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Courage, decency, honor and integrity: John Milbauer brings his core values to School of Music

Dean discusses piano performance, diversity and Chicago’s music scene

John Milbauer
Photo by Mindi Acosta
As a renowned Steinway pianist and longtime educator, John Milbauer joined the DePaul community as the new dean of the School of Music in July 2023, bringing 20 years of experience teaching piano and serving as associate dean in higher education in California and Arizona. Combining his strengths in public administration, performance art and music education, Milbauer brings a lot to the table.

“What I was really seeking was to find a position where I could combine interests in music and arts with policy development, leadership, strategic planning and philanthropy. When this position opened, it was so appealing because it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to bring all those pieces together,” Milbauer says.

In this Q&A, Milbauer describes his goals as a new dean at DePaul and how his various experiences in music and administration influence them.

​​Coming from Arizona and California, what drew you to Chicago?
What I missed was being in an urban crucible of intense creative activity across a breadth of cultures, and that’s a wonderful part of Chicago. The combination of music and policy interest plus being in an urban setting is very exciting. I hope to perform as a pianist, and the possibilities for that in Chicago are tremendous.

What are some areas of focus for you as a new dean at DePaul?
One thing to look at is how the demographics of our faculty and staff are reflective of Chicago, and if they are not, how could that difference be minimized? How we diversify our student body, and how we increase access to the School of Music, making it more reflective of what it means to people are also questions I’m looking to answer during my time here.

What inspires you to focus on access within music education?
Music transforms lives in a unique manner, whether it soothes, celebrates, irritates, heals, convenes, confounds, agitates or inspires. It is my hope that all have access to the power of music, and if there are barriers to inclusion, let’s dismantle them.

John Milbauer standing next to a piano
(Jeff Carrion/DePaul University)
Are there any cultural experiences that resonated with you playing piano internationally? How will you integrate them into your goals as a dean?
I would say playing in China with solo recitals — the atmosphere was distinctive in a memorable and wonderful way. The presence of children at the concerts who roam freely in the hall, enjoying it in a way that was physical and very different from how children are expected to behave here. What can we learn from this? What are things I can bring back in terms of how we approach music and the concert experience? This is the importance of having our musicians engaging with audience members one on one, just doing something other than performing.

How do you incorporate meaning into your study of music and your performances?
There is a beautiful inscription above the entrance to the opera house in Palermo, Italy: “Art Renews the People and Reveals Life to Them. Vain Are the Pleasures that Do Not Seek What is to Come.” I have thought about that for several decades now, and it drives my programming as a pianist, my teaching and now my work as dean. We cannot be a museum piece as a school, and “seeking what is to come” means understanding our individual roles in society and paying attention to pressing issues, whether local or global. I would love for DePaul to be leading the development of artist-citizens in this way, and those are conversations we are having now.

What are the values you carry with you as a new dean?
The ones that I return to over and over are courage, decency, honesty and integrity. It’s a pretty good group of four. A favorite teacher of mine says that when you “turn on the lights behind one person’s eyes, you change the world.” Substitute eyes for ears, and you have a wonderful metaphor for the power of music. The experience of music builds empathy in both the listener and musician. Music transforms lives.

How do you enjoy the music scene in Chicago during your free time?
It’s thrilling to be in a global cultural capital where I can hear jazz singer Samara Joy one night, a wonderful student performance next week and the Lyric Opera after that. I get a kick out of going to the Chicago Symphony, looking at the musicians on the stage and thinking, “I work for a dozen DePaul faculty on that stage.” In time, I hope to play with them, too!

​Emily Diaz is a student assistant for internal communications in University Communications.