John Kao

A Pathway of Improvisation

By Ella Wilcox

This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Teaching Music.

Thought leader John Kao finds that music fosters creativity, interaction, and exploration.

It’s been said that ideas form the backbone of the universe because everything of value arises from them.

For John Kao, a self-styled “innovation activist” based in San Francisco, generating and developing ideas are what inspires his work on innovation and organizational transformation. He sees things differently and gets joy from making the world a little bit better.

When asked to explain what he does professionally, Kao says, “The easiest way to describe my work is that I’m in the creativity business. My greatest pleasure is in creating something new—whether it’s a new company, a movie, a course of instruction, or a new methodology or conceptual framework. I also enjoy supporting others in their creative endeavors and find equal pleasure in developing my own.”

John Kao

Photo courtesy of John Kao


Time is a valuable resource for Kao, whose overall philosophy can be summarized as “Life is short, and there’s no time to waste in the search for authenticity.” In a literal sense, this means staying sharp by nurturing one’s physical and mental health. At a deeper level, this means seeing one’s life as a journey toward greater proficiency, whether it serves the desire for musical expression, greater self-knowledge, or other horizons.

Kao was born in the United States to Chinese academicians who came here for advanced study. He was influenced by music from childhood onward and calls music “the soundtrack of my life.” His education offered him opportunities for considerable performing experience from an early age, which, he says, “stood me in good stead later in life, whether it was pitching to investors or teaching by the case method at Harvard Business School.”

His mother, Edith Kao, was a pianist and educator who earned a master’s degree in music from Northwestern. She was Kao’s first piano teacher, and he began studying music at age five. According to Kao, she and instilled in him a fundamental and unshakeable love of music, which she referred to as “food for the soul.”

His appetite for musical exploration then blossomed. He recalls, “During high school, I performed solo piano as well as in a violin piano duo with my classmate Tom Stanback.” For these young men, the high point of this musical collaboration was performing John Cage’s piece 4’33”—which received a standing ovation from the assembled student body.

“Through these experiences, I learned a lot about preparation, practice, self-regulation during performance, dealing with nerves and pressure, and more.”

“Through these experiences, I learned a lot about preparation, practice, self-regulation during performance, dealing with nerves and pressure, and more,” Kao recalls.

He continues, “My high school (Riverdale Country School, an independent school in New York City) had a music conservatory at the time, so I was able to work with several excellent teachers, including Zenon Fischbein, who led me through the Chopin études and ballades that were probably the high watermark of my career in classical music. Also, during a year spent in Germany when my father was on sabbatical, I had the opportunity to study with a German piano teacher who introduced me to new forms of technique and wrist mobilization, as well as to Béla Bartók and his Mikrokosmos.”

In the summer of 1969, Kao successfully auditioned for rock legend Frank Zappa and was invited to become his apprentice and part-time keyboard player. Kao remembers, “Frank was an important influence in my understanding of music—this time from a more worldly and commercial perspective. I learned a great deal about producing and linking creative effort to the mass audience. Also about the thrill of playing keyboards in front of a thousand screaming fans.”

In Kao’s world, it’s important to keep on learning. He says, “Most recently, I’ve gotten around to the formal study of jazz, after years of meandering. Early this year, I was privileged to begin studies with Dan Tepfer, a massively talented jazz player, classical pianist, and digital composer. The discipline of being a student again and ‘not knowing’ has been incredibly refreshing.”

Kao regards his musical experiences as having contributed to his work in multiple fields. He says, “I have always been fascinated by the process and practice of improvisation. Perhaps this is what led me to an interest in jazz as well as to its more basic cousin, rock’n’roll. I view my life path as having been highly improvisational. That has meant being able to balance contradictory elements and integrate them into a larger whole, whether it be in terms of disciplines, professional involvements, or ways of expressing personal values.”

“I believe that whatever ability I have to collaborate with others and to instigate creative efforts is in large measure due to my early exposure to music.”

Music has been an ongoing and major influence in Kao’s life path. “I believe that whatever ability I have to collaborate with others and to instigate creative efforts is in large measure due to my early exposure to music,” he says. “It taught me to listen, to have empathy, to nurture my own creativity, and to support the creativity of others. These and other attributes now find new relevance under the hot topic of 21st-century skills.”

On a day-to-day basis, Kao supports music education as an important element of educating the whole person. “These days I think the boundaries between being an artist on the one hand and an entrepreneur and innovator on the other are blurry,” he says. “The skills that one learns as a performing musician—especially one schooled in improvisational music—are highly relevant for a wide range of life paths and professional pursuits.”

Kao wrote the book Jamming in 1996 to reflect on what leaders could learn from jazz musicians. In the book, he described a world to come “that increasingly prizes the kind of emotional intelligence and improvisational ability that musicians have long known about.” That world is now here.

“Of late, I’ve been working on an effort to reimagine music education, as I believe a Niagara of digital innovation—coupled with the emergence of many new learning pathways and resources—creates a moment that the music education profession can align with by thinking strategically and imaginatively about its future,” he says.

To learn more about John Kao’s activities, visit You can also find there a series of writings on topics ranging from leadership and improvisation to innovation and future making.

About the author:

Ella Wilcox

©2019 by Miriam A. Kilmer

ELLA WILCOX ( is editor of Teaching Music magazine.

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November 18, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

November 18, 2021


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November 18, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (

April 2024 Teaching Music
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