By Donald Gilpin
“We nurture potential and seek to ignite each child’s passion,” states the Princeton Montessori School’s (PM) website. “That’s exactly what happened to me,” said PM Music Teacher and Emmy Award-winner Alex Mitnick, who also has his own TV show, Alex & The Kaleidoscope, on New York City Public TV.
“I was in an environment with a school director who allowed me to do what I wanted to do, and it really did ignite a passion that I have for music and kids,” he continued. “I don’t know if it would have happened anywhere else. I’m able to write songs and produce shows in my little laboratory here, and that slogan informs all the work I do.”
In his 19th year at PM and currently teaching music to students from third grade through middle school, Mitnick is working on an original musical about the life of Maria Montessori to celebrate the 50th anniversary of PM. The musical, which will debut on April 12 and 13, involves the entire school, Mitnick said.
“Alex is a treasure and a truly talented individual who brings music, theater, and other performing arts to our school community, while also leading a world renowned children’s group, Alex & The Kaleidoscope Band,” said PM Head Michelle Morrison. “He serves as our music coordinator and instructs our singing groups, drumming circle, guitar players, and directs and writes our original annual musicals. We are very fortunate to have his talents and passion.”
Mitnick, 43, explained that music has always been present in his life. Though not professional musicians, both his parents loved music. His mother sang in community theater groups and played the piano, and his father, an architect, played the guitar. They always had a piano in the house.
Mitnick took up the trumpet in fifth grade, then
started guitar and percussion in high school in Montgomery County, Pa., where he grew up. He enjoyed the high school band, jazz band, and chorus, and especially enjoyed jamming with friends. “Toward the end of high school, I started to experience music as a powerful force for me as an individual, almost like a healing thing for me,” he said. “It gave me power.”
After two years at Penn State, officially studying science and engineering but unofficially playing guitar and drums every day and jamming with friends, Mitnick decided to pursue his future in music. “Once the illusion of following an engineering and science career faded, music was what remained,” he said. He auditioned for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where his father was an architecture professor, and, on his second try, was accepted.
“Once I got there, my life changed dramatically,” Mitnick recalled. “I cut all my hair off and got very serious. I realized that it’s one thing to play music with your friends at a party, but it’s another thing to play classic or jazz at a high level. I dove headfirst into four more years of music in college, where I practiced four, five, or six hours a day, and I studied with amazing teachers.”
In addition to his guitar playing, Mitnick also developed his vocal abilities, singing in the university’s madrigal choir, joining a barbershop quartet, and performing with the choir of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I learned more about music singing a cappella than I learned in all my years studying guitar,” he said. “Being able to sing in tune, to sightread a melody, to understand what music is all about with the only instrument being your brain and your voice.”
Graduation brought Mitnick to another transition in his life. “Suddenly I’m competing with my professors for the same jobs,” he said. And after a year or two of finding work performing at the Walnut Street Theater, casinos in Atlantic City, clubs on the Main Line, and various jobs elsewhere, Mitnick realized, “I really wanted something much deeper about music. I completely switched directions to fall madly in love with sacred Hindu chanting,” and that’s what brought him to Princeton, where a friend was playing the tabla and exploring the world of Indian music.
He continued, “I was searching, but a little bit lost, not being clear about what I wanted to do with music. I needed something I could pour my heart and soul into.” Mitnick rented a farmhouse in Hillsborough with a friend, and for almost three years he toured, promoting and facilitating sacred Eastern music.
Needing a paying job, he sent his resume around to private schools, and soon found himself teaching preschool at PM. One year later he was in charge of music for the whole school, preschool through eighth grade.
“I discovered that I was a very good teacher, and I could relate to children in a fun, relaxing way. I started developing my own program for the elementary and middle school kids, where the most important thing was for them to have the same powerful experience with music that I’d had.”
Taking a nontraditional approach to music education, Mitnick infused his classes with “tons of movement and drumming. We ordered sets of percussion instruments, and I started a rock band with the middle schoolers,” he said. “The kids fell in love with music and the music class was one of their favorite times of day.”
About 15 years ago, Mitnick built a small recording studio in the Hillsborough farmhouse, and he and a friend started writing songs for children. They started a summer camp, where they wrote a musical for the kids to perform. “We loved the experience,” he said. “There was no limit on how we could stylize the music. As long as it was catchy, the kids loved it. We all loved the freedom.”
The musicals eventually turned into Mitnick’s first album Kaleidoscope Songs Number One in 2004, and a Parents’ Choice Award, one of many awards that he has received.
Many concerts, CD sales, and five original CDs later, Mitnick is now working on his seventh children’s music CD. Another breakthrough came in 2014, when New York City’s public TV station offered Mitnick the opportunity to produce a TV show. He was able to produce six 30-minute original TV shows called Alex & the Kaleidoscope, where he is the host and he takes the viewers around to museums, zoos, and on other adventures. “We walk around, learn a lot, and integrate original music with the fun facts. You might learn something about recycling, and then there’s a fun recycling song and music video that goes with it.”
In the meantime, Mitnick is working on developing another music-focused show and doing lots of teaching at PM, three or four days a week. He also teaches in Philadelphia and New York public schools as an artist in residence, “teaching them my original music, then they perform with me in a final assembly, which is really fun.”
Mitnick lives in Doylestown, Pa., with his wife Molly, who owns a yoga studio and is getting a master’s degree in counseling psychology. They have two young children with a third expected in May.
“As difficult as a life in the arts can be, it’s fulfilling,” Mitnick said. “I wake up every day and do something that I like. I feel blessed.”