There are two ways to identify a genuine encounter with John Teti ’23 in the wilds of St. Andrew’s: you either see him before you hear him, or you hear him before you see him.
Scenario one calls for Teti to be outfitted in one of his bold, vibrant (and potentially ironic—it’s hard to tell, as Teti has a flair for the impish) looks, which, as the anointed ambassador of Hawaiian shirt culture at St. Andrew’s, is most days. It also helps when spotting him that he’s very, very tall.
Scenario two calls for you to be within any building in St. Andrew’s that houses a single musical instrument. Piano, drum, guitar, bass, melodica, it doesn’t matter: Teti’s all in. It’s a magnetic, urgent pull between human and instrument. And what lovely, thoughtful noise Teti makes.
If you were to query any St. Andrew’s faculty or staff HQ’d in the O’Brien Arts Center, they’d be quick to tell you that the very best thing about that space is the constant sound of genius in progress from student artists and musicians. This year, in particular, Teti’s achingly earnest, honest vocals have bloomed throughout O’Brien as he works through a personal senior thesis of sorts: Watching and Waiting, the burgeoning singer-songwriter’s first full-length album, completely recorded on campus with a little help from his friends.
“John Teti is probably the reason I love music the way I do,” says Jayson Rivera ’23, a founding member of The Freshman Band, which has seen many different names (“My personal favorite was Toads on Parade,” says Teti) and bandmates throughout the years. “He got a group of us together our first year. I was intimidated on bass because everyone was so talented, but what John helped put together for that very first Open Mic Night our III Form year has been one of my favorite things about St. Andrew’s. It’s from John that I learned music is not something you make because a parent or teacher asks you to. Music is something you make out of love alone.”
Like any good bestie-of-the-band, Rivera already has a favorite single from Teti’s soon-to-be released album. “I play on ‘Here and Now,’ and the song is so good,” he says. “John has the potential and the talent to absolutely go crazy with music. I’ve watched him mold the clay and become more confident in his playing and mature in his writing. The cool thing is John’s always known what he wants to do with music, but he also happens to be smart enough to pursue anything else in the world he wants.”
Teti is peak-Teti the morning we meet: Humming one of his originals, Hawaiian shirt poppin’, dropping the kind of dope and sage wisdom that makes you wonder if this kid is, in fact, actually a high-schooler. He’s considering the lyrics of one of his songs, which he characterizes as “simple.” “But I find it’s the most simple experiences, moments, and truths that really connect us as humans exploring the human condition,” he says. “That’s so beautiful to me.” (Dope, sage. I told you.)
While today Teti has resisted the siren lure of the Dining Hall piano that we sit dangerously close to in the Main Common Room, he gestures toward it. “That’s where this started for me here,” he says. “I was known by the seniors as the annoying freshman kid who always woke them up because I would come for breakfast check-in and just start playing.”
Teti contends he wasn’t brave enough as a III Former to make the sartorial choices he makes now, but it was never a question of being audacious enough to jump on the keys.
“The music wasn’t for them,” Teti says of his peers in the Dining Hall (and the seniors, who eventually came around). “I was playing for me. I was playing because there was an instrument handy and I had a few minutes.”
Soon, Teti’s breakfast interludes started to gain traction. “Soon people took the stance of, ‘This is really nice,’” Teti says. “That's one of the things that I think is thematically true of my relationship with music, which is I use music as a builder of community. I'm very grateful that everyone else in the St. Andrew’s community seems to be as grateful as they are for me simply just doing something I love to do.”
That love of music stems from a musician dad; early fandom of Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, and the Pauls (Simon and McCartney, naturally); and a few years spent singing at The American Boychoir School in New Jersey, a choir boarding school for middle-graders.
“I learned a lot about singing, music, choir, and independent life while I was there,” he says. “I did a lot of country-touring and stayed with a million host families, singing at tiny churches across America. I've seen the interior of 200-odd middle-class American homes, which was pretty cool.”
When the school closed, Teti found himself a seventh-grader at parochial school with a music curriculum that was lacking, to put it kindly. “I was feeling antsy without music in my life in a big way,” says Teti, who, backed with some of the theory knowledge he’d picked up along the way, soon turned to chord sheets and YouTube to teach himself piano. It didn’t take long for him to arrive at a place where, upon approached with any request, he could look up the chord sheet and boom.
“What’s most flourished for me, creatively speaking, with music at St. Andrew’s has been piano,” he says.
Director of Instrumental Music Dr. Fred Geiersbach has had a front row seat to all the flourishing.
“It's been amazing to watch John's already strong talent grow over the last few years,” Geiersbach says. “He's obviously a strong singer-songwriter, but it brings me great joy to also see him developing as an arranger on this album. He's been a fabulous addition to the Jazz Ensemble this semester, and I've been really happy to contribute my playing to his album.”
As for “Doc G’s” contribution? “I'm using a brass quartet made up of Dr. Geiersbach layered over himself,” Teti says with a grin. “I love it. It makes me laugh every time I think about it.”
Other SAS collaborators on the album include Cora Birknes ’23 on oboe, Silas Grasse ’23 on drums, and Sophie Xu ’23 on violin, among others. It makes sense that Teti would cast his friends and fellow Saint musicians as supporting characters on his album. After all, he is telling a story of becoming that happened to unfold on the banks of Noxontown Pond.
“I think broadly I’m trying to paint a self-portrait of the last couple years of high school,” he says. “A lot of that has to do with the relationships I created here, in these spaces.”
While all the songs are written, the actual recording of Watching and Waiting began after Christmas Break this year. Teti, who has invested a grand total of $20 into his artistic endeavor, has made good use of St. Andrew’s recording studio, with an assist from film and music instructor Peter Hoopes. Outside of the studio and the talent of Teti and his musical squad, Teti’s using Apple’s Logic Pro recording software and voice memos he calls “sound collages.” A trained St. Andrew’s ear will hear the sounds of campus embedded in his music: Oar-meets-water, recorded from his crew boat. The pealing of the bell tower. The din of Dining Hall conversation. Geese taking flight.
“Music for me is a form of therapy, and I went through some rather serious bouts of anxiety and other mental illness over the last couple years. I think I felt kind of stuck,” Teti says. “There’s one song that I wrote last spring where you’ll hear the repetitive sound of the oars clacking. It’s this mechanical pattern. It speaks to my headspace. It’s sort of shocking how much I feel like I’m in it when I close my eyes and listen. It’s almost an audio landscape painting or time capsule. To make myself spend time ruminating and soaking and steeping in this really difficult time was an emotional feat. Ask any student here: sometimes it feels like we’re caught in this endless loop. I guess the song is my version of that.”
Teti has both amused, surprised, and impressed himself when it comes to the songwriting. “Sometimes I’ll look at something I wrote and think, ‘Wow. That’s interesting. I wonder where this is coming from,’” he says. “Other times I’ll write something and sit back and it will occur to me that what I wrote is not something I ever dreamed of writing.”
English faculty Will Torrey—a mentor of Teti’s—knows a thing or two about Teti’s craft.
“From the first day of class, I could see John was an artistic, sensitive young man, someone who felt strong emotions deep down, and someone who knew, intuitively, that studying art and literature might help him make sense of the confusion so endemic to everyday life,” Torrey says. “It wasn't until he enrolled in Creative Writing that I began to fully understand him as a person. Along with the work he did in class—composing thought-provoking poems and pushing his peers to write as honestly and openly as they could—John also began coming by my office for regular visits. During these chats, John opened up about his love of music, as well as his ambition to produce a full-length album before he graduates. Such an undertaking would be a great challenge for anyone, but for a student at a school where one's days are totally scheduled, it seems almost impossible. That is, unless you're John.”
Much like one would submit early drafts of writing to their favorite teacher, Torrey has been treated to early studio sessions of Teti’s songs. “They’re beautiful,” Torrey says. “But what inspires me most about him is his preternaturally mature relationship to the process of making art. He puts in the time, not because it's easy or because it always yields gold, but because the making of the product, and not the product itself, is what fills him up.”
Teti knows the pressures on—in a little over a week, he’ll be graduating, and then off to spend “13th grade” at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. “Yes, another boarding school on another pond,” he says wryly. While he admits he’s battling a sense of imposter syndrome about getting into the choicey arts school to focus solely on his music, Teti is thrilled. “Music will be the sole academic focus,” he says. “Most musicians don’t get that opportunity until post-undergrad.”
There is, of course, Watching and Waiting to contend with first. Of the 10 tracks, two—“Strawberry Moon” and “Here We Are”—are now streaming on Spotify; the eight others are in various stages of completion.
“I don't want to get too in the weeds on what is the existential purpose of recorded music, but I don't want to make something that nobody hears,” Teti says. “I've sunk a lot of time and effort into this project and it would be incredibly disappointing for it not to be finished before I leave.” (Yes, of course, there will be a listening party.)
As he considers his musical growth, the friends and faculty who helped along the way, and finding his voice, Teti is almost surprised to admit it might not be the people he misses most. “I expected that to be the answer, as it’s the obvious one,” Teti says. “But I think, increasingly enough, I’ve found myself already mourning the loss of the physical spaces. Delaware sunsets in the fall, Noxontown Pond, the grass docks, the recording studio—the sounds of it all.”
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