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The Western Community Felt Through Music

Western Music Performance

Western Colorado University’s dedication to community runs deep in the Music department’s faculty. Before Kenneth Todd was the department’s chair, orchestral director, and director of applied strings at Western, his father was a professor in the department.

“I was brought home to the campus of Western as a new-born baby,” said Todd. “I definitely have Western in my blood.”

But this communal bond in the music department goes beyond the professors. For the 70th year, Western’s Music Department hosted the Honor Band Festival, and for the 40th year the Western Slope Choral festival, as a fundraiser for the Gunnison Volunteer Firemen. The event is the fire department’s biggest fundraiser every year, and strengths the bond between “town and gown.”

Energized About Music

But these festivals also provide a learning opportunity for young people. Annually, the department invites Colorado high school’s greatest young musicians to participate in the festivals. Over a period of three days, a selected group of students gather in Kincaid Concert Hall for the first and last time to rehearse a number of pieces in preparation for a concert on the third day.

“I hope it’s an experience that they leave just feeling really energized about music,” said Brett Keating, director of bands and organizer of this year’s honor band.

This year, the music department brought in a guest composer and provided various workshops for the student participants in the honor band, giving more variety to the schedule and allowing musicians to polish their performances.

A Dynamic Music Experience

Just 30 years after the first Honor Band Festival, the music department implemented the Western Slope Honor Choir Festival. Here, students are invited to experience the Western music department on the choral side of things.

“This year we had dynamic conductors with dynamic personalities,” said Heather Roberson, director of choral activities and organizer of the Western Slope Choral festival. “You could tell the students really wanted to work hard for them.” 

Musicians Hone Skills Through Competition 

A huge proponent of the festivals is the competition aspect. To be accepted as a participant, students must apply by sending in a video of them performing selected material. This year, the honor band festival accepted 40 of the 60 applicants. The selection process ensures an atmosphere where the best and brightest musicians are challenged in their abilities and given the opportunity to expand their skills.

“All of a sudden, these students are being brought into a band where they may be first chair every single year in their high school band, but now they’re sitting last chair playing music that’s much harder than anything they’ve ever played before,” said Keating. “The festivals give students the chance to be surrounded by people who are equally as hungry for music.”

The goal of the festival is to provide opportunities to musicians on the Western slope.

“The schools that come to this festival have music programs that do the best with what they have,” said Roberson. “It’s exciting to see young musicians get to thrive in the environment we give them.”

An Experience Not Soon Forgotten

 Not only does this festival give students the opportunity to experience the music department at Western, it also serves Western as a tool to encounter prospective students.

Of the current music department, most of the student majors were attendees of either the honor band or honor choir festival. Junior Music Comprehensive major Tobias Jeffus knew Western was right for him after he attended Honor Band for his sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school.

“Getting to know the staff at Western and making these connections over the years was a big factor in my decision to come here,” said Jeffus. “Knowing that I could attend somewhere where I wouldn’t just be another cog in the machine and I could have a more individual experience in classrooms and lessons was a plus, too.”

Finding Joy and Connection

Amelia Campbell is a senior studying music performance. When she felt the soul of the music department at Western through honor choir, she wanted to experience that full time.

“There is this joy and connection we all have through music that I loved about the festivals I went to, only at Western it was part of every day for the students, and I wanted to become part of that,” said Campbell. “Now, it’s my daily life and I get to share that with high school students who are in similar spots to me when I was in their shoes, as well as have extraordinary friends that I see and connect with every day, not just at festivals.”

Supporting the Community

Yet, this festival is the perfect chance for students to experience what Western has to offer as well as give back to the Gunnison Valley by using it as a fundraiser for the local fire department.

“It’s important to provide an outlet for populations on this side of the state where they’re not having to go all the way to the Front Range to have an experience like this,” said Keating. “As an institution of higher education, a large portion of our job is reaching out and supporting the community.”

Learn more about Western’s Music department and Music program.

Author Credit: Kinlee Whitney

Photo Credit: Kinlee Whitney

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