2020-2021 Teaching Award Winner: John Hollenbeck

John Hollenbeck with drum kit at Scholes Street Studio, Brooklyn, NY, 2020.
Image by Mercedes Jelinek.
Published: 10 June 2021

Congratulations to Prof. John Hollenbeck, winner of Schulich's 2020-2021 Teaching Award in the full-time category.

Leading with direction, curiosity, and creativity John has been a valuable member of the Schulich School of Music since 2015 teaching undergraduate and graduate students in jazz drum set, composition, improvisation, and arranging. Students speak of his ability to push them far out of their comfort zones, while providing ample support and positivity in the process — a true bond of trust. As a teacher, John demands dedication, professionalism, and hard work from each student, while fostering an inclusive and encouraging class environment, and seeking out opportunities to build a community of musicians, where all voices are heard. Letters of recommendation cite his weekly Jazz Forum and Friendly Jam Sessions initiatives as direct and vital contributions to that end.  

Students share how meaningful it is to them that John is dedicated to equity and inclusion in his teaching, finding voices that deserve to be studied for their creative excellence, and incorporating them seamlessly without tokenizing or separating them based on gender or race. The entirety of the online Jazz Forums during the Fall 2020 semester, which John organized and oversaw, was focused primarily on Black history, while also including lectures on gender and other minorities in jazz.  

John’s vision of music and composition forces students to reconsider what “possible” is and to question and strengthen their own unique voice. Whether it be teaching foundational skills to drum set students, re-examining the fundamentals of music in more focused way, expanding the Jazz Area curriculum, or working through creative hurdles in compositions, John is an intellectually stimulating, engaging, and deeply knowledgeable educator. Students speak of him reinvigorating their musical curiosity and always reminding them that music is supposed to be fun and that they started doing it because they felt they had something to express.  

In celebration of this achievement, we asked John to elaborate on his teaching philosophy, share a stand-out moment from this year, give advice to his starting-at-university-self, and more... 

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?

I recently had a dream that I had two words written on my teaching room door: SOUND and FEEL. As soon as I return back to my teaching room, I will have to make that dream a reality. I think these are the most essential elements of music — the elements that lead directly to our souls. These are the key reasons why we listen, why we play, why we love and need music. But they are very difficult to talk about and teach.

Before you even hear pitches or rhythms you hear sound. Most musicians would agree with me that sound is important but also that, as a practice, it can be elusive. How do you find your sound? Once you find it, how do you keep it? How and when do you decide if you like your sound? Is it practical? Does it work with the ensembles you play with?

“Feel” is somewhat more tangible but simultaneously esoteric. Your body knows when something feels good or not, but how does it know? I believe the practice of listening is the first step in finding your sound and understanding feel. I incorporate the practice of listening into all my teaching. It is a skill that you can get better at the more you do it. With a little practice, hearing sound/feel in others is achievable, but projecting your ears into the audience as you play (so you can hear how the music feels and sounds from the audience’s perspective), as the master drummer Mel Lewis used to talk about, takes years of practice, guidance (from teachers/mentors), and experience.

The other pillar of my teaching is the practice of getting out of your comfort zone. Staying too long in those comfortable places can quickly lead to creative stagnation. On the other hand, most great work is created in new, unfamiliar, and vulnerable territory. Creativity is impossible to teach, but I believe there is a lot of value in giving my students tools to safely navigate away from their own comfort zones.

Has your teaching philosophy changed over time? If so, how?

In my early years of teaching, I believed in the “tough love” style of teaching that I had received when I was a student. I initially challenged my students to get to the high level that I know is necessary to have a strong career. But when one student told me I was a perfectionist and this level of critique was making him physically ill, I realized how destructive this philosophy could be. I now try to gauge quickly what level of critical feedback is most helpful and encouraging to each student.

What do you want your students to leave your classroom with?

Creative and foundational practices that they can use in any genre for the rest of their lives. An increased appreciation for Black American Music and all the musicians (with an emphasis on the groups that historically have not gotten the proper recognition) that helped make it so rich and profound.

What does a future-ready musician look like to you?

Conservatories in the US and Canada were founded to focus on European music. But in the 21st century, I believe we need to balance this with much more study of the music of the African diaspora and the practices that come from this music. The music studied at a school like ours represents about 4% of the music in the world, so without taking away what we do well, I would like to add to it. I believe we need to base more programs on creativity. I would like to see every student that comes out of McGill able to compose, improvise, and groove with a drummer for starters. I’ve been thinking about this for years and recently submitted a proposal for a new program that I envision for McGill that I think will help with this structural issue. It is a Masters level program for students who have gone through a “Classical” UG program at McGill or a similar school. Some of these students will go on to a career in “Classical,” but many more will end up playing: “Contemporary Classical” (AKA New Music); “Jazz”; with a singer/songwriter; in an alt. rock band; with a rapper; or have their own solo careers where they will compose and record their own music. Currently, many musicians who find themselves in one of those situations, have to play catch-up, as they have to learn new techniques and practices on the job or under time pressures. This program would incorporate practices that are currently missing in most UG “performance” programs but are needed immediately to thrive in forms other than “Classical.”

The main pillars of this program are: Rhythm, Improvisation, Composition, Music Technology, and 2nd instrument practice. I am very excited about the potential of this program and how it could help our school and our students become future-ready!

What will you carry from this past year into your coming years of teaching?

My first class on Zoom was so frightening and draining, like playing a 4-hour solo concert! I’m not sure if it ever really felt comfortable, but it did become easier. I know it made me a better teacher, because I felt I had to prepare for every minute of class including various unplanned scenarios. It was touching and inspiring to witness my students persist through this incredibly strange time. Ironically, I felt like I got closer to more students through Zoom than I have in-person.

As a performance teacher, our research is performing! Which usually means a lot of travel. It has its advantages, like being able to say to a student: “I understand your issue, because that happened on a gig to me LAST NIGHT!” But it was noticeable that without all the travel, I was able to focus more on my students and teaching. I’m trying to figure out how to keep that focus and maintain a high level of international performing in the future.

Do you have a stand-out teaching moment from the past year (knowing that it was a pretty unconventional year, to say the least)?

What comes to mind is not a stand-out teaching moment but a stand-out moment that came from teaching. I started to have doubts in the last year about my teaching abilities and wondered if what I have chosen to focus on is right for my McGill students. There have been a few students that I have really connected with and helped a lot, but receiving this award was the first positive feedback from teaching that I got at McGill from a group of students. I was surprised and touched by the initiative and time that it took for the students to write something that made this award possible, and it has been a definite highlight. It renewed my confidence that what I’m choosing to teach is generally helpful and I am on the right path for my students!

I was on sabbatical in Taos, New Mexico trying to write music when I found out about this award. I had a nice cry, the first one in a long time, which felt great — it felt like it was a release of the tension built up in the last year. Later that day I went for a long bike ride and thought a lot about all of my students, colleagues, friends, and family in Montreal. It was a great day until I stumbled into a neighbourhood that looked like the set for Breaking Bad. I was chased by three mean dogs! I won the race and in the process found out that if ever I'm being chased by rabid looking dogs, I can ride faster than they can run, so it went back to being a great day!

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?

Get what you can from the university. You can’t get everything, so find the rest elsewhere. Practice being gentle to yourself and to others.

Fifty percent of school is official: classes/lessons, etc. The other 50% is what you do outside of class like jamming and experimenting. Or getting out of your comfort zone by trying new things like yoga; Pilates; meditation; Feldenkrais; wellness workshops; masterclasses outside of your program; concerts where you don’t know anyone or anything about the music; going to the library to get a specific book/score/cd but also picking up five other things that you know little about. Cultivate friendships, some you will surely have for the rest of your life!

What is your earliest musical memory?

“Jamming” with my older brother Pat. He was on drums and he gave me a tambourine. I remember the feeling, I guess it was the feeling of grooving, and that was all it took for me to be hooked on music. Many years later, I realized he had headphones on and could not hear me (and maybe that was a good thing!).

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

The only other path I thought about was becoming a priest or a monk. Father or Brother John sounds pretty great and the outfits are awesome! It would have made my mother ecstatic, but instead she got another son who plays the drums. In the last year, I have fantasized about being a construction backhoe operator. The real thing looks a lot like the play version that I was so good at when I was 4, but I’m probably missing something…

What was the last book you read / show you watched / album you listened to / podcast you checked out?

I recently started reading multiple books simultaneously. In the past, I thought it would be too confusing, but I like the variety!

Reading (most from the McGill Library!):

  • Maggie O’Farrell - I am, I am, I am
  • George Saunders - Tenth of December
  • Haruki Murakami - First Person Singular
  • Sharon Olds - Odes
  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad - The Condemnation of Blackness 

Audiobooks I listened to on my recent cross-country drive (from the McGill Library!):

  • Ernest Cline - Ready Player Two
  • A.J. Finn - The Woman in the Window
  • Emily St. John Mandel - Last Night in Montreal
  • George Saunders - Lincoln in the Bardo

Recently watched (Netflix):

  • Unorthodox
  • Neil Brennan: 3 Mics
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Chappelle’s Show Season 2
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Listening to new purchases on Bandcamp:

  • Skuli Sverrisson/Bill Frisell - Strata
  • Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince
  • Sarah Rossy Chamber Ensemble - Boundless Beings
  • Wild Up - Julius Eastman Vol.1: Femenine
  • Chiquita Magic (Isis Giraldo) - Padre
  • Graves/Moran - Live at Big Ears
  • Sam Prekop - Comma

My go-to podcasts at this point are:

  • 99% Invisible
  • WTF-Marc Maron
  • Fresh Air
  • Rumble Strip
  • Against the Rules
  • Deep Cover
  • Object of Sound
  • Broken Record
  • Song Exploder
  • Sound Expertise
  • Ten Percent Happier
  • Radiolab
  • This American Life

Anything on your to-learn list?

How to be an anti-racist has been at the top of that list for at least a year. I’m only sorry I did not start this practice much earlier in my life.

Guitar! So far I find it very painful and not intuitive. Trying to learn it will definitely help me be a more sympathetic, compassionate teacher. After that: harmonica. And French is always on my list. S'il-vous plait, soyez patient avec moi! I don’t think I will have time in this life, but in the next one I want to start as soon as possible with tabla!


Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.

Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007, Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”

Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. 

About the Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards

Each year the Schulich School of Music recognizes faculty members and student instructors for their outstanding contributions. The Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards recognize excellence, commitment and innovation in teaching, and the importance of these qualities in the academic experience of students at McGill. Prizes are awarded annually to each winner at Spring Convocation.

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