Summer band camp: there’s a special sense of community that can only be forged on those hot August afternoons spent out on the field practicing formations and reviewing the woodwind arrangements for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. Today’s distinguished alumna, Dr. Karen Gregg (BA-97) has taken the camaraderie and communal support she experienced as a member of UNC’s much-beloved “Pride of the Rockies” Marching Band and parlayed it into an inspiring career in music education.
As the Director of Bands at Lyons Middle & Senior High School, Dr. Gregg has increased student participation by a staggering 300 percent. Her accomplishments have been recognized by Colorado’s 9News who honored her with their “Teacher Who Cares” award and author Ernest Pierce who interviewed her for the book Success Secrets of Super Teachers. Over the years, Dr. Gregg has proven her ability to help students discover their own passion and drive: many have gone on to study at UNC, ultimately becoming teachers themselves, others have worked with Hollywood composers. She recently spoke with us about her student experience and the pleasures of reuniting with her fellow grads at the UNC Bands’ Alumni Reunion Concert.
What first attracted you to UNC?
Well, I grew up in Greeley and I took music lessons with instructors at UNC as a high school student. When I was attending Greeley West they let you take certain college classes for free if similar courses weren’t offered at your institution. So I took the Freshman year of music theory at UNC as a high school student and that’s what really sold me on the quality of the program. I ended up studying under many of the same professors throughout my undergraduate experience and I still consider Dr. Mayne and Dr. Singleton to be great personal mentors.
In your eyes, what made the Pride of the Rockies such a unique and worthwhile institution?
There are several reasons and one doesn’t necessarily outweigh the others. Under Dr. Mayne’s leadership, they had and continue to have a huge focus on excellence. When I was a member of the band, they didn’t allow for mediocrity with anything. I mean we rehearsed hard, we played hard, and we put on the best possible show every week. But there was also this incredible camaraderie and collegiality. You were part of a team just as much as any member of an athletic team would be, possibly more so. There was just this sense of community. We lived, ate, and grew together. It was more than just an activity that we all participated in.
I saw that you served in the role of drum major. What were your responsibilities within the larger marching band structure?
The drum major is really a kind of student-conductor, so they become really important when you’re rehearsing. Let’s say that all the kids are out on the field during practice, moving from one formation to the next. The drum major is the one who’s calling out commands, starting and stopping the band. Meanwhile the director, Dr. Mayne, is doing the technical stuff, evaluating what needs to be fixed next time, stuff like that.
I see. So it’s quite a big leadership position then.
It is a big leadership role. You have to learn a lot of music at first and gain a solid grasp of conducting. You also have to be an effective leader and take a very fluid approach to making changes. I mean, you can’t lead a group of 150 kids if they don’t respect you and trust that you know what you’re doing.
It sounds like there were certain aspects of your drum major role at UNC that would really help to prepare you for your current career in music education.
You know, I never considered that connection until I got into this job, being able to carry what I learned in my role as drum major into teaching. It’s true as a drum major in college and it’s especially true as a high school instructor: by no means does being a leader mean being a boss. They’re two very different things and you can’t be a boss in front of high school students or your college peers because they won’t buy it. You really have to be a leader with those kids because that’s what they want and that’s what they need. They don’t want somebody barking commands and telling them what to do. They’re not going to respect that form of “leadership”.
What are some of the current challenges facing the field of music education?
The reasons for this are complicated, but, generally speaking, kids today are involved in a broad range of activities and that can make it difficult to dedicate time toward extensive music study. When I went to school you either did band or you played a sport. I think it’s becoming more acceptable, thankfully, that kids can do both. That makes for well-rounded it kids, but it also makes for busier kids. There are also financial demands to consider, a lot of kids are working. On top of all that, colleges are demanding more of their applicants, so high school students are feeling pressured to take more foreign language and advanced math credits. I think squeezing four years of music into that is more difficult than it used to be.
Coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, what are some of the most fun and exciting things about being involved in music education right now?
The best part of this field is that, as a band director and a music teacher in general, it’s so easy to create and sustain great relationships with students. You get to know them on a more emotional level because, well, the fine arts are emotion-based. That is how it’s always been and that is how it will always be. Music allows you to forge a relationship with the kids that you might not get in another class.
One of the other things that’s really exciting in music education these days is that people are composing great music. We have this huge abundance of really good music that kids like to play, that conductors like to teach kids, and that is educationally sound. It’s great to be able to teach them legitimate concepts using music that they enjoy.
Switching topics a bit, how you have maintained ties with the UNC community throughout the years?
The schools in this area of northern Colorado have a lot of UNC grads teaching in them, so many of my colleagues are alumni. I think that principals and the folks on hiring committees know that people who have graduated from UNC are going to be well prepared for the demands of the current job market.
Also, I know it sounds trite, but social media has been a great tool for keeping in touch with peers. I’ve found it useful for both social and professional purposes. Facebook was the way that we spread word about the Alumni Band last summer.
Can you tell me a little more about that event and the kinds of activities it involved?
Oh, it was so much fun! The alumni band was so much more rewarding and fulfilling because these aren’t just people I went to school with, they’re the people that I chose to be around because we shared a mutual love for music and for the program. It was such a great event and the fact that Dr. Mayne and Dr. Singleton were able to pull all these people together and create such a wonderful occasion, we really owe it to them for that.
Are you inclined to guide your students back to UNC if it seems like they would be a good fit for the music program?
Oh yes, I’ve sent many young people to UNC. I have three former students who are currently majoring in music there and I’ve had many kids go to UNC and play in the marching band or one of the concert bands even though they’re not a music major. If students have any inclination toward education at all, regardless of the subject they’re interested in, I really push UNC because it’s such a great school for that.
What kind of advice do you give those students who are considering music-related majors at UNC?
Well, I always have them go spend a day there. I’ve worked in the past with Dr. Mayne and Dr. Singleton, matching them up with a student and having them shadow for a day so they can get the experience of being immersed in the classes. I also tell them about my continuing experiences with UNC. Letting them know how supported I have felt as a result of my ongoing association with the school is always a big selling point.
Even after graduation, I think it’s always a good idea to continue to use UNC as a resource. Being able to depend upon your professors and all the other social connections you made there is incredibly valuable. If I need advice on a topic that’s outside of my area of professional expertise, I know that there’s always someone I can call.
Many thanks to Dr. Gregg for taking the time to share her professional expertise with us! If you’re a Pride of the Rockies alum who is interested in reconnecting with the band through upcoming events, please contact the Program Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. For those interested in learning more about our marching band, check out the Pride of the Rockies homepage which includes an FAQ, recordings of the UNC Fight Song, and more. Their Facebook page is another great source of information.
Finally, if you’d simply like to be entertained by the PotR and you don’t want to wait for football season, watch these performances of Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance" and Michael Jackson’s "Thriller". The latter features an impressive world record attempt at the famed “zombie dance” (actual zombification begins around 4:10.)
Do you have fond memories from one of our university’s many musical ensembles? Are there other groups you would like to see profiled? Tell us about them in the comments section!
(Photos from top to bottom, left to right: Karen Gregg as an undergraduate striking a pose during band practice, Karen Gregg today, a group photo of Karen with her band compatriots, Karen takes her students in the Lyons High School Band to Disney’s Magic Music Days.)