John was born in Auckland, New Zealand and spent most of his school years in Hamilton. He became enchanted with the sound of the oboe from an early age, but as no tuition was available in Hamilton he took piano and recorder lessons, and was also taught bagpipes by Albert Sheath. He later studied pibroch (classical bagpipe music) with William Robertson learning, as he was later to realise, many performance techniques and philosophies that scholarly research has shown should be used in the historically informed performance of classical baroque music, and which have been handed down in the orally-based teaching of pibroch since the 17th century. As a teenager he became a prominent and successful solo bagpipe player, winning a number of New Zealand and Australian solo competitions and playing with the then New Zealand Champion pipe band, the Pipes & Drums of Innes Tartan (aka Auckland & Districts Pipe Band). John finally turned to the oboe in his teens, when the family moved back to Auckland, studying with various oboists including Michael Towsey and, while studying at Auckland University, with Ronald Webb, then principal oboist of the Sinfonia of Auckland and later the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He began playing baroque oboe in 1970 but, as there was then little or no demand for baroque oboists in New Zealand, decided to concentrate on modern oboe. After graduating with a DPhil degree John developed a dual career as a university academic in Biology (University of Waikato) and as a free-lance professional oboist.