Stephen Johns vividly recalls the moment he decided to devote his life to music. He was a sixth-grade student at Venice Elementary School, attending a field trip at Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, which was at that time the only concert hall in Sarasota. As he listened to the orchestra play Franz Schubert’s famous “Unfinished Symphony,” the “magic of music” cast its spell over him, and Johns was captivated.
Today, as chorus director at Venice High School and artistic director of the acclaimed community chorale group Exsultate!, Johns is undoubtedly one of the most influential music lovers in Venice. He is thrilled to play a role in bringing music appreciation to the hometown he loves and to share the joy of music with students of all ages.
“I have the most wonderful job in the world,” said Johns, who has been teaching music in the Sarasota public school system for 25 years. “I get to do exactly what I want to do and people pay me for it. It’s not a job but an opportunity. Every day is exciting and I can’t wait to get to work.”
Johns works long hours, especially during the holidays and the busy spring concert season. It is not unusual for him to teach a full day at school and spend his evenings and weekends conducting black-tie concerts. He devotes the majority of his summers to making plans for the following year, carefully choosing music, creating rehearsal schedules and setting concert dates.
“There will be time to rest later,” he said. “I am passionate about giving children—and adults—the same experiences in music that I was fortunate enough to have. I love to see the ‘magic’ happen for other people. I want to do everything in my power to bring the best music right here for the people of Venice to appreciate and enjoy.”
During the course of his career, Johns has taught music across a wide age spectrum. Remarkably, he has taught at each of his former schools—elementary, middle and high school. He led a music appreciation course at Manatee Junior College (another alma mater) for 20 years, but “retired” in 2010 in order to accept his current role with Exsultate!
Johns particularly enjoys his work with Exsultate! because it allows him to interact with people from different walks of life who share a common love of music. As an added benefit, many of his high school chorus students are junior members of the performing group. Johns is proud of the caliber of performances undertaken by this group of volunteer performers and delights in selecting classic pieces from the past as well as new works from modern composers.
A native Venetian, Johns grew up in a Venice that no longer exists—a fishing village with dirt roads where kids could roam at will and fish anywhere. His father, Byron, was a well-known building contractor, and his mother, Penny, worked downtown at the iconic Dick & Meadows Pharmacy. As a young man, Johns was eager to leave town and eventually earned a master’s degree in music from Florida State University. He worked as a music therapist for several years in Tallahassee where he met his wife, Karen, but soon realized the appeal of his hometown and moved back to Venice to raise a family.
Today, the couple has three grown children and one granddaughter. Karen is a music teacher at Lakeview Elementary School, where she was the 2010 Teacher of the Year. Johns is still passionate about his work, rushing from school to rehearsals to concerts. He is reviewing the work of a new composer that he is excited about, and is already making plans to take a group of students to visit Carnegie Hall in New York City next year.
There will be time to rest later.