An ear for music and a love of teaching…
BY OLIVIA CAMERON- Musician Philip Eyrich has an ear for octaves and an eye for reading stanzas. His encouragement of young instrument enthusiasts blends with his passion for playing at Sunday services. After teaching himself to play the organ and piano at six years of age, he has carried his natural talent into adulthood.
While growing up in Punta Gorda, Philip familiarized himself with the keyboard.
“We had an organ in our house, so I started playing music on it. Once I taught myself, I took a year of lessons to correct any bad habits I had picked up on the way,” he said. “I learned the keyboards, then learned how to incorporate the pedals and ran with it.”
Philip picked up the trumpet as well and played with the Charlotte High School band. By the time he transferred to the University of Central Florida, he was offered a position close to home.
“I obtained the first part of my degree before I accepted an offer to work with the Lighthouse United Methodist Church of Boca Grande,” he said.
In the meantime, he finished his degree at Florida Gulf Coast University, obtaining a degree in music education.
With his return to his roots, Philip has found himself lucky to follow his passion. After an internship in the L.A. Ainger Middle School band room, he spent a year as the band director at LaBelle High School.
“That whole year, I was commuting to my job in Boca Grande from Fort Myers until I heard of an opening in the area,” he said.
The band director spot at Lemon Bay High School became vacant in 2017. Philip jumped on the opportunity to teach locally. Four years later, he still exudes passion for the music program. However, young adults and change don’t always mix.
“My first year at the school was challenging at times, since high school kids don’t always adapt well to change. I followed a band director who had been there for eight years, so there were still traditions in place that I had to work with or alter. I found some people were not thrilled that I brought change, but there’s only so much you can do in your first year,” said Philip.
Despite a challenging adjustment, Lemon Bay’s band brought home top scores at district and state performances during Philip’s first year on the job.
“There are factors you can’t control as a band director. If we were to schedule 24 outdoor marching band rehearsals in a season, bad weather could easily take half of that time away. So, you have to plan ahead without trying to do too much, because you can’t just keep the kids past practice time if it rains,” he said.
When the late practices and chipped clarinet reeds propel top-notch performances, Philip is happy to hear their sound transform throughout the year.
“In the beginning of the year, it’s hard for students to play for a long period of time, but by the end of the year they have a lot more endurance, and they can perform more difficult music.”
During the season, Philip continues to double as the organist for the Lighthouse Methodist Church.
“With my jobs, I have to remain flexible. Most people think football season is the busiest time of the year with the band, but in the spring we participate in parades, festivals, and concert and jazz band events. Based on my availability, I spend my Sundays playing at the church.”
His connection with the community of Boca Grande has been fused by both the band and the church. Each year, the high school jazz band performs at the Boca Grande Woman’s Club’s Bike Path Parade & Spring Fair on the island, where Philip sees his worlds collide. His Lemon Bay students also occasionally participate in Young Life in Boca Grande, familiar faces galore.
Philip was ecstatic to see the Lighthouse Methodist Church replace their organ in 2012.
“The music director, David Hamblin, was part of the effort to bring in a new organ,” he said. “The new one is a digital equivalent of an 80-rank pipe organ, and it requires far less upkeep than a traditional pipe organ would.”
Philip remembers the challenge of coordinating his hands and feet when learning how to play at a young age. With each Sunday service, he has found new meaning in connecting with the people through song.
“When you play for people, they are interacting with you too. The organ leads, and you have to make it clear what the notes are and how the tempo goes. Those are things you don’t learn until you’ve been doing it a while.”
When he first started, Philip began to plan in advance.
“There’s no worse feeling than going into a service unprepared. Sometimes you have to adjust to changes on the fly,” he said.
Philip also plays for a variety of local churches in his free time as a freelance musician.
“If I didn’t move from Orlando midway through college, I wouldn’t have the same opportunities and wouldn’t have as much time with my family,” said Philip. “Now that I am beginning to transition into a new role, I will be more nearly full time starting in January with accompanying the choir.” Philip has been happily married for two years to his wife, Ana Maria. The former Vineland Elementary School teacher is transitioning to her first year teaching first grade at Myakka River Elementary School. Together, they built a home just off the island.
“On sunny days, we get down to Boca Grande. It’s nice to have the beach so close by,” he said. “The first time I drove out to the island, I thought, ‘Wow, this is here?’ The drive itself is beautiful. The locals are good-hearted and generous with the charities they support.”
Philip is grateful to have the Woman’s Club consistently support the arts.
As students prepare to return to school on Monday, Philip has the task of enforcing new rules in the band room to keep the kids safe. This includes wearing masks in school, using bell covers to keep particles from spreading through instruments and coordinating class breaks to keep the air clean. Nonetheless, Philip is happy to bring the music back.