John Harris, Harris Institute
John Harris, Harris Institute

A Conversation with... Harris Institute's John Harris

Anyone who has ever been a bandleader in many respects is a teacher. The relationship between players who come and go is most sensitive and professional. Someone has to organize rehearsals, prepare charts, gather all together and get the work done. It’s pretty much a no nonsense operation.
A few years back Harris Institute’s vice president Bob Roper and CEO John Harris invited me into the building and set me up with my own class – one pretty much of my own design. At first it was to focus on jazz, but over time it’s evolved into sharing the outer corners of my experience as well. This includes pop music back history, the recording studio, the road, the bandstand, composing, radio, writing and production. 
Anyone who stays in the game long enough will find themselves engaged in every aspect of the business. Teaching is always a bit nerve-wracking especially when the students you face have diplomas and degrees from other professional institutions and are here to fine tune their career prospects. 
There are few apprenticeship opportunities, so institutions such as Harris Institute fill the void by connecting students with successful mentors who bypass the mystique and get to the craft of designing a career path that will enable the most determined to gain entry and traction. These are hard times, yet there have never been easy times. The business of music used to be held close to the sleeve by those in control and all minions abided. Not so these days. It’s entrepreneurial times. The tech savvy generation have the tools to get around the “wall” and play by their own rules. Just who will listen is still the challenge. 
I gathered my summer sixteen in a semi-circle (David Alvarez, Cameron Ansell, Tyler Dayloor, Matthew Giovannelli, Connar Grant, Melody Mansubi, Anwesha Mazumder, Devon McCurry, Poppy Miers, Tennyson Montgomery, Mary Murrill, Chihiro Nagamatsu, Sarah Nazim, Baribefii Saro-Wiwa, Felipe Sena, and Eugene Ho Fai Sun) and asked them their thoughts on a range of industry related topics. There’s that age thing – most are forty plus years younger than me yet we share the same passion and respect for the profession.
I was curious about their impression of Pan Am organizers employing Kanye West for the closing ceremony. This has baffled many and excited others. The consensus – it should have been Drake. It was hard to find a West supporter among this group; even Tragically Hip would have been more suitable. Pitbull drew laughs and Serena Ryder passed the test.
I brought up the career challenge and the possibility the games may overexpose an artist given the fact Serena Ryder was the Canadian music face of the sporting event and Nikki Yanofsky’s “I Believe” wore listeners down at the 2010 Olympics and now she is mostly forgotten. The consensus: nobody knew who Yanofsky was before the Olympics – no hits. Ryder has a huge profile and hits and, yes, she will benefit from the Pan Am Games.
What about young women who play the sex game – like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Ariana Grande?
This didn’t fly well with the women. It’s a bit too much of playing to men’s fantasies. Not much in the way of talent here but more one-upping the other in a play for the bottom rung. There was even sympathy for Miley Cyrus, those saying she was casting off all expectations and liberating herself from her former life. As far as Ariana Grande – she’s more about the curve of her backside and less about talent. She will eventually rocket out of our viewing range and orbit her own planet.
It costs a fortune to be a woman. The product shelves are dense with over-priced physical touch-up goods deemed necessary for career survival. Men can just dress as they feel – no expectations. Women internalize and feel pressured everyday, while men seem to float about unscathed and travel on cushioned air. 
I reminded them the 30s’ were fashionable – men and women dressed to kill. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were trend setters. Even the 60s’ was about styling – the long hair, colorful paisley prints and large Afros. 
How do most find music? YouTube seems to be the prime source. You hear something and you want more. Some rely on playlists from Songza and other streaming services while others are devout Sirius/XMlisteners. It’s all about choice. Some scour blogs – none in particular. It’s still mostly by accident.
How about vinyl vs. digital? This is vinyl town! You have to respect the young folks for wanting more for the buck. It’s still about holding a big piece of art in your hands – great liner notes and readable information. There’s magic in the packaging. I truly get this. Bold, broad cover art is serious eye candy. How many of us stocked the cabinet with the latest most desirous LPs? Vinyl is three to four times larger than your hands and stays within the grip throughout a playing. CDs are still low-end popular but lack the buzz and sexiness of vinyl.
What about their particular music interests?
One young woman is a big fan of Mike Denney’s MDM recordings. Why? Because the artists on his country music roster are real and have superior ability. There’s a sameness in many of the celebrated top acts — not much to differentiate. Another young man shares his dad’s passion for classic rock. Another specializes in hip hop and rap yet others prefer instrumental, old school soul etc.
I have found a common thread in the three seasons spent at Harris – the students are open, smart and quick to respond. Teaching is about learning. I leave each class with more information than when I entered. I hope the students feel the same!
I circled the man behind Harris – John Harris and tossed a few questions his way.
Bill King: You said the Billboard article has awoken the world to Harris – why and what has been the response and why has the article played such an important role in this?
John Harris: Harris Institute was the only school outside the US in Billboard's feature on the Top Music Business Schools. The article has led to 1,000+ visits to the Harris website and applications from highly qualified students from around the world.
B.K: Do you sit with each incoming student and talk about what’s expected of them?
J.H: Prospective students attend a 2 hour information session with me where I outline the challenging nature of our programs that include 20 courses per term for three terms. Then they are interviewed by one of our Program Directors before being accepted. 
B.K: You have a high graduation rate. What do you attribute this to?
J.H: Over ninety percent of students graduate and over eighty percent achieve honours with an overall average of eighty percent or more. This is due to the admissions process and the fact students know when they start that they will be in a challenging educational environment.
B.K:  Who are some of the most high profile graduates?
J.H: Recently graduates have contributed to the #1 Billboard hits "Roar" by Katy Perry, "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus, "Earned It" by The Weeknd, the soundtrack for Fifty Shades of Grey and the music for the Mad Max trailer. Mike Denney, who was in our first graduating class, is nominated for 16 CCMAs, Eric Ratz is the first to win consecutive Junos for Recording Engineer of the Year, Henry 'Cirkut' Walter has contributed to numerous hits recently, Patrick de Belen performed at the Pan Am closing ceremonies, Pavlo has promoted his own sold out concerts at Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall and was featured in a very successful PBS special, etc.
B.K:  Where do you see the institution in the next decade or two going?
J.H:  With our expanded partnership with the University of the West of Scotland, I see more of our students completing both of our programs in 20 months and then going to Scotland to earn a Masters Degree. We set out 25 years ago to accelerate the post secondary experience and the partnership with UWS enables students to earn 2 college diplomas at Harris and an MA at UWS in a total of 32 months. Our first double major students going to Scotland for MAs start this September. Over the last 10 years we've had 112 graduates earn degrees at UWS on full scholarships.
B.K: How do you pick staff?
J.H: All of the faculty are active leaders doing what they teach and 67% of them have won awards for what they teach. I look for people who want to make a difference in people's lives and those who want to help strengthen the Canadian music industry. The remarkable 62 faculty members are the reason why the school has achieved unprecedented international partnerships, why its graduates are achieving their goals and why we’re all having a whole lot of fun.
Bill King and John Harris with the class of 2015



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