The Center for Musical Arts is proud to work with knowledgeable faculty with unique backgrounds. In this interview with trumpet and composition instructor Michael Lenssen we explore his teaching style, his own musical education, and much more. Watch or read the interview below.
Introduction to Michael Lenssen
Center for Musical Arts (Erica Reid, Marketing Manager): Good morning. It’s so nice to meet you. How are you doing today?
Michael Lenssen: I’m doing pretty well. How about you?
Center: Great. We are just sitting down to talk about, to sort of meet the faculty of the Center for Musical Arts. And I know you have a lot of interesting classes going on, and I just wanted to make sure that people who are new to the center or who are looking to expand what they’re learning and what they’re studying get a chance to know the faculty a little bit before they sign up for their classes. So can you just ground me and tell me a bit about your role and your history at the Center for Musical Arts?
Michael: Totally. So I am coming up on four years at [the Center for Musical Arts] and about two years of doing private lessons. So the four years I’ve been working over at Justice High School, doing a class that pretty much encourages the students to find any form of musical creativity they can. A lot of students that are over there don’t have instruments or don’t have much musical knowledge, but they have this creativity and this ability to kind of see things out that I didn’t have at that age, which is really cool. And I also have been teaching private lessons at the Center for about two years now, mostly teaching trumpet, but I also teach the electric wind instrument and composition and theory.
Why Is It Important for Students to Learn to Be Creative?
Center: Can you tell me a little bit about what being creative means to you and why it’s important for students just to generally learn how to be creative?
Michael: Totally. I mean, that’s the most important thing in life, I think. It impacts every facet of work, of life, because you can spend so much energy doing something a way, where if you just thought about it for a second and got creative, you would have a much easier solution to any problem. So giving kids a way to kind of think themselves out of corners or come up with new ideas, just because they’re sitting there with a blank piece of paper. It really forces the mind to work in different ways.
And it’s also really important for me that kids and adults have a lasting connection to the thing they got interested in. Often someone gets really interested in music and then gets overwhelmed by how much work it takes to perfect something, especially something that can’t be perfected like art.
Michael: And it’s really important to kind of keep that initial childlike wonder and joy when it comes to creativity. I meet people constantly — when I’m meeting people, not in 2020 [laughs] — who say they are writers and I ask them, “Well, how often do you write?” “Oh, I haven’t written for 10 years.” And I guess the way I see it is you don’t have to be a professional to take great joy from music or writing or whatever it is. My dad always played piano when I was a kid and I don’t think he’s ever played a gig in his life.
Michael’s Teaching Philosophy
Center: Yeah. I always like to ask: what is your teaching philosophy? Is this it, this idea of beginning with creativity and sort of art for art’s sake and the joy of it? Is that part of your teaching philosophy in general?
Michael: Definitely. I would say I really try and strike a balance of meeting students where they’re at. That doesn’t just mean their technical skill level. That means what do they care about? I’ve learned Imagine Dragons songs for middle school trumpet players. I’ve worked on … any type of music, I’ve taught somebody that type of music on trumpet. I don’t want to make students play songs that I learned when I was your age. So while at the same time, we can still really embrace the formal knowledge aspect of music in anything.
You’re still dealing with music theory, regardless of what you’re playing. You’re still having an opportunity to work on your ear training, whatever song you’re learning, whatever technique you’re working on. There’s a way to keep it interesting for a student.
And then, yeah, like I was saying, there’s another part to it where if you practice really seriously for a half hour, take five minutes and see how weird of a sound you can make on your instrument. See if you can … there’s a classic trick on trumpet where you can kind of make it sound like a horse. That’s a favorite of kids. All these little things where it’s… sound comes before music.
Center: I see. So would you say that in general, are your classes more serious, more fun, or kind of in the middle?
Michael: It really depends on the student. I have one student over at Justice that we just crack each other up. I’ve been working with him for a few years. He knows my sense of humor, I know his, and then I’m like, “Okay, okay, let’s get down to business.” But it’s one of those things. I always felt a connection to my music teachers growing up because there’s… even when it’s incredibly serious, it’s still…
There’s a great David Bowie quote: “Even if the helicopter crashes, we can all still walk away.” We’re not talking about flight school here. We’re talking about music, right? If you’re trying to write a song and it doesn’t pan out, that’s okay. Try again tomorrow.
What Drew Michael to Trumpet and Composition?
Center: I love that. So your primary instrument is trumpet. You also teach composition. What drew you to those two facets of music?
Michael: Well, I was playing violin from a very early age and some time around middle school, I started getting into different types of music than just the Suzuki method that I began on. And I’ve been listening to jazz most of my life, as well as classical and Indian-influenced music. And once I started playing jazz, I realized that violin kind of had a limited role in the jazz world. There’s some greats, but trumpet was one of the stars.
So, fifth grade music, I started playing trumpet. And then at some point in high school, might’ve been towards the end of high school, I was a part of a recording camp type thing and was forced to write a song. And one of my heroes loved that song and told me to be a writer. Spent about two years after that like, “How do I write? I have to write now?” And then as those things go, it snowballed into learning these techniques, how to write little things that don’t create pressure because for perfectionists, we feel this pressure to create the greatest thing ever. When instead, it’s really just our job to document where we’re at right now.
Center: I think that’s something we all need to learn. Whether we study music or not this idea that not everything is such high stakes, that there’s a sense of play and experimentation and discovery. I think those are all really great lessons for anybody to learn.
Center: Have you had, besides David Bowie, a teacher, an instructor that has really stuck with you, that maybe you borrow something from them in the way that you teach?
Michael: Yeah. I’ve had so many incredible teachers, even one of my best friend’s father is an absolutely incredible musician and I saw him playing the bass from a very young age in this totally meditative state. And I just can picture his face, just the happiest anyone can ever be, just lost in another world. So that has always stuck with me.
I had a violin teacher, Kailin Yong, who just showed me the true dedication it took and I didn’t have that dedication for the violin. I studied with Art Lande a bit who showed me this just wild abandon and joy for music and life. And then I’ve worked a bit with Maria Schneider who really has helped me on being myself and speaking and writing the things I truly believe and feel. And she’s such a champion for musicians’ rights and that really inspires me too.
Duke the Cat & Michael’s Other Interests
Center: Sounds like you’ve had some great teachers and I’m sure many students are counting you on their list of people who have inspired them and gotten them excited about music and technique and creativity. What are you doing when you’re not teaching and listening to music?
Michael: Well, I definitely spend some time every day playing with my cat. He is a total goofball.
Center: You’re going to have to give us a name, you know that.
Michael: Oh yeah. Well, of course he’s named after a musician. His name is Duke.
Center: Very sweet.
Michael: After Duke Ellington, of course.
Center: Of course.
Michael: So I’ve also been building a recording studio in my garage, which isn’t quite music, but pretty music. And I love reading so much. I’ve been getting back into just finding random books, almost. I’ve started ordering books off eBay for like $3-5 each. And I have a stack of 10 right now that I look at every day and they remind me to, “Oh yeah, work on the one you’re reading right now so you can get to these other ones.” I recently found a huge place for yoga in my life. And just nature, whether that’s playing Frisbee, going out and skiing or just exploring the backcountry.
Center: Sounds like you’re managing to keep it pretty balanced, but music takes a pretty big place, I think.
Michael: Oh yeah. I don’t get to all those things in any day.
Center: Right. Well, is there anything else that you would like future potential students to know, or even your current students to know about your loves, about your teaching, about your time at the Center?
Michael: My current students have probably heard enough of what I have to hear, but I’m just really excited to keep working with more students who have different interests because there’s one thing that teaching consistently does, is forces me to think about things in a different way and maybe go learn something after the lesson because these subjects of music and creativity are so deep and there’s always a different perspective. There’s always a different way that it can be done.
Center: All right. That’s I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much for your time today. I have learned a lot and it’s just been a pleasure to meet you.
Michael: Yeah, you too. Have a good day.