The University of Minnesota’s Craig Kirchhoff: Preparing the Next Generation

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 13, 2010

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Since that fateful symposium in the mid 1970s, Craig Kirchhoff has gone on to be a major force in music education, running music programs at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Washington State University, and The Ohio State University before taking over as the director of bands at the University of Minnesota. SBO recently caught up with the educator, musician, and conductor to talk about his own teaching career, but also about some of the more pressing issues facing music education, including preparing the next generation of music educators for the dramatically changing musical and economic landscape.

School Band & Orchestra: What brought you to the University of Minnesota?

Craig Kirchhoff: I was director of bands at The Ohio State University for 14 years and, toward the end of my tenure there, I found myself looking for new challenges. I’m originally from Wisconsin, so the opportunity to move closer to my family was important to me. I’ve also always loved the Twin Cities; this is a very vital arts community, and, of course, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are world-renowned ensembles. In addition, the new music environment in the Twin Cities was also a great attraction.

I knew that by accepting the position at the University of Minnesota I’d have to be a much different musician and a much different conductor because many of our faculty in the wind area, at least serve as principal players with both orchestras. I’m a person who enjoys building a program. The band program at Minnesota, which has always been a great program, was in that period of time when my predecessor, Frank Bencriscutto, was ending his career and the program needed some new initiative and a different direction. It was a unique challenge to be able to come here; not only to be able to maintain the excellence of the past, but to gently guide the program in a different direction. The Marching Band here has always been a great band. In fact, Frank Bencriscutto conducted the Marching Band for the majority of his career and wrote and arranged many of the school songs that have become an important part of the Big Ten culture at the University of Minnesota.

SBO: When you step into a program like that, which has such a storied history and high standard of excellence, what is your initial approach?

CK: My initial goals were to continue those things that were in place and do those as well as I could. It’s difficult to come in and make immediate changes. You have to evaluate what you might want to tweak, what you might want to change, and what should stay the same. It’s a long evolution of slow, but calculated, change. The present band program is strong from top to bottom, including the wind ensemble, which is made up entirely of music majors, and probably 40 percent of those are graduate students. The symphonic band is all music majors, and then our university band is a combination of both non-majors and music majors. We have two other campus bands. We have a strong concert program and one of the reasons that the athletic bands and marching band are so strong is that almost all of those students are involved in music making throughout the entire year, whether in the other athletic bands or in the concert bands. We see the program as being closely linked between the indoor and outdoor ensembles.

The University of Minnesota Band Alumni have been extremely gracious and supportive in helping to fund new initiatives, guest artists and guest composers, and commissioning programs. For example, we have a professional woodwind quintet, the Bergen Woodwind Quintet from Bergen, Norway, which is in residence here for one week every year. The Band Alumni make significant contributions towards those efforts, and those are the things that help to make the band program quite distinctive.

The University of Minnesota's Craig Kirchhoff: Preparing the Next GenerationSBO: With the understanding that orchestral and professional playing opportunities are increasingly hard to come by in this tough economy, how are you adjusting your methods of preparing these future professionals for the ever-evolving landscape?

CK: We’re coming to this issue probably later than we should have, but the School of Music is now becoming very concerned with what could be called entrepreneurial guidance for our students. It used to be, when I first started going to school, that there were two primary professional pathways for music majors: to play professionally or to teach. Because of the economy, there are fewer opportunities in both of those fields, especially in the professional world. Having said that, there are many other opportunities for students to make a living with a career in music, but they have to know how to market themselves, how to develop audiences, how to communicate with those audiences, and how to raise funds. The question that we’re seriously discussing is how we are going to help music students be better prepared for the 21st century because traditional pathways are closing quickly. We don’t have anything formalized at the moment, but we’re becoming increasingly involved with the concept of entrepreneurship and reality of what students will do professionally following their graduation.

SBO: Is this something you consider when recruiting students to the program?

CK: We have student and parent orientation days and our professional staff are very good at answering parents’ questions, and of course, many parents are extremely concerned about how their passionate son or daughter is actually going to make a living in music. We’re increasingly aware that there are more professional opportunities available than the traditional avenues of performance and teaching. It’s a matter of sensitivity to the issue. I suspect that in the future, the School of Music or the Arts Quarter may have a Center of Entrepreneurship, which will be devoted to preparing students for their life after the academy, primarily in non-traditional ways.

SBO: Of course, there are a whole host of alternative careers for musicians, from TV and radio work to music therapy•

CK: That’s right. One example of that is our composers, who traditionally have been composing for chamber music ensembles, orchestras, and opera, are now sometimes finding themselves writing music for radio or video games. It’s a completely different world out there, and the challenge of universities and conservatories is to be increasingly sensitive to that.

SBO: In terms of the larger view of music education, what are some of the current trends you’re noticing?

CK: I think the biggest impact of the economy has been the reduction of instrumental lesson programs in schools, which goes hand in hand with the reduction of staff dedicated to music, especially at the elementary and middle school levels. If students aren’t taking lessons, how are they going to learn how to play their instruments? That’s the biggest single impact on music programs, and it all comes down to staffing formulas. I continually receive messages and e-mails from people throughout the country who are concerned that lesson programs within the curriculum are going to become a thing of the past.

The University of Minnesota's Craig Kirchhoff: Preparing the Next GenerationSBO: Do you have any ideas that might help keep early-level lesson programs from disappearing?

CK: As much as the economy is having a hugely negative impact on schools, this is a time to examine what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Music programs, by and large, tend to be pretty traditional. So what’s been happening in the last year or two isn’t that different from what’s been happening in the last 10 or 20 years. This is a time to look creatively at how we can deliver the curriculum in more efficient ways. These kinds of issues are forcing us to think more creatively.

SBO: With so much change in the music world from digital downloads to major funding crises to simplistic music making through computer programs and video games where do you see all music education heading in the near future?

CK: There is a broader question that is being asked my many in the music profession; how will we be able to increase access to music experiences for more of the general population in our schools? This question is being asked because orchestras and bands and choruses are often serving a relatively small population of students in most schools. Despite these kinds of philosophical questions and the undeniable pressures of the economy, I still believe that wind bands, orchestras, and choirs, will continue to remain in the curriculum because making music and specifically accomplishing something as a community under an inspiring conductor still has the capacity to move people in very special ways. Those kinds of communal music making opportunities connect people in very important emotional ways. Bands and orchestras and choirs are going to continue to exist, but there is going to have to be creative problem solving along the way regarding issues such as staffing, lesson programs, and over-all funding for the arts to make that possible.

Despite the fact that music is more accessible than at any other time in our history, there is still an emotional void that will keep our students making music with other people.

SBO: Is helping to fill that “emotional void” one of your underlying motivations as an educator?

CK: What’s most fulfilling to me is knowing that my students have had deep musical experiences that, in some cases, have changed their lives and, in some ways, have helped them to think very differently about the art form. When I was a high school band director, I wanted my students to leave my rehearsals and my concerts loving music. That was important to me then and it is important to me now. I’ve come to believe certain things over the years, and one of those is that students of all ages have the capacity to be moved by music.

Fourth and fifth graders don’t usually join the band or orchestra for an aesthetic experience. They join it because it’s fun, they like to be with their friends, and they like to play the instruments. But somewhere along the way, it’s our responsibility as teachers to move them from the love of the activity of being in band or orchestra to actually loving music. And that’s where the teacher comes in; that’s where the inspired teacher plays a huge part in this process. Its not just going into band or orchestra class every day, it’s having contact with a teacher who is genuinely inspired by great music and beauty and is passionate about sharing that with others.

The University of Minnesota's Craig Kirchhoff: Preparing the Next GenerationSBO: Is that something that you feel can happen at any age or skill level, or is it something that needs a while to develop?

CK: It’s a continuum. That’s why you have to have great teachers at the elementary school, the middle school, and the high school levels. It’s a little bit like a musical relay race. If those first teachers don’t provide the foundation and an opportunity to make music in a positive environment, the students won’t go much further. In a sense, that love of music is something that takes time, but I’ve seen fifth and sixth graders at concerts and I’ve read what they’ve written about the concerts, and how they feel about the music. I’ve also read pieces by juniors and seniors in high school talking about what music means to them, and, obviously, those students have been on a journey, where music has suddenly taken on a very important role in their life and is deeply meaningful to them.

SBO: Obviously, having great teachers is critical to the experience. Considering the rate of attrition among music teachers the tremendous learning curve for young educators, and all of the challenges of the profession what steps are you taking to help ensure the success of your students who are headings into education?

CK: It’s a huge concern. People like my high school band director and my wife’s high school band director spent their entire career in the same place. Teachers like that are becoming increasingly rare in today’s educational world. There are so many pressures on band directors today to produce, and to produce in situations where it is becoming more difficult to simply do their job. I do think that universities have some responsibility in all of this, and that is to somehow maintain an active mentorship program where we stay in touch with our graduates. Where we lose them is in that second, third, fourth, and fifth year. One of the things that we’ve done at the University of Minnesota is to offer a one-week summer symposium called the Art of Wind Band Teaching. It’s a unique opportunity for people to come together. We’ve had teachers from the elementary and middle school level, the high school level, and the college level attend. Symposiums like this hopefully help people to rediscover that they aren’t alone, that this is a noble profession, and that teaching music is still worth doing.

The profession needs to provide more opportunities for teachers to gather together because there is strength in numbers. When students leave the familiar and comforting environment of the university and are suddenly thrust out into the real world of teaching, the experience that they encounter often has little resemblance to anything that they learned about or even thought about when they were in school. The key to the future of the profession is mentorship and creating opportunities for teachers to continue learning. The key to success as a band or orchestra director is maintaining and expanding a love of music, a love of teaching, and a love of people, while making a life-long investment in personal and musical growth.

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