Interview: Johann Ting

Our alumnus tells us how he's launched a successful career in music education... 


Few singers, songwriters or multi-instrumentalist music tutors have enjoyed stints working for global corporate giants but then ICMP alumnus Johann Ting is a uniquely talented musician.

Jettisoning a career with Goldman Sachs in favour of music was a defining moment for Johann. As a singer and guitarist, he's since performed with everyone from Daniel Bedingfield through to Rob Harris (of Jamiroquai) while also gracing the stages of London's O2 Arena and The Royal Albert Hall. Although he still performs live and works in the studio, Johann has now made a career as a much-in demand tutor, currently working as Director of Music at Townley Grammar School

After a recent visit to ICMP to offer his advice to anyone looking to start a music education career, we quizzed him to learn more about his exciting musical journey from the classroom to the stage and back again... ​

Who or what inspired you to want to be a musician?

I started taking piano lessons when I was six. Although neither of my parents are musicians, they both love music so there was always lots being played around the house - my dad loves guitar music (Chet Atkins and The Shadows were his favourites), and my mum loves singing (particularly The Carpenters and Queen), so I guess I was always destined to be a singing guitarist who loves harmony.

A lot of my early musical ensemble experience came from playing in church, inspired by more traditional hymns as well as the (then) more contemporary music of Ron Kenoly et al.

What led you to ICMP? And how did you find your time with us? 

When I was doing my first degree (computing at Imperial College), I was recruited by the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, leaving after three years to take a course in the performing arts.

Although I wasn't much of an actor or dancer, my singing and songwriting teacher told me I really should consider studying further, and living in Acton at the time, the Institute (as it was known back then) was an obvious choice. I completed the vocal diploma and won the best student prize, opting to return it in return for a scholarship to do the guitar diploma. I won the best student prize for that as well, then pursued a teaching qualification.

How did you get your industry break following your studies? 

The key is that I was already out playing and making a name for myself while I was studying, particularly as an accompanist on acoustic guitarist who also did great backing vocals. Some of my contemporaries were in competition with each other and viewed graduation as a time to start looking for gigs; I saw professional musicians as the ones I was competing with, and by the time I graduated I was already busy on the circuit, including depping for some of my teachers.

You've toured with many top artists. How did you get into working as a live musician for stars such as Daniel Bedingfield or Marcella Detroit? 

I have my dear friend Natasha to thank for many of my credits - she is an incredible singer and vocal coach who has sung with Madonna, Sting and many more. I met her at church and we formed a band, and I actually got lots of work from people who saw me play with them, and from her recommendations. 

Natasha was vocal coaching Jason Orange from Take That at the time, and I was enlisted to teach him guitar for six months in preparation for their 'Beautiful World' tour. A few months before the tour began, he called us and asked if we would like to open for them... and of course we said yes!" 

In addition to playing huge arenas, it was a very proud moment watching from the crowd as a teacher and witnessing Jason playing guitar while singing a full solo song live for the first time in his career.

Playing for Marcella was loads of fun as well. This was for Jools Holland, and I landed the gig through my friend Lizzie Deane (another phenomenal vocalist and songwriter) with whom I've played for years. Jools coming up to me after the gig to compliment me on my singing will remain a pinch-myself career highlight. I will always be grateful to her for that and every other opportunity she has given me.

You are now Director of Music at Townley Grammar School. What drew you to teaching? And how did you land this role? 

After I finished my guitar diploma at ICMP, I was looking for a next step, and wasn't certain that being away from home all the time as a touring musician was really what I wanted at that stage in my life. So I applied for PGCE training at Trinity Laban/University of Greenwich.

It was a challenging year juggling teaching placements with gigging (that was the year of the Take That tour), but much to my surprise I found I really loved teaching children. During that year I had to make a decision, and left the backing band of a singer who went on to tour with Mark Ronson, then Beyoncé. Of course I sometimes wonder what would have taken if I'd opted for that life, but my second placement was at Townley Grammar where I have now been for more than a decade.

I have taught hundreds if not thousands of young people in the course of my work, and while I still love performing, in many ways I find teaching more deeply rewarding than playing music on its own."

I try to keep my hand in as many music teachers who don't, lose their facility very quickly, but I have obviously had to reduce my outside playing a fair bit. To me the sacrifice has been worthwhile! I am also deeply involved in other teaching endeavours other than just music, including taking students on expeditions to developing countries (Madagascar, Mongolia, China and Costa Rica so far ... Zambia and Botswana next!) and I have also spoken to groups of young people about other subjects dear to my heart such as resilience, equality and self-awareness.

How does your teaching inform your other projects? And what have you learned about yourself as a musician via teaching? 

I think the ability to break things down to explain them to someone else forces you to really understand what is going on, and some of the rut-breaking strategies I teach to my students are very useful when I find myself re-treading the same creative ground.

Leading and conducting student ensembles on a daily basis aligns with musical director duties, and my sight reading on piano is better than it has ever been. I also think it's really important for teachers to model learning for their students, and show that making mistakes and taking time is just fine ... so among other things I have learned to play double bass and viola in the last few years, and play them both with our school orchestra and local amateur groups.

Other than just the music aspect, I have learned so much about humanity since becoming a teacher.

Students have such complex lives beyond just the subject I teach, and it is a privilege to be one of the influences (and sometimes THE key adult influence) in their lives. This is truly a career where you have opportunities to literally change the direction of someone's life."

What would you advise anyone looking to launch a career in music education? Have you any essential tips or wisdom you could share? 

Most of the best teachers I know have been doing teaching in some way or other in an informal capacity for much of their lives - so find opportunities to explore this to see if it's something you enjoy. I know many musicians see teaching as a sort of distant poor cousin to other musical endeavours, but this does a disservice to their students and also to the satisfaction and fulfilment they can get.

For those considering classroom teaching, see if you can visit a school to see what it's like, and have a chat with a teacher to see whether it's for you. I would be happy to talk to anyone seriously considering teacher training, just speak to the ICMP Careers and Industry Hub and they will put you in touch.

What does the rest of 2020 look like for you in terms of music and musical projects? 

Like many other musicians I know flipping through their calendars in January, it's looking a little quiet at the moment. The next few months will be pretty busy for me at school dealing with coursework and exam season, so this isn't entirely unwelcome. Fortunately for me, the stability of my teaching job means this is not something I ever panic about either from a financial or creative fulfilment point of view!

I know many of those reading this became musicians because of (or in spite of!) one or two teachers they may have had during their formative years.

I really hope that if you're the sort of person who can inspire young people to grow in their passion for music, you consider offering up that gift to the world and the future of this thing we love.

Follow Johann on Instagram for updates on his musical projects.

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by Jim Ottewill
February 17, 2020
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