Perhaps it was in part because my wife and I had been binge-watching “Parks and Recreation” on Netflix in the days leading up to my meeting junior Jonathon Shields, but several things about the music performance and music business major reminded me of the show’s musician character, Andy Dwyer.
Last summer Shields, who was born in Canada and grew up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, created an alias, Whitney James, so he could more comfortably make music different than the acoustic- and folk-based material he has developed for years under his own name. Shields, a “Parks and Recreation” fan himself, and I laughed about how much harder it was for him to come up with a new name than it was for Dwyer, whose band performed under more than a dozen names.
Besides the names, though, both men express heartfelt joy at their music’s ability to make others happy: Dwyer finds his passion is hosting a musical kids show, and Shields talked about the great feeling that comes from performing with Harmony Crew, a St. Thomas group he leads that plays at elderly homes and children hospitals throughout the school year.
“We usually play jazz and people just light up, sing along to all these great old songs they know,” he said. “It’s really cool to see.”
Raised in a musical family alongside two brothers and with a mom who taught piano, Shields switched to guitar from piano when he was 11 and hasn’t looked back since. At St. Thomas he has dove into musical theory and honed his performance skills as a member of the jazz band and through playing around the Twin Cities on his own. With a music business major and as president of the Music Industry Club, he is sharpening skills to support his own performance career or to have other options in the music industry.
“Since coming here I’ve learned a lot more about how music works and how I can use that for my own career,” Shields said. “It has given me a better idea of how to conduct myself, why to conduct myself the way I do.”
Dressed in black T-shirt and a jacket for a performance later that day, Shields was more than happy to jump away from the topic of music to discuss his biggest fear, the best vacation he ever had and a very special Canadian rock.
What is the best money you’ve ever spent?
This last spring break one my of high school buddies who goes to Northwestern and I road-tripped down to Florida – took us 22 hours – to see one of our other high school friends who’s in the Navy and is stationed down there. That was the trip of a lifetime.
What is your biggest fear?
Growing old and looking back and having a regret, wishing I would have taken a chance on something I didn’t.
What’s the most difficult assignment you’ve ever had to complete?
I have to go back to high school for that one. Freshman year I was in principles of engineering … and we were tasked with building a boat out of … tinfoil. It was me and two other guys. The hardest part was working with those two other guys. We just didn’t click. I love collaborating; it’s a great way to get results. Just not with these two guys.
Who’s your favorite teacher ever?
[St. Thomas music professor] Chris Kachian. I have pretty good relationships with my other teachers, but his is just a whole different level. He’s so relatable, such a down-to-earth guy. He really is just looking out for the best for his students.
What’s the best vacation you’ve ever been on?
The spring break trip was a good one, but my best vacation was as a senior in high school where my family decided to take a cruise with some other family friends who also had seniors. So, like a senior last vacation thing. Went down to Florida and had a day before the cruise left. I’m the biggest Disney nerd you’ll ever meet, so we went to Disney World for the day. My little brother woke up sick so my dad stayed with him at the hotel, so it was just my mom and me at Disney World for the day. It was the best day ever.
What’s one thing you’re really curious about?
I’m interested in psychology. I find – I’m more introverted unless I’m up on stage where you need to be extroverted – that people watching is one of my favorite things to do. Or talking to people and thinking back on why they said something or acted a certain way. That’s very interesting to me. If I had another four years I might study psychology.
What was your most prized possession as a kid?
When I was in Canada when I was 11 [and we had moved back for a year before coming back to Grand Rapids], I really didn’t want to go to a new school. We were going to walk to school, about a mile every day, and I met this guy from Finland; we were neighbors and our dads worked at the same company. There was a rock we kicked to school every day. I still have that rock, so that’s probably my most prized possession from when I was a kid.