One of John Milan's young students plays drums with his father.Courtesy Steve Scheuring

A dream deferred can still come true. John Milan never lost his vision of becoming a full-time music teacher. It just took him 27 years to summon the courage to quit his day job and go for it. These days, he teaches percussion and harmonica to 50 students per week at his Forest Park studio. He also conducts harmonica classes at local elementary schools.

John’s unique approach to teaching is part of the reason for his popularity. Unlike most music teachers, he invites parents to attend their child’s lesson. Some sit there quietly, others participate. They give suggestions and offer critiques. He believes this shared musical journey breaks down walls and enhances the parent-child relationship. As one mother wrote, “There’s a whole new area of life that we share now. … I consider this a real gift John has given our family.”

John certainly missed having his parents at music lessons. He also wasn’t crazy about the instrument they chose for him. Being from a Slovak background, they forced John to play the accordion. Oom-pah music was considered post-cool in 1963.

When he reached his teens, though, he suddenly “got the drum bug.” A family inheritance enabled his folks to buy him a drum set. John was so serious about learning he took drum lessons from two teachers at the same time. He exploded the myth that a student has to have innate rhythm to play percussion.

John had a “total blast” taking percussion at Triton College and at Morton College. He referred to the latter as “U.C.L.A:” (The University of Cicero on Austin). By this time, John was teaching percussion part-time.

His full-time job was a good fit for the son of a cabinet maker. He spent his days making musical instruments for world-class musicians. He constructed sets of vibes for virtuosos like Lionel Hampton and Gary Burton that cost more than $10,000.

John loved the smell and feel of working with wood. He felt a personal connection, making the mallet instruments he had played in college. After 13 years, though, he reached a turning point. He met his wife, Rose Mattax, who encouraged him to pursue full-time teaching. John launched his enterprise in 1998 and hasn’t looked back.

His forte is being patient with his students and believing in their passion. He helps them overcome their insecurities and play through mistakes. He’s careful not to shame students and only criticizes when they’re developing bad habits. This doesn’t just work with kids. He has students in their 60s and 80s who are in “pig heaven” learning the harmonica and drums.

In addition to giving lessons, John is also available to teach harmonica at birthday parties. His age range, so far, has been 5 to 80 but has found that teaching tipsy adults to be especially fun. However, his greatest testimonial came from a second grader in his harmonica class. The boy stood up and declared, “This is better than fun!”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.