For John Francisco, music can make us better people. Mister John’s Music, his school nestled in the Italian Market, is a place where children and their caregivers are given lessons in empathy, kindness, and inclusion through creative play. Now, the institution is accessible online.
Prior to his arrival in Philadelphia in 2015, Francisco honed his brand of pedagogy as an actor and educator in Chicago, where he created theater for children on the autism spectrum at Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Red Kite Project, and taught guitar and early childhood music at Old Town School of Folk Music.
“I just fell in love with that particular type of hands-on connecting work,” he said of his time with Red Kite. “It created this shared sensory experience that would all of a sudden have these simultaneous moments of wonder and engagement of the adult and the child. Everybody would be in the same room, and it was so personal.”
Mashing up the arts
Francisco’s background in theater is key to engaging participants of all ages. His warmth and humor as a performer and his sophisticated studio design are inviting. Francisco connects the dots with music, curating “artists of the week” like Alicia Keys, Journey, and Katy Perry. “That connectivity through music and theater of creating this very personal live experience that has ritual elements to it but is underscored throughout by music that people love, that was how I started doing what I do,” he recalls.
Alongside dancing to pop music on acoustic guitar and piano, children count numbers and recite the alphabet in a variety of languages, learn about different family structures, play instruments from around the world, and embrace that “color isn’t a gender.”
“I really want to address elementally, at a very early age, concepts like inclusion, tolerance, compassion, kindness, and metacognition,” Francisco said. “I want kids to look at the world and say, 'Why is it this way?' And look at their own thoughts and say, 'Why am I thinking the things that I’m thinking?'”
Since quarantine, Francisco has taken these concepts to the digital realm, producing full-length variety shows with his staff (with guest stars including puppets and drag queens), short standalone pieces, and weekly lessons taught individually by Francisco and his colleague Lilly Mento. All are freely accessible on the school’s website.
Mister John’s also offers group lessons in a variety of instruments to adults and children. Though these classes do not have the social agenda of the early childhood classes, they do foster a community that encourages vulnerability, bravery, and joy. After all, Francisco says, “an instrument is meant to be played, not practiced. It should be fun.”
Or, as it is emblazoned on the school’s piano, “Music is for everyone.”
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