An Inspired Bird of Oakland Music: Elisabeth Johnson of Mynah Music: Joup Interviews

Always grinning, Elisabeth Johnson, co-founder of Mynah Music (courtesy of Mynah Music)

Always grinning, Elisabeth Johnson, co-founder of Mynah Music. (courtesy of Mynah Music)

Yep, me and Liz go way back. Well 9 years back at least. Although some of our friends in Western Springs, IL and Northern Illinois University ran in the same circles (while I am an Alum of UIC), we never met until she walked into muse cafe (my former cafe) on her break from Suzuki-Orff School of Music. Elisabeth Johnson (Liz) has been playing the violin since primary school, performing for 20 years and teaching it for nearly 15. She lived and taught in Chicago for those years primarily in the Logan Square neighborhood. Nearly five years ago she met Patrick Liddell on a cold winter night in Chicago at a small bar where he was performing visual arts for a band and the two hit it off. They have moved on to Oakland to teach and perform and then an idea hit them, and a good, progressive one at that. They started Mynah Music and with it, the idea of changing the perception of how music is taught and experienced. In the second installment of Joup Interviews, I caught with Liz via email exchanges to discuss Mynah Music, the idea and founders: Matt Golombisky, John Nash, herself and Patrick. Hey, the format worked smashingly for Bill McKay, no reason to stop there.

With both of you having such a history in Chicago, why Oakland? What’s the appeal?

Patrick came out to the Bay area originally to take a job as a music teacher and create a music program for private school in the burbs.  I came this September after a year of seeing if we liked it here in the Bay Area and the impetus of a foreboding teacher’s strike impacting after school music and art programs in the Chicagoland area. As we both are city dweller types, it was attractive to be equidistant to all these micro cultures in the East Bay; Not just San Francisco, but Berkeley as well so Pat could be a part of the Gamelan Ensemble. We both fell in love with Oakland immediately, it’s central location and specifically, Lake Merritt where we now live and have set up shop. Both Chicago and Lake Merritt boast a great lake, fresh farmers markets, diverse cultures, tons of interesting and friendly people from all walks of life, a vibrant music and art scene, and great restaurants! Oakland doesn’t have snow, alas, but it has so much creativity and potential and we want to get involved and advance that creativity in any way we can (which happens to be music).

Well, who really wants the snow after the holidays anyway?  And what about the actual location for Mynah in Oakland, how did you stumble upon that?

It all started looking for a yoga studio close to home which incidentally, used to exist in our current space. The location of Mynah Music is in an interesting strip of artist/small businesses including a ceramics shop, interior designer, visual artist and painter couple, a massage spa, and professional photographers as well as the old home of Vamp, a record consignment shop/venue. As record enthusiasts, I came regularly and asked periodically about the vacant storefront next door- it turned out that got snapped up and Vamp has since moved, but in the process, I was introduced to Greg a commercial photographer, willing to share the space the next door over and one thing lead to another…

So let’s bring the background into the present…

Originally, my thought was to continue a violin studio as I did in Logan Square (Chicago), but I came here looking for change. I wanted to focus on performing, creating and engaging in musical projects but couple those with my over decade long experience as a music teacher . It seems I am always trying to find a balance with the compartmentalization of my life as a performer and the patch work career as a music teacher. Often times this sprawled across the city of Chicago in more than 3 different programs and/or schools, additionally compounded by all the types and genres of musical projects I play and love. This experience is not unique to myself, I think it pretty standard and defines many modern day musicians/music teachers today.

I have always thought as educators, our pedagogy is bound in tradition, but our gigs during the weekends reaffirm the importance of being open to and well versed in many styles. There is a tremendous amount of amazing music out there to acknowledge, and I wanted to create a music studio where that could come across. And not just in keeping up with good current music trends including Jazz, pop, electronica, folk and world music, but also building the bridge and connection to the beauty and contribution of past aesthetics of classical and art music. Sadly, I feel there is a deep chasm in this ideal socially. For many, classical art [in general] is still unfortunately daunting, unapproachable or accessible. There are so many variations of beauty in music, all rightfully legitimate and requiring specific skills and approaches. So began the baby, Mynah Music and a strong belief that music education needs to reflect these classic ideals and the growing diverse musicals tastes of the public for those who want to study and experience it.

Improv with Mynah co-founders: Patrick Liddell, Matt Golombisky, John Nash and Elisabeth Johnson (courtesy

Improv with Mynah co-founders: Patrick Liddell, Matt Golombisky, John Nash and Elisabeth Johnson (courtesy of Mynah Music)

Tell us more about your “baby” bird Mynah and it’s four “parents” (co-founders), if you will.

We wanted to create a place where all that pretense and stereotype dissolves. And so the idea grew into a co-op like collaboration that  ultimately included my love Dr. Patrick Liddell, a composer of instrumental and electronic music as well as VJ/Visual Motion Graphic Artist guru that goes by the moniker Ontologist, who’s toured with reggae band the Zvooks and collaborated with Silences Sumire, Maurice,  along with a slew of other musical collaborations and explorations including Vox Novus 60×60 and playing in Gamelan Ensembles. We then invited our dear friends and colleagues: co-founders Matthew Golombisky and John Nash.

Matt is a composer with roots in Jazz and Creative Improvisation that Patrick and I knew in different circles as the founder of his innovative troup Tomorrow’s Music Orchestra in Chicago and endorser of local indie bands and artist via his record label, ears&eyes Records. He also has worked with the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago as a Stage Manager for many years.

John is a fun loving Alaskan native, a fantastic ukelele player, a rocker in the San Francisco Bay Area band Hotel Eden and master capoeirista with a shared love and background in Ethnomusicology and world music. Patrick performs visuals with his band.

I am happily the orchestra nerd of the bunch, trained as a classical violinist, studied Music History and have been teaching in the Chicagoland area for almost 15 years.  I love classical music and no, I am not old.  I still freelance in Chicago and maintain seasonal work with continued support of the Renovo String Orchestra and Chicago Folks Operetta.  (Incidentally, I am rooting for the efforts of small companies of the like and the propagation of the art music as vital and the trade of classical musicians and instrumentalists, period.)  I have also been playing world music in different contexts including anything a fiddle can do: Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, Middle Eastern Ensemble, a Choro and Tango ensemble and Solaranja,   I am a classical musician I suppose, with a background in voice/opera (had to choose between the 2 in college) but it has never  stopped me from deviating and practicing various instruments. I now realize those parts of my musicianship are valid too and California has helped me renew and reset some goals.

The shining Bird of Mynah Music (

The shining Bird of Mynah Music (

How affluent is Oakland music education in the community? How do you aspire to carve your niche if you will?

Really, if you enjoy music on any level then there is something Mynah can do to gather distinct talents and create something with an artist collective feel; an artistic music gallery of sorts. The concept of music education is still there, but it has incorporated and grown into a more holistic learning place that we feel everyone can use and enjoy.
There is a variable of elasticity in that we are exploring, so we are open to what it will become as it’s growing and defining itself daily. Simply, we want offer versatility and options to meet the needs of our community. We want to be a center for  people who love music which include children of all ages, additionally the moms and dads who want to hone their guitar skills or pick up the piano again.  We hope to create a place where a community of musicians can come share their passion and knowledge of music with students. With each other, this allows students to become inspired by great music teachers beyond 1 on 1 lessons. This happens through workshops and practical presentation of resources that apply to music in living practice which is the intention of our music “Observatory”.

Why part Conservatory and part Observatory? What is the goal here in this educational approach as it seems that these two schools of thought to music education are generally separated. Is part of your diverse approach to make a well rounded musician?

Mynah Music, like a bird observatory, is a center for study [of music] in small operations with a limited staff, many volunteers and transcending the educational bar. Thus, why we are an Observatory: a place where we can listen, play, talk about and learn music beyond just being a school or place to take lessons. We hope that the student wants to better themselves and achieve a new level of musical ability — and experience the joy that comes from the musical creative act on both sides of the stage.

We want to break free from pigeonholing and compartmentalization of music, the implication of it’s social stereotypes and barriers given styles. We hope to present the best of the best of those styles and genres through an array of workshops, group classes and other sessions and settings about music. As teachers, along with more traditional pedagogy, I think our niche can be made presenting material focused on improvisation and creative means.  This used to be a standard part of developing musicianship in addition to being trained as competent technicians on your instrument. This seems obvious in say, Jazz but not so much for orchestral instruments or the  improvisational practices of world or folk music, and also baroque music or contemporary art music which it is also relevant.

If the student is serious, we can offer the rigor that comes from a Conservatory training. We want to show all facets of music making, starting with what they already know and love, and giving them the tools to advance their own music making including student and professionals as learning is a continued progression. So in that respect you are correct; we want to embrace both the performance standards of formal training as well as the spontaneity and passion of popular and world musics.

What is you target age range for students?

We have a desire to teach people to have the desire to learn. If you are 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years old we will gladly teach at the best level for you. People over 1000 years old get lessons for free!

Do I have to show ID? What will your curriculum include? From where does the your choice in courses stem?

Check out our webpage for a more current list of what we are hoping to offer at Aside from private lessons on an instrument, signing up also gives our students access to weekend theory classes as well as other topics that will range from composition workshops to discographies to recording sessions to improvisation jams. These courses are intentionally eclectic and are designed to open our minds to broader musical horizons in all directions. We will discuss hip hop, classical music, electronica, funk & soul, jazz, metal, salsa, and just about every other genre as well and relationships.

So you seem to be going for a more diverse approach?

Diversity is the foundation, but what we are going for is holistic understanding, enjoyment and (put in) practice in the true sense of the word. The more you know something, the more you can appreciate something. And the more you appreciate something, the more you enjoy it when you experience it. As professional musicians we have no trouble enjoying what we do! But we have the ability to offer that to other people too… that’s also very exciting for us. Our driving point is supportive of small orchestras, instrumentalists, indie musicians, living composers,  our relevancy as modern day musicians, and want to represent the trade and art equally.

Elisabeth Johnson and Matt Golombisky of Mynah Music performing. (courtesy of Mynah Music)

Elisabeth Johnson and Matt Golombisky of Mynah Music performing. (courtesy of Mynah Music)

Getting back to this Chicago connection, I’ve taken a few informative one-day classes on guitar at The Old Town School of Folk; as well, I attended some outstanding performances there including Arlo Guthrie. Do I suspect a similar eclectic vibe of Old Town is forming at Mynah?

As 3/4th of us are at some point Chicagoans, we know and love the mission Old Town School of Folk Music and  also know what wonderful instructors and musicians there on board, so I will say those are large shoes to fill and we only hope to be a sliver of that. If we can be influenced by, or even boldly share a similar mission in serving as a meeting place for teaching, performing and celebrating folk music, art and culture, then yes…

Describe the space to me and what have you done in construction and renovation?

The space was a storage space for the commercial photographer, so much of the process has been clearing out and consolidating shelves and equipment. Mainly, we needed to create practice rooms which our colleague John, our ukelele extraordinaire who has worked in construction has helped us build. Patrick has worked on restoring, tuning and fixing the pianos. Matt and I have been painting walls and floors around the clock and I spent much time scouring 2nd hand shops, cleaning, organizing and Craigslist to furnish what has turned out to feel more like a cozy lounge area and simple salon.  My job mainly has been putting together the business format putting words together into concepts, mutual aspirations in writ and legit and getting materials ready for press!

Tell us a bit about the opening? You have to be stoked about this and what the future holds for Mynah.

It was a great success! We had a full house and a captive audience and people got a chance to see what our performance area was capable of. Future events will prove easier too now that we’ve established a standard for what the space can do. We are also instigating a Friday night concert series that will feature local Oakland groups. There is a lot going on! But we have a lot of things that we think would be fun and worthwhile to do, so why not make it all happen and make Mynah a really magical place?

For those interested in Mynah Music (especially in the Oakland and Bay Area), they can be found on: websiteFacebookTwitter

Mynah Music: 543 Athol Ave. Oakland, California 94606

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

One Response to An Inspired Bird of Oakland Music: Elisabeth Johnson of Mynah Music: Joup Interviews
  1. […] Liz whom is now in Oakland, CA running the wonderful conservatory Mynah Music. You can read my inter...

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