An Interview with John
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
John Jacobson is an extremely prolific writer who has written and produced hundreds of songs, musicals and dance choreographies that are performed worldwide. Internationally known as a creative and motivating speaker, he’s also Editorial Director of John Jacobson’s Music Express and the founder and volunteer president of America Sings!, a nonprofit choir festival company that provides choral experiences for young singers and encourages volunteerism and community service. Since its founding, more than 150,000 singers from all over the country have participated in America Sings! events. John makes his home in Mt. Shasta, California. In this interview, he discusses music, the importance of teaching music, and the idea that music can create harmony that can bring people and students together.
- John, first of all, what inspired you to write this book?A Place In The Choir isn’t really the kind of book that you wake up one morning and decide to pen. Instead it is a reflection of the 26 years or so that I have been gallivanting around the world teaching music and dance to anyone who was willing to participate. Over the course of those years and miles there is a lot to teach, but even more a lot to learn and “marvel at.” I learned so much more from those with whom I came in contact than I ever taught. That is what I wanted to put down on paper and share with anyone willing to read the book. I have seen a big, wide, wonderful world, full of people who are really quite beautiful. I wanted to share my observations of just such wonder.
- I have heard someone say, (although I can’t remember who) “If you put a musical instrument in a child’s hands early enough, those same hands will never hold a gun or a knife or weapon”. How true is this?I expect that that is true. A wise friend of mine reminded me that a person really only needs three things in life. Something to do, something to love and something to hope for. I think that that’s why gardeners and musicians live so long! When you become involved in the making of music you always have something to do, (practice, listen, perform, etc.) You certainly have something to love. (I never met a child who didn’t love music.) And you always have something to hope for. (A life filled with melody, rhythm, and yes, harmony.) What’s the old saying, “Idle hands make the devil’s work.” Children need to be busy and they need to be taught that there are productive ways to be busy and destructive ways to be busy. Music is productive. Weapons are destructive. We teach them that. Give them a saxophone. It may hurt for a while but we’ll all be better for it in the long run.
- There is simply sublime beauty and majesty in many voices working and singing together. Why do we not encourage more of this in the schools?
Well there’s a million dollar question! But it doesn’t take a million dollars to answer it. In fact, the investment in music programs is miniscule compared to what we spend on other disciplines with not nearly the bang for the buck. Music programs in schools seem to be easy targets when people think they need to cut budgets. But we cut them at our own peril. *See question number 3!Now I could go on for pages about my belief that what you learn through music you don’t forget. Most of us learned the alphabet, the names of the states and presidents, how a bill gets through Congress, how to buckle our seat belt, and so on with a song. In fact, I truly believe that almost any subject can be taught at least as effectively with the use of music than any other approach. In fact, one of my favorite stories is from a sixth grade music teacher whose students were performing a musical I had written called The Musical Adventures Of Lewis and Clark. It seems the classroom history teacher was beginning the required unit on America’s early explorers. She asked the class, “Does anyone know anything about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark?” With out missing a beat the entire sixth grade started singing…”It was eighteen four not a day before they left their homes and families!” Which is the opening song from the musical. Complete with choreography. I guarantee that for the rest of their lives those youngsters are going to remember that it was 1804 that those explorers began their journey. Music makes it stick.That’s all well and good. But to be fair, a good history, math or other teacher may have other ways to teach such facts. Sixth graders (or any age for that matter) might learn their math, history, English and other subject matter without music. But who will teach them about courage? Who will teach them about honor and grace, tolerance and cooperation? Who will help them come to terms with the fact that they are part of something bigger than themselves and in the end feel at peace with the Impossible? To use your own words, how will they experience sublime beauty and majesty more effectively than with music? Through music, we can teach them so much of what it is to be human, and through music it just might stick.We cannot afford not to support music in our schools.
- Your book honors music teachers for their tremendous achievements in encouraging every child to find “a place in the choir.” Why does the educational establishment, if you will not offer more courses in music theory, transposition, and the history of music?I honor music teachers because music teachers “get it.” They have always had their doors open to any child that walks in the door. In the choir, it doesn’t matter if you’re big or little, black or white, Christian or Jew, gay or straight, blond or bald, quick or slow. There is a place for you. Should it not be so in the rest of society? I think that the teaching of music theory, transposition and the history of music are fascinating and important. But, in truth, it has never been my goal to use children to make beautiful music, rather to use music to make beautiful children. Good “educational establishments” get this. You’d be amazed at the support some music teachers do receive. You’d be horrified by the lack of support some receive. Those who don’t provide that support for whatever the reason ought to join a choir of their own. Perhaps they will be reminded of the essential role music can play in a child’s development. I repeat, we cannot afford not to support music in our schools.Please understand, A Place In The Choir is not about music theory, transposition or the history of music. It is about celebrating diversity and recognizing the beauty in every person, best demonstrated by remarkable teachers of those elements of music.
- Music is such an integral part of our culture- folk music, jazz, rock and roll, rap, and yet we should also provide students with an opportunity to study the orchestra, the symphony and baroque. What do parents and concerned others have to do to turn this around?Teachers are doing a great job of exposing children to the wide array of musical experiences available in the world. It’s amazing what I see in schools regarding introducing students to orchestral music, world music and so on. But of course, as in any subject matter the lessons that are taught in school must be re-enforced at home. There are a lot of opportunities for parents to supplement a child’s school music program with other high quality musical experiences. Take them to the symphony, the choir concert and so on. Demonstrate your own enthusiasm for this type of music by preparing them for what’s in store before you go. Teach them to be good listeners and observers by putting them in situations where they are encouraged to watch and listen to live music. Turn off the television, the I-pods, the computers and so on. Go experience the singular thrill that happens when the lights go down, the curtain comes up and the orchestra strikes it’s first chord. Why deny your children such an unforgettable thrill?
- I took four semesters of Vocal Music with Margaret Marquis and even though I cannot sing very well, I found singing an engaging experience and an educational one. I hate to use the word “force“, but at times, should not kids be forced to participate in some educational vocal endeavors?Children need to be taught. You can’t expect things to be learned through osmosis. They’ll never learn to play tennis if you don’t put a racket in their hand. They’ll never learn to play baseball unless someone offers them a bat, a ball and a glove and then plays catch with them. They won’t learn computer skills unless they try one out. And they’ll never learn to play piano or the violin until someone has led them to one. I am not qualified to tell parents how to raise their children, but my experience has shown me that every child benefits from involvement in music. Every child.
- All one has to do is travel the “ great white way “ of Broadway and see that Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia and many other wonderful shows focus on the singing and musical talents of individuals. Why has singing been such a part of our American theatrical experience?
I have no idea other than to say that when Al Jolson stepped across the footlights and sang “Mammy!” he broke many a barrier. One of those barriers was the real separation of performer and audience. We are not unlike every other society in the history of humankind in that we like to be entertained. We need diversion and sometimes we like to be a part of it.
For eons there have been dance ensembles, theatrical ensembles, and singing groups. American Musical Theater likes to put them all together. What’s not to like?What might make American Musicals unique is that instead of using Myths, legends, and so on for our stories we give cowboys songs to sing, or gangs in the streets of New York ballets to do. We didn’t invent singing and dancing, but we sure learned to stretch it. One more thing, we appreciate talent. We like to watch amazing athletes. We like to see kids who can really spell. And perhaps especially, we like to have our heart stirred. Nothing does that more effectively than a Broadway show.
- ALL musicians know Hal Leonard and his work and books. How did you get involved with him or this company?
That’s sort of a funny question in that there really is no such person as Hal Leonard. There were two brothers with the first names of Hal and Leonard who started Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation about 60 years ago. They have grown to be the largest print music publishing company on the world. So as my career turned more and more toward writing music and musicals as well as resource materials for music teachers, Hal Leonard was the best fit for me. I’m a lucky guy. Most of my best friends have some relationship with the Hal Leonard Corporation. So, it feels more like a family than a corporate entity.
- Why should principals, parents, and even teachers and music teachers read your book?
I hope that the people who read A Place In The Choir close the final page and feel like it’s great to be alive. I hope they agree in the end that there are remarkable people all around with whom they share this planet. I hope they come away with a new or renewed sense that indeed God is Love, love is better than hate, Fate is essentially kind, and that each and every one of them is valuable. I hope they laugh. I hope they cry and I hope they find assurance in the truth that all God’s Children Got a Place In the Choir.
- What question have I neglected to ask?Entering my 27th year of teaching music and all that accompanies it, I would like to share what I think it is we really do as music teachers, or at least what we strive to do. I’m certain I cannot be credited with all of these thoughts or turns of phrase. But after 27 years you hear a few ideas and some of them really stick. I call it The Music Teachers Creed, but in fact I think it is not a bad credo for all of us who want to leave the world a bit better for our having been upon it.
The Music Teachers Creed
By John Jacobson
Music is our tongue for truth:
A door to the inner Light that guides our souls.
It is behind us, before us, within us.
It is our work,
Music is the tool we use to help others feel that there is something Greater around them and in them.
It helps us discover a heart that can love,
a mind that can reason,
a sympathy that understands.
I will be honest in my teaching so others can trust me.
I will be strong.
I will be brave.
I will be a friend to the friendly and the friendless.
I will eat well, sleep well and laugh easily.
I will lift others up.
I will look and listen for things around me that merit praise.
I will look and listen for hidden beauties in my students and my peers.
I will toss harmony onto the world.
I will live.
I will give.
I will be, music.
I will use music to help others
to hear as well as to listen,
and to listen to understand.
I will use music to help others
to feel as well as touch,
to laugh more, cry more, share more, see more.
not just to exist but to live…more.
I will use music to help others to be true
and to see merit in the cause.
I will keep my standards high but my eyes closed to the small faults of those around me.
I will be an “instrument of peace” and joy and light,
and I will help others find genuine joy in each everyday and peace with the
I will cultivate courage, hope, truth, honesty, kindness, strength, perseverance, compassion, gentleness, discipline, dedication, pride, humility, wisdom
and most of all love.
I will use music to teach that making a living is not nearly so rewarding as making a life.
I will use music to help others to look up instead of down.
I will use music to encourage a yearning for
elegance rather than luxury,
refinement rather than fashion,
wealth rather than riches,
giving rather than taking,
life rather than resignation.
I will teach them joy.
I will teach them hope.
I will teach them to be great.
I will use beautiful music to make all ever more beautiful,
I will teach all with whom I come in contact
to let their very life be
Music Teachers especially have an awesome responsibility to their charges.