The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Imagine, as a musician, being asked to play for the President of the United States of America. Now, imagine being given the sheet music just moments before your performance and then starting right away on the down beat. Are your palms sweating yet? Is your heart racing? John Mohler’s isn’t.

Dr. John Mohler spent four years as a clarinetist in the United States Marine Band and Orchestra, performing across the United States, including the White House, The Capital, The Jefferson Memorial, and many other iconic locations and events, including President Eisenhower’s Inauguration in 1953. Sometimes, you knew what music you were playing; sometimes, you didn’t have a clue until it was set in front of you. For this sight-reading extraordinaire, it was no problem.

John grew up in Lititz, Pennsylvania in a rural community – the conservative part of a progressive city, where he attended the Church of the Brethren. At his church, no one played music. They just sang.

“I was the first one to play an instrument at that church,” John said. “I remember the first time a piano found its way into the church.”

Was it happenstance or fate that led John, in middle school, to be given an old clarinet and a cigar box full of old reeds? Either way, that moment changed his life. John discovered his love for music early, and his parents arranged for him to take private clarinet lessons. He would hitchhike to Lancaster every week for lessons from Joseph Leptich, clarinetist of the Lancaster Symphony. In high school, he rode the train 90 miles into Harrisburg to study with Salvadore Colangelo, Principal Clarinetist of the Harrisburg Symphony. From there, John moved to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute of Music with 150 other students from around the world, while he studied under Ralph McLane.

“I remember the first time I heard the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra,” John said. “I heard strings, and I instantly loved the sound. From then on, I knew I wanted to play in a symphony orchestra.”

John studied at the University of Michigan (U of M) and earned multiple degrees: A Bachelor of Music, a Master of Music, and a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Clarinet Performance. He was the first person to receive the DMA in that area of wind instrument performance at U of M. After finishing his studies, he briefly spent two years teaching at Drake University in Iowa before returning to U of M as the Professor of Clarinet, where he taught for 32 years, retiring in 1994.

“John is an incredible man. I owe him my career,” said Dr. Robert Spring, Professor of Clarinet at Arizona State University. Robert was a student of Dr. Mohler’s while earning his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Mohler has won countless awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Clarinet Association in 2003 and the University of Michigan’s Band Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. He was even called short notice to play for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1964 and 1976 for the Ann Arbor May Festivals. Yet, even with all these awards, the countless fans, the CD compilation of his performances coming out this summer, and a scholarship in his honor (Mohler Clarinet Scholarship at U of M), John is a down-to-earth, kind, and humble gentleman.

“This is my life. I have been the luckiest guy in the world,” John said. “It’s all just luck.”

This distinguished, world-renowned clarinetist has an impact not limited to this country. His students have gone on to perform around the world and become music professors at prestigious universities. There are also multiple dissertations on his teaching style and performance.

“He didn’t just teach us how to be teachers, but also how to become better human beings,” Robert said. “We were all his students, but we also knew how much he cared about us. He would come to my performances, always offer me advice, and even came to my wedding.”