An Interview with Donald McKinney

Onsby C. Rose | February 2017

    In the past thirty years music educators have come to appreciate the leaders of our profession. Names such as H. Robert Reynolds, John Whitwell, Allan McMurray, and others, have been synonymous with the field of conducting and music education. However, we are now in a changing of the guard. Many of those who have helped build our profession and taught us how to be great musicians and directors, are moving into retirement. In the wake of this there are educators waiting in the wings to take over and lead future generations of musicians as well as grow our field. One of these is Donald McKinney.
    McKinney is Director of Bands at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At CU he conducts the wind symphony, oversees the graduate wind conducting program, and manages the operation of the entire band program. Prior to this appointment he taught at Louisiana State University, Interlochen Arts Academy, Duquesne University, and also taught public school in Pennsylvania. During the summer of 2015 I worked with McKinney at the annual CU conducting symposium. During our time together I was able to understand how he has become one of the up-and-coming directors in our nation. We recently sat down to discuss where he has been, where he is going, and everything in between.

What advice do you give to high school students who are considering music education as a career?
    I get asked about it all the time when I work with honor bands. Many students feel drawn to music and band as their life’s work. but you have to be sure that this is the one thing that drives you. You have to see yourself making music for the rest of your life. That was me in high school. If you love it that much, when you start a job in music, it will never feel like work. If you feel like music is your life’s work, go for it.

What lessons did you learn in your first few years of teaching?

    When you come right out of school, you think you know it all. I see that now in our undergraduates. They are so confident and believe in what they know, but open-mindedness was the key lesson from my first years as a teacher. It is important not to be afraid to ask questions. One of the best things I ever did in my early career was to attend a conducting workshop at North Texas after my first year of teaching. It revolutionized my approach to musicianship, conducting, and teaching. You have to take risks. That degree doesn’t mean that you are done; it means that the learning has just begun.
    When I was teaching public school, I would take my students to honor band festivals. I would stay and watch the rehearsal. Sometimes I was the only director there, but I knew there was something I had to learn. An honor band is really a masterclass for directors.

How important is it for directors to keep playing their primary instrument?
    It’s a question of time and balance. Dividing time between sleep, family, work, studying, and playing your instrument is different for everybody. When I taught public school I stayed connected to my instrument by practicing as much as possible. When I went back for my master’s degree, I played in ensembles again. That is the vehicle we have to learn musicianship. If you take one night a week to play in a community band to keep your chops warm, that is a great thing.
    If you can’t play something on your instrument, it is difficult to get young players to learn it. There is nothing more valuable than having students see you play your instrument. My high school director was a trumpet player, and I remember him playing trumpet during jazz and concert band. He practiced and warmed up in his office. That made a lasting impression on me. He was still working at it; he had not mastered his instrument yet. That is something students need to see.

When you conduct honor bands, literature with each group can vary widely. What criteria do you use when selecting music for these groups?
    Whether I am selecting music at CU or for an honor band, I look at the group and figure out what repertoire will provide a varied diet of music – composers, stylistic changes, and genres. Here at CU variety in instrumentation is sometimes a consideration. When I attend concerts, I want to hear a variety of timbres and orchestration techniques, and I think our job as educators is to find the appropriate music for our ensembles. With an honor band, I do not think we program enough marches, so I will often program a march I like. We have so much good music at every grade level now. That is the beauty of our medium.

What are the five most significant works that you feel high school students should play?

    So many high school groups focus on the newest pieces out there, and do not expose students to the core repertoire.

• Students should be exposed to the Holst suites, even if they cannot play all of the movements.
• The Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite is a wonderful piece for style and music of the early 20th century that has folk nationalistic elements in it.
• William Schuman’s Chester Overture is a great piece that demonstrates mid 20th Century techniques
• Lincolnshire Posy. Some high school directors look at this piece and feel their students cannot play all of the movements. If you can expose them to select movements, it can be a great experience.

What should high school directors do to help students who are considering majoring in music?

    Students are less rhythmically aware today, and this is particularly apparent in sightreading. I would love for students to develop an independent sense of rhythm rather than relying on external cues. Many times in band, we teach by rote, which leads to rhythms that are an estimate. Exact rhythm comes from great subdivision and awareness as an individual. Rhythm is the backbone of everything we do in music.

When you get incoming students and interact with high school seniors, do you feel that they are prepared for college music? What areas could be improved?

    I think that band directors do a good job at teaching students to play with great fundamental sound. The goal after that is to learn how to change the sound to meet the needs of the music. Articulation is not long or short – there are variations of articulations within that spectrum. Being able to change the sound and manipulate articulations is essential. Incoming college students have to learn to trust themselves and let that serve the music and the composer. Many students arrive with strong playing skills but begin to play with less trust in an ensemble.

What is your philosophy of music education?
    For me the foundation of a good music educator is musicianship. You have to have a great sense of what it feels like to turn a phrase, execute a ritard or accelerando really well. Directors need a great skill at harmonic and melodic listening. That core musicianship should feed the pedagogy

Where do you feel that marching band fits within music education?
    I began to judge marching bands in graduate school but eventually decided to stop. Once I judged a competition on a windy, rainy day with plumes blowing off students heads and into the end zone. I was talking about tone production and realized that something was not right about this equation. Students are not set up for success in that scenario. At that point, my career in competitive marching band was done.
    I know many terrific teachers with competitive marching band programs. The key that makes them successful is that they do not lose the focus on the concert band program. When I taught marching band in the public schools of Pennsylvania, my arts administrator made a firm line that the concert band was the core of the program. The jazz band and marching band played at a high level, but concert band drove the program. If you stay grounded in great sounds and high-quality music making on the field, you have a good defense for making the marching band a valid part of your program.

How has technology affected the way you teach?

    It has changed the band classroom drastically over the last ten years since the rise of smart phones. I have noticed a change in honor band players and undergraduates, who want instant access to all facets of music making. They want the instant gratification of success, but music making takes rehearsal time. Being good at an instrument takes patience.
    Here is how I use technology at CU. I usually display a score behind me, and I have a graduate student with an iPad. The graduate student projects the score from a iPad to the screen behind me. This person can enlarge parts of the score to quickly illuminate what we are rehearsing. I share a PDF of the score with our players, and they are able to learn the score from my perspective. We publicize our events through Facebook and social media. I communicate with students through a text messaging service that shields my phone number. I use technology but am also clear with students that I do not want to see their technology in rehearsal. We might get to the point of electronic stands and iPads all the way through the group, but I think the hard, diligent work of music making will never change. It still requires the same process.

What advice can you give on balancing work and home life?

    This comes up at every conducting symposium I have attended. I hosted a panel at Interlochen and asked Gary Green and Jerry Junkin that question. Their response was laughter because we all struggle to find the right balance. I do think this question is particularly important for young directors to consider. I want to be remembered as a great director and a great person who has experienced life. You have to be able to put family just as high as directing. Make yourself a great person and let that feed your directing. If all you do is teach band 12 hours a day, life becomes one-dimensional. Experi­encing great art, museums, and people will inform your teaching so much. On certain days you have to decide to go home at 4:30. There is always more to do, but it can wait until tomorrow.
    As a young teacher, I was horrible at balancing music with life. I thought every waking hour had to be driven by directing. I burned myself out very quickly. Everyone saw how driven and passionate I was as a teacher; they encouraged me to keep up that frenetic pace. You can’t do it for very long.

What do you do with your recreation time to keep that balance?

    This past summer was the first time that I have taken a long break since I was a high school student. Many of my days last summer were spent reading, listening to music, and reflecting on where I am professionally. It is the first chance I have had to sit back and think holistically about where I am going and where I see myself and this program. I live in Colorado, one of the most beautiful places to live, so I take advantage of the wonderful resources here that inspire my music making more than anything else I could possibly do. I am striving to find a healthy work-life balance. It is a commitment to myself and my students.       

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How did you get started in music?

    I grew up in western Pennsylvania and was part of a comprehensive music program with competitive marching band, jazz band, and concert band – the whole spectrum. There were several times in middle school where I contemplated quitting band, but the director saw potential in me and kept providing encouragement. My high school band director was a trumpet player and gave me my first saxophone lessons. I eventually started taking private lessons, which led to playing in honor bands.
    Once I started thinking about the future, music felt like a calling. Initially, I just wanted to play the saxophone. My high school saxophone teacher told me to look at music education because he thought it might be useful to have a backup plan if saxophone performance didn’t work out. I am thankful for that advice. Music education was a better route because everything I learned in pursuing my degree still pays fruit today.
    It is a question that every undergraduate faces. If you feel destined for a strong career in performance, that you are at the top five to ten percent of players your age, performance could be the avenue. As an undergraduate music education student, I pushed myself just as hard on performance, giving recitals and practicing nonstop. Nothing keeps you from practicing just as hard and pushing yourself as a performer while also pursuing music education. We have all seen music education majors who start the degree and decide after two semesters that it isn’t for them. Just like anything else, you have to be passionate about music education. Students in the public schools deserve passionate dedicated music educators. If a college student doesn’t feel that bug is biting them, perhaps performance is the better track, but if you go into performance, you have to make sure that you are really at the top of your game.
    I went to Duquesne University for my undergraduate degree. As I approached graduation, Bob Cameron, the director of bands, asked me if I was interested in conducting a piece of music. I conducted a simple piece. As I was finishing the concert performance, the orchestral conductor at Duquesne, Kevin Noe, who now teaches at Michigan State, told me that I needed to be a conductor. That’s when the conducting bug bit me. I decided to teach in a public school in Pennsylvania, then after three years I went back and earned a master’s degree. I was going to go straight into a doctorate, but an adjunct position opened up at Duquesne. It was a wonderful position that was a little bit of everything. I taught conducting and assisted with both bands and the orchestra. It was almost like a second master’s degree, and I stayed as an adjunct for three years. From there, doors continued to open. I studied with Michael Haithcock at Michigan, and as I was finishing my degree at Michigan, a job opened up at Interlochen Arts Academy. Eventually, I ended up in my current position at the University of Colorado. It has been a great path.
    When I was starting my undergraduate degree, Duquesne always had a summer conducting workshop, and one of the first conductors I ever played for was Allan McMurray. I vividly recall playing for him as an incoming freshman. He was the summer clinician along with Craig Kirchhoff. I remember Allan from that workshop, and I never imagined that one day I would be sitting in his office at the University of Colorado and taking over the program that he helped to build and develop.