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Jeff Mitchell

What is your official title?

I am the Founder and Director of the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

It’s usually a combination of administrative work for the program, fielding emails, and making phone calls. I have to write out the music for the kids to learn, what we call charts, so I spend a good amount of time doing that. And then my teaching day begins as soon as school’s out till 8:00pm. I’ll teach both private lessons and then band rehearsals up until 8:00 every night.


What is the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock?

It grew out of private piano teaching; I’ve been teaching the piano for over 24 years, and am also a photographer. The Kalamazoo Academy of Rock grew out of my private lessons; I had some kids that were interested in the guitar, drums, the keyboard, so I started to establish it as a separate program. We’d play Chopin and Bach in the first half and Neil Young and The Beatles in the second half. It seemed like a good mix and a good way to get this program going.

In the spring of 2009, I got space in the old Gibson Guitar Factory, and that’s one of the neat things, I think, about our story, is that we’re playing where these great guitars were made. That place is an important part of Kalamazoo’s history, and it’s an important part of rock and roll history all over the world. We have our little band room on the third floor where Jimmy Page of Led Zepplin’s guitar was made!

We have five bands, one rehearsing each day of the week Monday through Wednesday, and two bands rehearsing on Thursday. Each day consists of a two hour band rehearsal and a 45 minute private lesson for each musician. We have specialists teaching guitar (Nate Heymoss, Jesse Williams, and Michaela Kingslight), bass (Joe Chamberlin), and drums (Jesse Williams), then I’m the keyboard guy. We run a combination of band rehearsals and private lessons, with Nate directing our workshop band, Adam Main directing our Tuesday night band, and I direct the other three. Then, at the end of each session, we perform at a really cool venue.



Most of our session ending shows are at the 411 Club. The idea through the session is to work up a set of material and then perform it at a rock club and have a real rock show. The ages range anywhere from 8-18 years of age, and there are anywhere from four to six kids in a band. We are glad to work with beginners up through more advanced musicians. We do mostly cover material, and we choose songs based on the the makeup of each band – how advanced they are, and where they need to grow as musicians. It’s also fun to get the members to contribute songs they are interested in playing.


What is your background? How did you get into music?

I have a Bachelors degree in Music Education from Western, and I was a high school band director. I did that for three years in Lakeview up in northern Michigan. So, that’s how I got my start teaching. And then I came back to Western and got a Masters in Counseling Psychology and did that for several years.

I took off on my own and started teaching music and developing my own photography business – no pun intended. So, it’s nice; I’m able to use what I know and make a living out of it.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

Kalamazoo, as you well know, is a really artsy town; to have the KIA, the theater, the orchestra – it just can’t be beat. For anyone who is an artist type, it’s a great place to be. Plus, you’re a day’s drive from Chicago or Detroit; if you want to go to the big city you can, then come back to an easier pace here. I’ve always loved it.


What has been one of your biggest learning moments?

Well, when I was studying to be a therapist back in the 80’s, I had a lot of learning moments of self discovery and learning how to work with people, how to take my own ego out of the process as a teacher, and try to do what’s best for the client. Now, it’s for the student. I try to not let my ego get in the way of helping my students develop their own way.

It’s my job to take their talent and help them move it along in the direction that they’re going. I’ve found there is a balance; you have to give some direction, but at the same time you have to pay attention at what their natural tendencies are and let them expand on those themselves. It’s like being a good parent. You encourage them to explore, but to really tune into their own unique nature. I think back when I was studying to be a therapist and doing that work, it helped me to be a better teacher later on.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

I tend to have instrumental music, jazz, or classical playing while I’m working. I really appreciate a more modern jazz sound. I love all classical literature, but I am more fond of 20th century classical; Beethoven and Bach are very dear to me, though.

I’m fortunate enough to work with rock all day, so when I go home at night, I go home and watch sports and let my ears hear something else. I’m maybe not so much about seeking out new music, but the kids turn me onto new things; I learn a lot from them. And it’s cool to see that as they grow up their musical tastes change and evolve.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I love coffee! With just a little cream is my favorite. We grind our own; we’re into Midnight Oil from Waterstreet, it’s so good.


What is your favorite app to use?

I have a New York Times app that I look at a lot and like to read the news on. I’m on Facebook, but it’s funny, I try to communicate with the kids, but the teenagers have abandoned Facebook and are using Twitter more. I used to get a thread going on Facebook with any of the bands, but the teenagers are done with it, so there goes that!


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Bells! Especially during Hopslam season. I love Martini’s as well – great place. I’m looking forward to Arcadia opening, and haven’t tried out all of the new brew pubs, yet, so I will have to check those out, too.


What do you think can be done to improve the music scene in Kalamazoo?

The first thing that pops into my head would be places for bands to perform, but there are already a pretty good number of places to play at, between Bell’s, Louie’s, 411 Club, amongst others. There are lots of places and lots of people who book shows. I have to give Matt Dorbin, who does the bookings at 411 Club, credit for his adventurous bookings. He does a great job at bringing in off the beat bands.

I think the live music scene in Kalamazoo is pretty strong, so to improve the music scene here, I would say to keep supporting the public school music programs. There are great public school music programs in this area, of which we benefit at the Academy.


If you were to play an instrument other than the piano, what would it be?

I love playing the guitar. I can get around on the guitar enough to teach a beginner, but I’m just in awe of guitarists; Hendrix and Jimmy Page touch me more than any keyboard player, to tell you the truth. So, aside from my love of playing the piano, I’d say the guitar.


What is your dream for Kalamazoo Academy of Rock?

That we continue to attract good young musicians, that we continue to be able to keep all of our bands running, and to keep the bands together. It’s all been a juggling act as to how much to expand, and I feel like we’ve settled at the appropriate size for a place like Kalamazoo. I’m most concerned with keeping each band strong and each individual musician reaching their potential.

There’s a lot more to what we do than just teaching and playing music. It’s self esteem building, it’s getting up in front of people and being confident, it’s getting along with others. I don’t know how many of our players go on and become professional musicians, but I do know that they’ll carry on their sense of confidence, which will apply anywhere they decide to go with their lives.


If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

I have to go back to Joseph Campbell and steal from him, but the advice I would give my younger self would be follow your bliss. Follow what really makes you happy and really touches you. And find your unique self and trust that. Follow your bliss. It’s a total steal from Joseph Campbell, but it’s what’s guided me over the years.


Jeff, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Jeff and the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.