The Piano Man: Dr. James Shepherd

Luke Goodman

The amiable man is eager for the day that awaits him. After he enters his car and shuts the door, he adjusts the positioning of his leather chain wallet to make for a more comfortable ride. He pulls into South High, greets Steve at the security desk, and makes his way up to the main office to receive his sub schedule for the day. Following the ringing of the final bell, he re-enters his car and drives to All Saints Episcopal Church where he serves as head pianist. 

This is a typical day for Dr. James Shepherd, a current substitute for Great Neck Public Schools. Although he’s now retired, for 40 years Dr. Shepherd taught music at various schools throughout the district. He first discovered his love for music from his elementary school art teacher, who personally gifted Dr. Shepherd his first instrument: a violin. After a couple of years, as a young and promising violinist, Dr. Shepherd decided to learn an instrument that incorporates both the treble and bass clefs; he took on piano, and found that his talents lay there. 

From there on out, music—piano in particular—became his life. During his sophomore year at Port Washington High School, Dr. Shepherd was given the opportunity to serve as an assistant pianist for ballet classes in Great Neck. He was always fond of Great Neck. “It was just always such a vivacious and happening town to me,” Dr. Shepherd said. So Dr. Shepherd accepted the offer and played there as a pianist through his senior year. After graduating from high school, he attended college as a music major and later received his doctorate in music. “As a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor of some sort, so I originally wanted to be a dentist,” Dr. Shepherd said. “But in middle school, when I realized I could become a doctor of music—my real passion—I knew that was for me.”

After graduating college in 1970, Dr. Shepherd taught part-time at Harbor Hills Elementary school while also serving as a long-range substitute music teacher at South High School. “It’s kind of cool how I started and ended my career as a substitute teacher. It’s pretty full circle,” Dr. Shepherd said. He taught at Kensington-Johnson Elementary School from 1971 to its closing in 1981 while also teaching part-time at Cherry Lane Elementary School. In our interview, Dr. Shepherd recalled some of his time at Cherry Lane elementary. “I remember always being late during my commute from Kensington to Cherry Lane, and because of cows!” he said. “There were always cows crossing East Shore Road after pasturing on open fields on what’s now called Cow Lane.” 

After Cherry Lane closed in 1976, Dr. Shepherd was assigned to teach part-time at Grace Avenue School (which ultimately became the Great Neck Senior Center) all while still teaching at Kensington. “Those Grace Avenue kids, man,” Dr. Shepherd said. “There weren’t a whole lot of them, but boy could they sing.” After the closing of the Grace Avenue School and Kensington-Johnson Elementary School in 1981, Dr. Shepherd taught at Lakeville Elementary School for four years. In 1985, he transferred into secondary education at Great Neck North High as a choral director. “I always wanted to teach secondary education, and I’m glad that there was a time in my career when I did,” Dr. Shepherd said. He immediately made strides at North High, earning the position of department chair in 1986, just one year after his initial employment at GNN. 

In 1993, the district transferred Dr. Shepherd to E.M. Baker Elementary School, where he taught until his retirement in 2010. However, he retained the position of department chair at North High even after transferring to E.M Baker. While Dr. Shepherd was teaching at E.M. Baker, he was simultaneously running an entire department in a whole other school. He did this for fourteen years until eventually resigning his department-chair position in 2007, just three years before his retirement. 

In retirement, Dr. Shepherd enjoys spending time with his four children and wife, who was coincidentally a graduate of South High School. In fact, Dr. Shepherd attended South High’s prom as her date when they were juniors in high school. Regardless of the fact that he’s no longer teaching, Dr. Shepherd continues to do what he loves most: play music. He serves as a private piano teacher while also aiding music departments across Great Neck Public Schools with any musical request they may have. “Whether it’s filling in on piano or organizing sheet music, I’m there.”