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Mr. Eisemann's Opus

John Eisemann '10

By Peter Bailey '74

John Eisemann '10A musician/composer ... discovers a passion for teaching.

If this sounds like Mr. Holland's Opus, well, the movie was filmed at John Eisemann's high school in Portland, Oregon, in 1995, about the same time that young John was taking his first piano lesson.

"When I was in first grade, my parents got a piano. They said, ‘You have to take lessons,'" Eisemann says. By fourth grade, he was composing, by junior high was playing guitar in a rock band -- Bad Tommy -- with four friends, and by college he was pursuing graduate-level research in music orchestration.

"We wrote music and recorded albums," says Eisemann of Bad Tommy. "I almost thought of playing rock music instead of going to college."

With a family of Knox alumni and professional educators, John knew not going to college was not an option. John's grandfather, Carl Eisemann, was professor and chair of the education department at Knox for 37 years. Other Knox ties include John's father, Eric '74, and uncles, Carl '66 and Steven '77. Steven is an assistant principal at Galesburg High School, where his wife, Rosemary '77, teaches mathematics.

A music and education major, Eisemann would like to be a choral director. It was a "whim," he says, that prompted him to take a composition class with music professor Bruce Polay -- composer, pianist, and artistic director/conductor of the Knox-Galesburg Symphony. "I found the class challenging and exciting," Eisemann says. "After it was finished, Professor Polay asked me if I would be interested in doing Honors."

Eisemann's Honors was a study in orchestration that traced the history of styles and culminated in his orchestration of "Four Pieces for Piano" by Serge Prokofiev. The work is subtitled "Devilish Inspiration."
"There are places where the pianist sounds ‘possessed,' places where, pardon the expression, ‘all hell breaks loose.' That's a challenge," Eisemann says, "because it's easy to play loud. But it's hard to play soft, and it's hard to play loud well."

Often confused with composition, orchestration "takes the composer's melodic and harmonic ideas and arranges them for a full orchestra," Eisemann says. "It's like a painter -- you study a subject, then represent the subject through a new medium. A lot is intuition. I would look at a line [of the piano score] and study its range. Then I'd say ‘that sounds like an oboe.'"

Eisemann charted his work on his computer via Sibelius, music notational software provided by a grant from Knox's Richter Memorial Scholarship program.

"Often I just wing it. I try something and see if it works," Eisemann says. "A lot comes from experience, and a lot comes from failure. When I was in the band, I wrote a lot of songs, and a lot of them sucked. If something was bad, we learned not to do it again. We created patterns and learned to trust them. When it's working, I'm in the moment, right here."

Unlike violinist Niccolò Paganini or guitarist Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold their souls to the devil for the sake of their music, Eisemann achieved his "Devilish Inspiration" by summoning up a strong work ethic.

"I'm amazed at the amount of work John has done, and the results are stellar. Take these pages he just turned in," says Professor Polay, holding up one of Eisemann's sheets, already marked up in Polay's green ink. "John has always been able to apply the comments I give him, and then take his work to the next level."

Polay is so impressed with Eisemann's work that he plans for the Knox-Galesburg Symphony to premiere it in February 2011. "I think that John has a rare gift," Polay says. "I think of Knox music faculty like Charles Farley and Murray Baylor -- people who have the wide potential to teach and to apply their abilities."

John Eisemann -- musician, composer, and now an orchestrator with a passion for teaching -- it's not just in the movies; at Knox, it really happens.