It’s 6th period on an average class day, and you’ve happened to stumble into the Hess Center for a well-deserved break. Immediately you notice the noises flowing from the notorious basement band room: the reverberating floorboards, the suave melodies of a saxophone, the sharp snaps of a snare drum, and, above all, the echoing guffaws of Director of Bands John Van Eps.
To some in the community, Mr. Van Eps is just another music teacher, perhaps director of the band program at best — someone who appears on stage at Family Weekend showcases, cracking jokes and shaking a tambourine periodically. He is someone that is admired by many, yet not enough.
Known as a “Deerfield legend” to the fortunate many, Mr. Van Eps (“Veps”, “Van Eps”, or “DJ Eps,” as many have come to call him) has overseen the growth of the Deerfield music program for a span of over 12 years, longer than all music faculty except one. He is one of the biggest unsung supporters of students’ musical efforts inside and outside of the class day, from student-led bands to a capella groups and every other area imaginable.
Born in a family of musicians, Mr. Van Eps grew up with music. He spent his time learning to play the dozens of instruments lying around his house and, with the strong support of his mother, was able to attend New England Conservatory despite his self-proclaimed “horrible grades.”
From there, he moved and spent 40 years in New York City working with large companies to produce records for television commercials and the radio. He still partners with many of these companies today.
When his daughter, Emlyn Van Eps ’12, was accepted to Deerfield, he began his Deerfield career teaching percussion, which slowly developed into his role here today as director of the band program and the recording studio. As to why he stayed, in his typically terse fashion, he responded, “I liked it.”
Mr. Van Eps’ legacy in developing the music program’s potential over a decade has been successful and prominent.
Music Program Coordinator Lynn Sussman, the only music faculty who has been at Deerfield longer than Mr. Van Eps, commented on this development: “With the arrival of Mr. Van Eps, the program has changed from concert-band centered … to one that is much more diverse.”
She continued, “A lot of it has to do with the areas of expertise that he’s brought to the job as a composer, arranger, jazz musician, and rock musician.”
Mr. Van Eps, a part time teacher, is involved in not only the band program but also in teaching music theory, composition, and studio production, in managing the recording studio, and even in ventures with the theater program.
“I love that the Acting Lab and Mr. Van Eps’ recording studio are right next to each other because it allows the students from the two programs to collaborate,” Director of Theater Catriona Hynds remarked.
“Mr. Van Eps and I have collaborated on three musicals together here, in which he arranges much of the music and is also responsible for playing in the pit band,” she continued.
“If I were only allowed one word to describe him,” Mrs. Hynds said , “I would say ‘naughty!’”
Commenting on the heavy workload he takes on every year, Mr. Van Eps quipped, “It doesn’t really get too much, not really. But I’m glad when school’s over! That’s the best part.”
“Van Eps is a fireball, absolutely one of the funniest guys I know,” Quentin Jerayetnam ’16 recalled. “Some of my best memories at Deerfield are talking about everything and anything with him in the recording studio.”
Van Eps’ influence extends not only to students but to faculty as well, forming some especially humorous relationships.
“[Mr. Van Eps] is very mischievous; I love that about him!” Mrs. Hynds commented, “You can always count on him to lighten the mood with his wicked sense of humor. He never takes anything too seriously and he
encourages us to do likewise, which I think is very important.”
Despite his relaxed attitude to teaching, Mr. Van Eps draws from a vast repertoire of musical expertise and knowledge that he uses to guide his students to real learning.
“He has decades of experience in basically every style and instrument you could think of. That’s why he is afforded so much respect from the musical faculty — they understand that behind the jokes, there’s truly great leadership and expertise,”
Joshua Fang ’19 reflected, “I was fortunate enough to take private jazz lessons with Mr. Van Eps for a few terms, and he blew my mind every lesson. Through each lesson, my mental expanse of what was possible musically would grow to twice, three times the size.”
Describing his “teaching philosophy,” Mr. Van Eps explained, “The reason I’m different is because I’ve never thought about teaching.”
“I don’t have teaching in my background,” he stated simply. “In other words, I don’t have a teaching philosophy. I don’t have an agenda, and I teach whatever the kids want to learn.”
This “philosophy,” or lack thereof, has actually proved to be incredibly efficient over Mr. Van Eps’ Deerfield career, and many teachers admire him for his teaching style.
“I think that one of his goals is to make everyone comfortable in the group,” Director of Chamber and Orchestra Tom Bergeron noted. “He’s trying to disarm everyone, to make everyone comfortable — make people feel like he’s going to teach you something, but nobody has to feel scared or worried.”
Bruce Krasin, saxophone instructor, expanded on this idea, “He has this ‘laissez faire’ attitude that really brings out the best in the students, but at the same time he’ll tell it like it is, which challenges students to really expand their comfort zones.”
With his decades of experience and knowledge, Mr. Van Eps has proved his ability to be a fantasti teacher. Additionally, in many more unconventional ways, he is able to reach many students to convey his broader life message of what is important — not only in music.
Always down-to-earth, Mr. Van Eps often is the one to put problems in perspective. He teaches students that a single bad grade, a stressful AP test, or a rejection for a leadership position mean almost nothing in the grand scheme of the world. That, for many, is what makes him so special in a high-pressure environment like Deerfield.
“If you ask what Deerfield is, it is a preparatory boarding school,” Marco Marsans ’18 explained. “We are basically funneled into this conveyor belt of success, constantly stressed, and Mr. Van Eps is the one person that actually steps outside and says ‘What the hell? You guys are kids. You need to have fun; you need to know how to wear a smile.’”
“He’s not a conventional mentor, but he knows exactly how to make you happy and teach you how to live,” Marsans added.
While numerous students and faculty have felt the impacts of his reach as a teacher, mentor, or colleague, Mr. Van Eps also considers Deerfield to be a place that has also changed him in many ways over the decade of his work here.
“The kids are fabulous. They’re really smart,” Mr. Van Eps explained. “I feel like a lot of the kids gain a lot from what I teach them, and they get it. There are obviously also a lot of knuckleheads that don’t. But because some kids are smart and into it, I know I’m reaching people. That’s the most important part of teaching for me.”
He described how his favorite moments working at Deerfield have been watching his students stand up in front of crowds and improvise solos after working hard in the lessons that he has taught. He takes pride in seeing them succeed, because “improvising is the hardest thing a musician can ever do.”
As a part-time teacher at Deerfield, Mr. Van Eps spends the rest of his time working in his home recording studio, continuing his career as composer, producer, and arranger for audiences both inside and outside of Deerfield.
As for future plans, he plainly jested that he just “needs to make it until 67 until all [his] pensions mature.”
From the recording studio, to the band room, to the stage, Mr. Van Eps is the symbol of the extent of music’s reach at Deerfield and beyond. He has a unique ability to impact and influence hundreds around him in momentous and incredible ways. By being the pivotal figure in many students’ lives, he is the epitome of a “Deerfield legend.”
“He’s basically Deerfield music’s pituitary gland: regulates growth, ensures normal function, and secretes endorphins.“
– Elven Shum ’20
“I distinctly remember Mr. Van Eps (I call him DJ Eps) teaching me how to actively listen to music – breaking it down to smaller components of beat structures, instruments, textures, and I’m forever grateful because this skill has been pivotal in the music work that I do.”
– Kento Yamamoto ’16
“He’s really passionate about helping kids discover a love for music, even if it’s as simple as a bongo ensemble.”
– Quentin Jeyaretnam ’16
“There’s something about him that makes you let down your guard. During rehearsal, you never know what will come sailing your way — perhaps a witty insult or occasionally a real compliment.“
– Joshua Fang ’19