We recently interviewed John Milan, a local musician who has been teaching harmonica with Art Start since its inception in 1998.
Tell us about your musical background.
I started accordion when I was 8 years old. Accordion was really huge back in the ’50s and’ 60s. There
were even accordion bands back then. My parents didn’t give me a choice. I said I wanted to play the
drums and they said “No, you’ll play the accordion.” So that’s what I did for 5 years. The buzz to play
the drums never left me though, so I finally convinced them to give me lessons when I was 16. Bought
my first drum set when I was 17. I studied at both Triton and Morton Colleges as a music major and
performed in rock bands, jazz bands, and wedding bands.
I taught full-time when I was in my 20s, and then I got a straight gig making musical instruments–
the vibes, marimbas, xylophones you see in orchestras. I worked in the largest, most famous mallet
instrument maker, Musser Industries in LaGrange. I worked on Lionel Hampton’s vibe; he played in the
original Benny Goodman quartet. I worked on one of Frank Zappa’s member’s vibes. I was a marimba
player and student and so it was a great job to get up close to the instruments. But I never let go of
my teaching. After working 8 hours in the day, I would do private teaching in the evenings. I started
at Guitar Fun in ’85 at Ridgeland and Lake and I’ve been there ever since [teaching percussion and
harmonica]. In ’96, I started the transition into teaching full-time.
Have you always taught harmonica in Art Start?
The focus has always been harmonica and mostly second grade. My fantasy was to teach harmonica in
schools. Back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s all the students in America learned harmonica in the schools.
There were no recorders [like kids learn in school today]. At one time there were over 150 youth
harmonica orchestras in Chicago alone. There were harmonica contests in major department stores in
large cities. The kids were really good and the competition was fierce.
My first class was at Irving School with Donna LoCoco. It was a total blast. She was a great teacher to
work with: super-organized, really into it, inspired the kids to want to do well and have fun.
What keeps you interested in teaching harmonica?
I get enjoyment out of seeing the response the students have as I they’re learning. Most of the kids get
really excited when I come in. For some of the students it’s their first exposure to a musical instrument.
My focus is on “performance with as little pressure as possible!” That creates an initial positive
experience. A lot of students walk away saying “Wow! That was easier than I thought it was going to
I tell them, “just pucker and blow directly into the hole and don’t worry about playing more than one
note. ” If you were playing the piano and you press two keys next to each other at the same time, the
neighboring key usually sounds pretty bad, but with the harmonica, the one that I use for the classes,
if you play two holes at the same time, usually they are in harmony with each other, and it sounds
good. They say “Hey I can do this. I recognize what I’m playing. It sounds like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little
Star’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Ode to Joy.’ This actually sounds somewhat like the song, instead of mass
The main feature of all harmonicas is you have two different notes in the same hole, one blowing
out and one breathing in. You have to know when to blow out and when to breathe in. In fact, the
harmonica is the only wind instrument in the world that produces a tone by breathing in. The system
that I use is a circle for breathing in and a plain number for breathing out and usually the kids catch on
to that pretty fast.
One of the other benefits to teaching the kids is that some of the students will end up becoming private
students. And the cool thing about that is that I’ve had kids go on to play harmonica in the jazz band at
Brooks and Julian.
Can you share a particularly memorable moment from your years working with Art Start?
Boy, that’s a tough question; there are a lot. Last year, Mr. Podlasek’s Longfellow students were just
so focused and well behaved. After you work with a teacher for several years, they have a good sense
of the routine and what needs to be done to prepare the class. I walked in there and it was so easy to
teach them. It makes teaching so much fun.
Another huge memorable moment was when I taught at Mann School last year, all four first-grade
classes. When it came time for all four classes to play together at the same time at the concert, they
just rose to the occasion. You know, with all the parents there and Deb Abrahamson [OPEF Executive
Director] sitting there, I’m wondering “How’s this gonna go?” And I was just so impressed with their
maturity. I thought, “This is inspiring!” I’m very proud of them.
Another beauty of the program is giving kids who might never have a private lesson the opportunity
to have that experience. It also gives kids a chance to have a positive musical experience from the
beginning. For those who go on to band, that can make the difference between wanting to stick it out or
John will be playing the harmonica with a recorder trio on December 5 at the Oak Park
Conservatory’s Annual Holiday Open House.