Finding the perfect balance

MRU jazz instructor still makes room to have his own music career 

“I think you really need that combination of the academic and the practical. To spend time with the instrument, that creates a huge upside to teaching.”

To say that Tyler Hornby practices what he preaches would be an understatement. An instructor in the jazz program at Mount Royal University, in which he teaches drum set as well as jazz history and theory, the Calgary native is also a full-time musician outside the classroom.

A prominent jazz drummer, Hornby has only recently spent time in the studio working on his third solo album, A Road to Remember (“or fourth,” he says, suggesting that Hornby himself has a hard time keeping track of all that’s on his plate). He also travelled to Europe to record and tour with a duo of Polish musicians and, for the past two years, held the drummer’s stool in local collective Sillian & Young.

That group has done the most to raise Hornby’s profile, as Sillian & Young have recently been nominated for Group of the Year at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, and have been picked to play the Alberta House in Vancouver during this month’s Olympic Games.

“It just feels great to be getting recognized,” says Hornby of the group’s growing success. “It’s been interesting to see a western group getting noticed for following a traditionally eastern influence and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

With so many sides to his life as a musician, it’s a wonder that Hornby doesn’t show the inevitable stress that can come with such multitasking. In fact, he exudes confidence and calm at all times and even excitement when talking about any given project he has going on, including teaching. That aspect, much like his other interests, came about rather naturally.

“I really feel like teaching finds you and I can attest to that,” says Hornby. “To see the progress that the students are making as you teach them, to watch them grow, it’s extremely satisfying to me – to know that you’ve been part of someone’s evolution as a musician and that you made a difference. That’s what I enjoy.”

Besides teaching at Mount Royal, Hornby is also frequently called up for private lessons and festival workshops. His commitment to fostering his own musical journey, rather than have it become a distraction, is meant as an enhancement towards his teaching and finding a balance between the two only seems to excite him all the more.

“Ultimately, it’s about always trying to improve my skills as a musician, which in turn improves my skills as a teacher,” says Hornby. “Post-secondary music education, as I know first-hand, is very intensive.

You have to be versed in the history and the theory, but you also have to have the practical side and that only comes by going out there and playing as much as possible, with as many people as possible. “Jazz musicians are some of the best musicians in the world, because the music is built primarily on improvisation. Whoever you’re playing with, you have to adapt to that particular sound and no matter what situation they find themselves in, jazz musicians will still be technically proficient and plugged in to the other players and be able to hit their marks and move with the rest of the band. You can’t possibly reach that mark without actual experience on the instrument.”

Hornby has undoubtedly proven his worth as an instrumentalist, especially through his work with Sillian & Young. On the group’s latest album, Under My Feet, he stays far enough back to let the melodies soar but also props them up so that they can hit with their desired impact.

The fact that Hornby can hardly be seen in the group photo on the back cover of the album reflects the drummer’s modest approach to his craft.

“I feel that if someone says, ‘Hey, Sillian & Young has a great drummer,’ then I’m not doing my job,” says Hornby. “In my mind, maybe I shouldn’t be noticed as a drummer. I should just be noticed as another member of the band.”

With all that he is doing, it’ll be hard for Hornby to remain unnoticed, yet he maintains that he will continue to pursue all his disparate avenues – teaching, recording, performing, writing –for as long as he can. But how will he find time to take on more projects now that he’s in the throes of the winter semester?

“That’s what May and June are for,” laughs Hornby.

Originally published February 11, 2010