A Visit With John Mastroianni, Connecticut's 2014 Teacher of the Year

Dec 27, 2013

John Mastroianni.
Credit John Mastroianni

In addition to leading his own quartet and a 16-piece jazz orchestra, Connecticut saxophonist John Mastroianni is a music teacher, and the director of bands at Hall High School in West Hartford. He’s also Connecticut’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. I visited him recently at the school to talk about his work.

"People are trying to turn teaching into a science, and teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art."
John Mastroianni

Diane Orson: Full disclosure: you and I have known each other for many years, and have been friends for a long time.

John Mastroianni: Absolutely.

You’ve been a professional player for many years, a professional musician. Why do you teach?

First of all, I teach because I had amazing teachers. I love them. I saw them and how they were to me, and such a profound influence in my life, and I was like, wow. I have to do that. And doing one doesn’t mean that you can’t do the other. One helps the other. I think being a teacher makes me a better musician, a better performer. I think that being a performer makes me a better teacher.

There’s been a lot written about the benefits of music education. A recent New York Times article talked about the correlation between musical training and professional success later in life for many, many people. What do you think students learn by studying music?

It’s a myriad of things. First of all, they’re getting the discipline of practicing an instrument. They know that to be good, they’re going to have to practice. You can’t punch it a couple of times on the phone and send a three-second text message, like they spend so much of their life doing. So there’s that amazing benefit: the discipline.

And the arts, artistry, has no finite ending. Never do we pat ourselves on the back and say, wow, I played the best saxophone solo I could have played, or whatever the case is. Oftentimes, I’ll say to my students, we’ll just finish a performance. I’ll literally say to them, "Okay, everybody go like this: Pat yourself on the back." Then I’ll immediately ask, "Now, what can we do better?" There’s always a next level to reach, always the next place to go. If you carry those things over into your life, you are always going to be a success.

The whole concept of working with people for a common goal... Musicians are incredibly wonderful and tolerant people, because we’re all in it for one thing: to make the music sound as beautiful and as best as it possibly can.

Not to mention that it's every subject: its science, its math, its physical education. You name it. It's foreign language, and needless to say, it’s the international language.

What can music education teach us about teaching?

One of the things that people are doing these days is trying to turn teaching into a science, and teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art. You put a great person in a classroom who loves what they do, who is incredibly passionate and enthusiastic, and they’re going to hook the kids.

When you look at things like assessment, look at the rehearsal process for a minute, right? I stand up in front of a band every day. I process the information that they send to me immediately. I immediately respond to it. "Clarinets, you missed the F-sharp there. Could we fix that?" Bing, bang, boom. That’s done. We’re already onto the next problem. It’s the most authentic, formative, all those words that they use these days in teaching, that they want assessment to be. We could be the model for that.

It's not all about telling teachers to do this in this manner. I think you have to give a certain amount of rope and say, "Look, here’s what we need taught. Do it. We trust you to do it. Do it." No one likes to be told what to do in that regard, anyway. Now, we all have rules to follow. I’m just more interested in people being more creative about it.