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Teacher Profile: John Tatum, piano

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Pianist John Tatum is in his fifth year teaching class piano and private piano lessons through Fine Arts Chamber Players at David W. Carter High School in south Dallas.

Click here to watch WFAA's profile on John Tatum's piano class at DISD's Carter High School.

Click here to watch WFAA’s profile on John Tatum’s piano class at DISD’s Carter High School.

In addition to teaching for FACP, he maintains a private piano studio, he is an in-demand accompanist for many professional groups and soloists, he is an accompanist at multiple Dallas ISD high schools, and he is the Minister of Music at First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park in Richardson. No, we don’t know how it does it all. But, we do know that he is a tremendous musician!

Mr. Tatum has always been around music. He told us about growing up next door to his church. His family would come home on Sundays with church music still in their ears, his mother would sing, and he would “figure it out” on the piano. His mother insisted that all eight (!) of her children have a musical education. Seven of the siblings play the piano (one brother picked up the baritone horn). Mr. Tatum studied piano at East Texas State, which is now Texas A&M-Commerce.


How old were you when you started studying piano? I started taking lessons when I was 7, I think. I could play by ear, though, before that. In fact, I can’t remember NOT playing the piano. My older brother played piano and I wanted to take lessons, too. When I started formal lessons, I played everything in my brother’s John Thompson music book by ear for my teacher. Of course, you must learn to read music in order to really study it. My teacher gave me Bartok – well, I almost quit when she put me on his Mikrokosmos series. It was so strange to me: there were no pictures in the books, the titles were in two or three different languages. Everything about it seemed so weird to me at that age! With the Bartok I had to really, really read the music and count. Consequently, when I have students that play by ear, that’s the course of study we use because they have to read the music and count. I attribute my ability to sight read well with studying Bartok.

Who is your favorite composer to play? To teach? To play, Rachmaninoff and most Romantic composers. I am also intrigued by Bach; it’s very cerebral. All students must study Bach because college music programs and conservatories demand Bach in auditions because his music shows how you think and how you play.

John Tatum quoteWhat do you love about teaching high school piano students? Especially at Carter High School, I work with kids who haven’t had many chances in life but I can see how music can change them. Case in point, last year I had a Carter student who was constantly getting in trouble. He got kicked out school a few times, but he connected to the music from our class. We worked together – he worked really hard – and it seemed to center him. In fact, he called me just the other day asking for help
in finding a piano. I’ve bought more pianos off Craigslist for students!

A very promising Carter piano student of mine, earned a gold medal at UIL competition this year. Normally, the music teacher on campus holds the medals to present them at one time in front of the whole class. But, this student wanted his immediately so he could wear it around the halls at school.

I’m so thankful to FACP having me at Carter, because I can teach students who otherwise wouldn’t have private lessons. I get up at 5:30 in the morning to get down to Carter for lessons, and I’m happy to do that for these kids.

Have you taught other ages? In my piano studio, I teach as young as 4 years old and I teach adults, too! In DISD, I work with high schoolers.

What is a particularly memorable recital or performance of yours? Late last year, I was performing in northern Europe while three of my former students were performing elsewhere on the continent. They would call me to ask about what they were seeing and to ask about the cultural differences they were experiencing. I had to convince them to not eat at a McDonald’s in France! When I see my students perform on the world’s stage, my heart bursts. That’s my payback, right there.

What piece of advice would you give 16-year-old John? Heed the advice of others. Listen more, practice harder, study harder.

What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? Least favorite? My favorite sound is the human voice. It can do things that other instruments can’t do. My least favorite would be an out-of-tune guitar. Hearing that drives me nuts.

Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? I want to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” And I want to interview all the greats and hear what they were thinking when they wrote their stuff, like Prokofiev – why is the third movement to his Piano Concerto No. 3 so hard? It’s almost impossible to play.

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