Local musician Dave Carson has been giving saxophone and clarinet lessons to kids for over 25 years, and many of his students have gone on to their own careers in music.
Carson, 49, has a music degree in clarinet and sax performance from the Armed Forces School of Music and also performs in two bands that have been around for over 20 years — The Jazzaholics and Soul Siren. His day job is giving music lessons at his business, Dave Carson Music and Instruction, in Poulsbo, while also providing private instruction on Bainbridge Island and in Silverdale. He has about 50 students.
The majority of Carson’s students are teenage kids who want to be a cut above the standard level of playing in high school band and want to participate in state solo and ensemble competitions, which often leads to them playing at the college level and earning small scholarships every now and then.
“I’m a competitive guy. I grew up racing go-carts and cars so second place was the first loser,” Carson said with a chuckle. “What I wanted to do when I started teaching was to find out what the hardest competition out there was, and I wanted to win it.”
Carson’s students have done just that over the years, medaling about 40 times at the Washington Music Educators Association state solo and ensemble contest, including 16 state champions.
“It’s just as gratifying as playing well yourself, and sometimes even more so because you’ve shared something that is very hard to pass on,” Carson said about watching his students succeed. “In times of turmoil, music can be that crutch you can lean on in life. There are so many life lessons from competing at that level.”
About 35% of Carson’s students go on to be music majors and about 90% play music in college, he said. Some of his first students are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and he is starting to teach some of their kids, which he said makes him feel old. While making it as a professional musician can be tough, Carson said he wants his students to develop a lifelong joy with their instrument.
“My goal as a teacher is not really to create professional musicians, but I want to get everybody good enough where they can enjoy the instrument the rest of their life,” he said.
While Carson enjoys teaching, he still loves to perform. The Jazzaholics are considered one of the premier local jazz groups, covering everything from swing standards to smooth jazz, and perform at a variety of events. Soul Siren, however, is considered one of the region’s top cover bands, offering a wide-ranging song list that will please music lovers of all kinds. Carson plays sax and sings in that band.
He compared the difference between playing in both. “I play differently depending on what kind of band I’m playing in,” he said. “I really like old-school guys like Dexter Gordon when I’m playing in the combo format. When I’m playing in (Soul Siren) I lean toward the more modern sax sound. When you’re looking out at your audience, you got to play what the people want. So many artists stick to what they want to do. I think it has to be a little bit of both.”
He said performing with Soul Siren is actually kind of tough. “It’s hard on the body. You’re up there moving around and holding twenty pounds on your neck. With jazz, you can play that from a sitting position.”
The road there
Carson is from Port Orchard and said he originally fell in love with the sax at age 10 while at Ted Brown Music in Silverdale. The store would offer proficiency tests to see what instrument people would be good at. But before that, Carson would listen to the countdown of Top 100 songs on 97.3 FM, and he would record all the songs on his parents reel-to-reel tape recorder.
At first, he wasn’t familiar with too many sax players so he would try to mimic many of the popular guitar riffs from his era on the saxophone. “A lead guitar kind of does the similar thing the saxophone does in a jazz band,” Carson said. “They play lead lines.”
As he got older, Carson developed an affinity for Harry Connick Jr. as he would always have some of the best musicians playing with him in the big band. He also mentioned Lenny Pickett as one of his influences, who is perhaps most known for being the saxophonist and musical director for Saturday Night Live.
At South Kitsap High School, Carson played both sax and clarinet in band, while also being in the jazz band and jazz choir. He was part of a group that took first place at the Reno Jazz Festival.
Initially out of high school, Carson didn’t pursue a career in music but was still practicing. He ran a delivery unit for Pepsi in Port Orchard for a few years before he had his moment of clarity. “I got four years into my career, and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do this for forty years of my life.’”
So he decided to turn his passion into a career. He tried out for the Armed Forces School of Music in Virginia Beach and ended up making it.
“It was tough,” Carson said about his experience at music school. “What that school does is it pushes you through college music in like a year’s time. The attrition rate is 40%. For the first time in my life, I was getting paid to practice; 21 hours of mandatory practice a week.”
After earning his music degree, Carson joined the Navy jazz band from 1997-2001. During his tenure, they were stationed in Chicago, Virginia and Bangor and would do various performances at those locations.
While at Bangor, Carson was also privately teaching 15 students. He was thinking about reenlisting until the manager of Ted Brown Music reached out to him, praising his talents and asking if he wanted to teach 50 students.
Carson seized that opportunity. He was able to retain about 45 students from the previous instructor and added in the 15 private students he already had. The pay as a teacher was about four times what he was making in the Navy band. “As prestigious as the Navy band was, it didn’t pay that great,” Carson said. “I made the move and the rest is history, so to speak.”
Carson has had many doubters along the way telling him he can’t make a career in music. He mentioned people shouldn’t limit themselves because there are so many different degrees you can get in music.
“You tend to hear from every window or door that you can’t make a living as a musician. I even have people tell me that as they hand me a check for private lessons,” he said with a laugh. “It’s definitely a 24/7 business where the phone is on all the time. If you’re not teaching music, you need to be playing music. If you’re not playing music, you need to be figuring out where the next gig is coming from. You really have to be a go-getter.”
Carson said he wants to continue teaching for the rest of his life, but most likely on a smaller scale as he gets older. He also offered some words of encouragement for those pursuing their dreams in music.
“Retirement for us is, instead of teaching 50 students we’re teaching 12. The goal is to eventually teach less but I don’t think I’ll ever stop. If anybody is looking to become a successful musician, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. The people who you see on TV and performing all over the world, that’s about 1% of everybody who calls themself a musician. There’s a lot of people out there like me making a good living and having a great career just playing locally.”