from such a young age and adapted easily to English lifestyle cause I was determined to make it. I practiced and played a lot every day. Music was my only thing that kept me going apart from my family,” he says as his hand reaches for a guitar.

His head gently sways back and forth as he plays an upbeat and bright jazz scale effortlessly with a boyish grin returning to his youthful face. His fingers look abnormally elongated to the average eye as they stretch far distances along the fret of the guitar.

At age 24, Simovic already has quite an impressive resume from a musician’s standpoint. At the age of 17, he completed the "One Year Foundation in Popular Music Performance" program as the youngest student and performed at the Music Festival in London, as one of the top ten best guitar students. In 2001, he enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston and instantly found success once again. In his first semester, he was rated “The Best Guitar Freshman.” He graduated in 2005 with a degree in “Professional Music.”

Simovic immediately put his skills and degrees to work by founding his own customized guitar lesson website. With a few simple clicks, a set of DVDs or an email with downloadable files can be sent to any student with any type of background.

“It has all the benefits of a private lesson but a few crucial advantages. You can watch the same lesson over and over from anywhere in the world at any time that suits your convenience,” says Simovic with an air of pride.

“It was clear he had experience teaching, with his website program and private lessons. Obviously I only want to hire people who know what they’re doing,” recalls Eliot Page, owner and founder of Page Music, who hired Simovic in the fall of 2005.

“I remember my interview with him. He made it clear early on he wanted to be a team player, not to sound cheesy or anything,” Page laughs. “But he wanted to develop a relationship that worked for both us.”

And he brings that to his teaching style as well by being “focused on creating a lesson plan for what the student’s goals are.”

Page is happy with Simovic’s work at the Music Center as he’s “reliable” and has some of the best statistics of any of the instructors by maintaining a steady following of students while drawing in new ones.

Simovic finishes up the melody he has been working on and welcomes in his last student of the day. David Weibe steps in the room with a smirk etched across his face.

“What?” questions Simovic beginning to laugh himself.

“I can’t help but laugh at the naughty pastry shop across the street.”

The room’s window has a perfect view of the bank positioned alongside the out of place and inappropriate store.

Weibe takes out a special recording device and plays back some guitar riffs he has worked on. “I try to have some sort of recording each time I go so we can analyze. I know he appreciates that a lot,” the 25-year-old banker explains.

“The occasional fifteen minute jam happens, but he is definitely listening and making sure I play something that utilizes what he’s taught” Weibe reveals as the two begin to play.

Simovic’s students may be having a fun time, but they may be getting even more than just relaxation from their lessons according to recent studies. A November 2007 Business Wire article analyzed the findings of a recent Harris Interactive poll. It illustrated that participation in “music programs can provide people with certain skills that can be utilized in a job or a career.”

Examples of benefits cited in the data included: “the ability to strive for individual excellence in a group setting,” “how to work towards common goals,” and “a disciplined approach to solving problems.” The poll also suggested that music education is associated with higher incomes and people who go on to higher education.

“It’s a delicate art that can trigger human emotions and it has a special language of its own that it works on. On a psychological level it does wonders to brain cells. It starts a creative side of your brain and makes you go to a whole other dimension of thinking. It makes you feel like you are part of the universe and communicating on a whole different level,” said Simovic on why people should appreciate music.

Juan Aceros, a thirty-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, started taking lessons with Pedja “as a way to relax in a positive manner.” He is currently working towards a PhD in electrical engineering at Northeastern University.

“I've found that Pedja is not just a very good musician, but he is also very good teacher. He is able to play very well, but he also knows the theory behind what he plays. He can relate to all types of music and ages,” said Aceros enthusiastically.

“Most of the other instructors I tried from various places just wanted to play songs and they were unable to build a solid base that I could use for the rest of my life,” he added.

According to a study released by NAMM (The National Association for Music Education), the vast majority of school administrators polled agree that “music education provides a solid foundation for children to become productive, successful adults.”

A PR Newswire article on the subject quoted musician Steven Van Zandt as saying, “The Harris Poll and other studies like it document the fact that you don’t have to be a rock star to benefit from music education. Music benefits everyone in all walks of life.”

“I have never really met a real prodigy, but Pedja is the closest thing to it, if not one. He’s not some axe-wielding self righteous musician that I might have gotten somewhere else. Maybe that trait comes from his Serbian roots, but the guy is no doubt a hard worker with extreme patience. I have only begun to understand the power of music and the endless emotions that it brings,” said Simovic’s student David Weibe.

Simovic cites “health, love and happiness” as being “the most important things in [his] book,” but he also has a few other goals in mind as well. Aside from publishing at least one book, and recording a CD, he hopes to be able to make a living performing and teaching back home in Serbia.

“Ideally, I want to go back home, open up a music school that will educate people and make them even better than Berklee grads," Simovic flashes his wide grin, “because I am very known and respected not only for the knowledge, talent and style of playing, but also for my very unique and original teaching concepts that impressed a lot of people even at Berklee."

It’s a cold and rainy Thursday night. A student drenched from the downpour walks in with a pout on her face. The moment she enters the room at the end of the hall with the amp and guitars on the wall, her face relaxes. Simovic waits for her to get settled then hands her a guitar.

“Imagine if I could control the weather with my hands. That’d be pretty cool doode.” His eyes sparkle as brightly as his yellow Yamaha guitar.

They both laugh and begin to review the week’s homework. His hands already wield more power than he can imagine.

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