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Curiosity, Passion, and Persistence: Jay Johnson on Teaching Music

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During the warmer months at Carleton, Carls often hear the sounds of drums echoing across campus. It is quite easy to stumble upon drum groups around campus, which are part of the African Drum Ensemble music class. Since the African Drum Ensemble is considered by many Carls to be one of the most memorable music classes offered, the Viewpoint thought it would be interesting to talk to Director Jay Johnson and discuss music as a passion and as a career.

Q: What made you decide to pursue music as a career?

Johnson: Like many people, I studied various instruments as a child, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to experience the unique power of music to communicate and connect. Musical expression has this incredible way of speaking to people in a way that nothing else – not even language – can, and I wanted to explore and discover how music was able to do that.

Q: When did you begin teaching?

Johnson: I began teaching in my mid-twenties when people began to ask me, “How do you do that?” I didn’t seek students; they somehow found me. My first real teaching gig was for several high school percussionists who (to my great surprise) turned out to be flautists and oboists when they arrived at my door for their first lesson! I did the best I could to teach them musical concepts like rhythm and intonation, but not having ever played the flute or the oboe, I had absolutely no idea how to correct their technical issues.

Q: As a young teacher, what did you find most surprising?

Johnson: I was surprised at how frustrated I became when my students would not put the time and energy into practicing that I expected. It was painful to feel as though my passion and enthusiasm for the music I was teaching wasn’t transferring to my students. This frustration eventually grew so great that I chose to stop teaching for over a decade.

Q: What made you feel ready to return to teaching?

Johnson: My timpani teacher, the late Jack Moore, taught me that music deserves all of the love, care, and respect that I can bring to it, and after a long break from teaching, I decided I wanted to pass along this lesson to others. While I initially experienced the same frustrations I had before, now I love the challenge of trying to find exactly which technique, which explanation, or which perspective will help each student to learn and understand.

Q: What makes a great music student?

Johnson: Curiosity, passion, and persistence – perhaps this last one most especially. Too often students find themselves frustrated with their inability to learn concepts quickly, and they become discouraged by the misconception that they don’t possess enough natural musical ability. I once taught a student the same lesson for nearly two years, and for two years he just couldn’t understand how to hit a drum with a stick in a relaxed and ergonomically efficient way like I described. I was astounded by his persistence. Then one day, the light bulb turned on and he said “Oh, it’s like that!” After that, his progress just skyrocketed, and he became an excellent drummer.

Q: Of what are you most proud in your time here at Carleton?

Johnson: I first began teaching at Carleton in 1989, when the five students registered for lessons was too large of a workload for the St. Olaf professor who would traditionally teach the one or two Carleton students interested in studying percussion. In the twenty-five years since then, the percussion department has grown from just a few students taking private lessons to between 30 and 70 students a term in either private lessons, African Drumming Class, or one of many West African and Afro-Cuban ensembles.

Q: What do you look forward to the most in the coming year?

Johnson: The drummer party!

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