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altJohn Mindeman is the quintessential 21st century musician. He has spent time in national orchestras, performed in jazz bands and sat in the horn sections of some of the world’s most famous performers including Joni Mitchell, The Three Tenors and The Moody Blues.

Apart from his extensive resume as a performer, John is also a highly sought after music educator. Having taught at Northern Illinois and Roosevelt University, John is now Assistant Professor of Trombone at Western Illinois University.

John sat down with me to share his insights on developing ones skills as an educator, and on how to have a positive impact on students of all ages.

MW: How did you get your start as a trombone teacher?

JM: I got started as a trombone teacher kind of through the back door. I have degrees in Music Performance – not Music Education, so I had no formal training that would allow me to teach in the public school system. But that was ok, because what I wanted to be was a performer, not a teacher! I got my start teaching private students. For me, it was trial and error at first. As I gained more experience, I learned what worked and what didn’t.


MW: Did any of your teachers have an influence on your private teaching approach?

JM: Yes, most definitely. In fact, much of what I teach was handed down to me by the great musicians I was privileged to study with. Edward Kleinhammer, George Krem and Edward Kocher were the most important teachers in my early years, and they each had their unique perspectives on teaching.

With me, Mr. Kleinhammer emphasized the basics – good breathing, consistency, and producing a resonant tone in all registers. From George Krem I learned a lot about style, technique, musicality, and interpretation. Ed Kocher took an all-around approach, emphasizing tone, technique, good articulation, and musicianship. He also taught me what it meant to be a professional in the world of music. 

For my students, I tend to emphasize the basics – consistently good tone, clean technique, proper breathing, good intonation, etc. – but always with the intent of achieving some musical goal. In later years, I have learned much from teachers of other instruments – about artistry, extended techniques, improvisation, etc.

MW: As someone who draws from many influences in their playing how do you encourage students to explore different genres and styles of music?

JM: I require my college students to do a lot of listening - all kinds of music - from bluegrass to jazz to classical to music from other cultures. My way of thinking is, when a player exposes him/herself to a wide variety of music, his/her understanding of music in general, and sensitivity to style increases exponentially. Not only that, but exploring many genres stretches your ears and your technique. You can’t help but be a better player for it.

 


altMW: In your opinion how has technology, especially the internet, changed the landscape of music education in recent years and where do you see it headed in the future?

JM: I can’t speak to where it’s going from here, but the internet certainly has provided easy (and in many cases free) access to a lot of material helpful to both student and teacher. I direct my students to specific websites to download free articles, technical exercises, lessons, and playing tips – and it’s all available in minutes. A motivated student can learn much on his/her own now that was not possible even 15 years ago.

With regard to other technologies such as Smart Music or Band in a Box, I am torn.  While these tools are a help in learning specific pieces, they are no substitute for careful score study or playing with real people. Working live with other musicians is what music is all about. Communication, flexibility, artistry, sensitivity, listening and focus are all vibrantly alive when you’re playing with someone else. With a machine, much of this can be lost or ignored.

 


MW: You are such an experienced and accomplished performer as well as an educator.  How has your teaching experience influenced your performing and vice-versa?

JM: There is no question that my experience as a performer has greatly enhanced my teaching abilities. Knowledge of styles, performance skills, discipline, listening skills – not to mention people skills, how to deal with nerves, and the like are just a few of the things a performer learns over time. I use what I have learned in every lesson.

Teaching is a good catalyst for thinking about one’s own playing. Some issues I help students with cause me to think critically (constructive criticism, that is!) about aspects of my own playing I need to work on. But personally, I have to be careful not to let analysis slip into performance. For me, this has the potential of complicating and making more difficult the act (art) of playing music. Analysis is for the practice room. Freedom and artistry are for performance.

MW: What advice do you have for people who are just starting to teach trombone?

JM: The advice I would give is to remember that no two students are alike. Each is an individual, with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Adopting one way of teaching – one set of exercises, one proper physical “set up”, one type of instrument that is the best, etc. – seems foolish and to me, it cheats the student. Take each student separately, and teach them what works best for them. There are certain absolutes, of course, without which a student cannot succeed: discipline, curiosity, hard work, and listening are just a few. But be flexible in your presentation of ideas, and be open-minded in your options.  Tailor them to suit the individual.

MW: What advice do you have for students when they are looking for a private trombone teacher?

JM: For the serious student: if possible, find a teacher who is now, or has been, an active performer. Someone involved in performing will likely have more insight into playing problems, and a clear perspective on the importance of practice, discipline, and artistry.

MW: Thanks for chatting with us today.

JM: My pleasure.

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