black and white image of tom playing guitar

Interview with current JMI student, Tom Kakanis

We had a quick chat with one of our current Bachelor students, Tom to discuss his experience thus far studying at JMI and how it has benefited him and his future as a musician.  

Firstly, tell me a bit about yourself. What instrument are you currently learning and when did you first start playing music?

I’m a guitarist in my third year at JMI and I’ve been playing music for about fifteen years now. Before JMI I had put out a handful of albums as a solo artist but had never studied music before and to be honest, I didn’t know the names of the notes (like roughly 80% of guitarists). I started playing when I was about fifteen years old on bass guitar.

Why did you choose JMI to do your Bachelor in Music?

I had been making and releasing music seriously for three or four years before coming to JMI and I felt I was hitting my limits as a self taught guitarist, songwriter, and arranger. I had zero music theory under my belt and had heard that if you want to understand it, the best way is through learning jazz. By chance I was chatting to a stranger one day and they mentioned that they had been a drummer at JMI and they raved about it. I ended up trialling the night classes and felt that this could really be something to improve my career and musical knowledge. I started just doing the Diploma at JMI but by the end of my first year I was hooked and knew I’d extend to finish the Bachelors in Music.

Flashback to when you auditioned… What was it like and what advice would you give for anyone who is preparing for their audition right now?

tom kakanis

Honestly I was most scared of the written exam that was part of the audition. I didn’t study music in high school and really had a lot of work to do to prepare. I found some excellent online resources that explained basic music theory from the absolute ground up and that helped me build confidence for the exam. I was also very fortunate to have a friend who was auditioning for JMI as well and after he did his audition he helped me prepare for mine based on his experience. 

My advice for those considering auditioning is that first of all it’s totally ok to get help preparing, and that the most important thing about studying this music is that you are persistent and can work hard. I think that showing you are committed and excited about learning this music is also key. The best jazz musicians I know are the hardest working, they weren’t necessarily the most talented when they started out. Finally, the JMI staff are incredibly supportive, they want you to have a great experience auditioning and they are on your side. 

Has Jazz always been a passion of yours, or did JMI further introduce you to Jazz?

I’ve been a big fan of Frank Sinatra’s music since I was a little kid and through the years I had accumulated a handful of jazz albums that I really loved, some Mingus, some Miles Davis, but I had never delved too deeply into this world. JMI changed that completely. They do an excellent job of introducing you to the history of jazz and your teachers will share albums and songs that have taught them things, inspired them, or that they just love. JMI has definitely helped me discover my passion for this music.

How do you feel learning jazz has benefited you as a musician in the wider musical landscape?

I’m much more capable on my instrument, I can collaborate with others much more freely because I can speak this musical language comfortably, I can write, arrange, improvise, perform, and listen. I really can’t think of any area where this degree hasn’t improved me as a musician. And it’s not limited to jazz, in every musical context I find myself in regardless of genre I know that my time at JMI has made me exceedingly more capable than I was when I started.

tom kakanisIdeally, what skills or goals were you aiming to accomplish by the end of your degree? And do you feel that you are on your way to doing that?

If I’m being completely honest, when I started this degree I wanted to come in for one year, nab as much theory knowledge as I could and then get out and keep making my own albums. I also wanted to learn the language so I could communicate with others as my ambition at the time was to be a music producer and collaborator who could work with other artists. Now my goals revolve more around knowledge of my instrument, the freedom to express myself using the guitar while improvising, performing with others, helping other performers feel comfortable and supported while playing, and generally helping my fellow musicians as much as I can. I feel as though I am consistently getting closer and closer to these goals, and rather than my progress slowing down over time it feels like it’s speeding up.

What transcriptions or specific techniques are you learning at the moment?

Technique wise I’m focusing a lot on the interplay of linear soloing and chord soloing. I perform a lot in a duo with a singer and that requires the guitarist to essentially act as a full band, providing chordal support, basslines, rhythm etc. And then when soloing you’re completely unsupported, playing by yourself. This requires you to essentially provide your own backing and context for the lines you play by having an interplay of chords with your melodic ideas, all while keeping the form and the feel going. For transcriptions lately I’ve been analysing some that I did over the summer holidays, namely Johnny Smith’s solo on ‘It’s You or No One’, and Wes Montgomery’s solo over the studio version of ‘Nica’s Dream’. I find going through these solos phrase by phrase to understand the choices the artist was making very insightful.

What in your opinion is one of the best parts about the JMI Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance course?

The teachers and my peers. The teachers are knowledgeable, kind, accessible, and they really care deeply about their students and this music. They will always go out of their way to help because they have the experience and passion to do so. I’ve done a degree in the past and most of my teachers had never even worked in the industry they were teaching about. That’s impossible in this world.

Every teacher at JMI walks the walk, talks the talk, and can shred (tastefully).

JMI wouldn’t be what it is without my peers. There’s a camaraderie that develops as you get through this degree. We’ve all had our ups and our downs, our doubts and fears over whether we could get through what is a very demanding and difficult degree. But we’ve supported each other, we’ve helped each other, and we’ve played music together. There isn’t really space for big ego’s at JMI because everyone needs one another. You’re playing music together constantly and that means collaboration, listening, and support.

I’ve made friends that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life at JMI.

Any favourite jazz artists?

Joe Pass, Charles Mingus, Johnny Smith, Frank Sinatra.

What is your favourite part about JMI in general? What makes it unique or stand out to you?

Probably that I know almost everyone there. It’s a relatively small university and that means you get to know all the people eventually. It’s fun. And through that, and the gigs that eventually come from it you are introduced to an even wider community of alumni and other musicians. It really feels like family and home. If I could keep studying at JMI after my degree ends I would.

Would you recommend JMI as a place to study for future students, and why?

Coming to JMI was the best decision of my life. If you want to understand music theory, your instrument, performing, collaborating, composing, arranging, and if you want to challenge yourself, JMI is the place to do it.

And last but not least — Do you have any gigs coming up or are there any local bands that we can spot you performing within?
I’m performing with my duo the CT Jazz Duo at Noir in mid July. Otherwise I’ve been performing with an incredible pop/RnB artist named May Lyn for about four years now and her shows are always so much fun, I recommend checking her out.

tom kakanis

First round of Auditions begin in July! To find out more about our Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance course and how to apply, click here.

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