New orchestra director to take center stage this fall

Brittiny Moore

After a year-long search, the symphony at WKU is welcoming new Baker Professor of Music and Director of Orchestra, Dr. Brian St. John, to the Hill.

Previously teaching at the University of Evansville in Indiana, Dr. St. John decided to make the transition to WKU after discovering what the music program had to offer.

“This is a really great program and it’s demonstrated incredible growth both musically and otherwise,” Dr. St. John said. 

The symphony is open for all Western students and faculty as well as musicians from the surrounding area. Players of the University Orchestra do not have to major or minor in music to participate; they just need to be approved after auditions are held.

“The students played two days of auditions to join the orchestra, and those were really great auditions,” Dr. St. John said.

“The students were well prepared, they were incredibly professional and that got me very excited about getting to work with them on a regular basis in rehearsal and concert.”

Dr. St. John began playing the viola in fifth grade in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma.

“I was fortunate to have gone to a public school system that had a really great music program. They valued the arts very highly there,” Dr. St. John said. “That was the musical environment of my youth and growing up through high school. It was really positive.”

Dr. St. John’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Missouri and a doctorate from Arizona State. However, Dr. St. John has been involved in a variety of university unaffiliated music groups. 

“I was in rock bands, I played in a Dixieland band, jazz bands, and of course orchestras. There was just never an end to expressing yourself musically,” Dr. St. John said. “No one was standing over us saying, ‘You need to get your instruments out and practice.’ That was the mindset; we loved it and we couldn’t play enough.”

Dr. St. John added, “Going to college became this very intense focus on formal training. What happens when you go to college is that you leap into this continuum of music education.” 

This formal training is something Dr. St. John hopes to bring to his students at WKU. 

“One of my passions is passing on the lineage of teaching to students and modeling professional behavior. I consider it to be a really important opportunity to put students to be in a pre-professional mind set while they’re in college,” Dr. St. John said. “The idea is now to inspire the students, to put a fire within them rather than under them.”

According to the head of the department of music, Dr. Scott Harris, a committee of music faculty as well as representatives from the local symphony board went through a year-long process before selecting Dr. St. John as the new director. 

“Dr. St. John is a good fit for our situation. He had strong credentials, qualifications, references and concert recordings and then made a very positive impression in his on-campus interview,”

Joseph Stites, assistant professor for music education and tuba-euphonium studio, said, “He showed us lots of positive energy and strong musical concepts as well as an excellent pedagogical approach to teaching musicians.”

During his interview, Dr. St. John was given the opportunity to showcase his skill set by working directly with symphony students at WKU.

“He worked with the students for 30 minutes and he engaged them immediately,” Dr. Harris said, “and in fact so much so [that he] made the next performance that much better.” 

Previous orchestra director Bill Scott retired after 12 years of service. 

Dr. Scott came to Western as the first Baker Professor of Music in 2003 and served the position through the spring of 2014.

The position is an endowed professorship that is funded by Jerry Baker, a local supporter of the symphony at WKU. 

The Baker Professorship stipulates that, in addition to duties as music director and conductor of the symphony orchestra, the Baker Professor will also recruit and teach string students on campus while coordinating with community, public and private school constituencies to ensure the continued development of an area string program. 

“As a direct result of such outreach efforts, public school strings programs have been started in both the Bowling Green Independent Schools and the Warren County Public Schools, leading to a combined population of over 600 strings students in those school districts last year,” Mr. Stites said. 

During his time with the endowed professorship, Dr. Scott brought growth to the program primarily through public schools and area string programs, Dr. Harris said, and these efforts created long term benefits.

“Since the inception of the Baker Professorship, enrollment of string players in the WKU music degree programs has grown significantly,” Mr. Stites added. 

In the absence of an official orchestra director, the orchestra’s 2014-2015 season was the result of a team effort by several music faculty members and an invited guest conductor. The orchestra ran its regular class schedule, presented its traditional five-concert series and performed the opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”

According to Mr. Stites, the orchestra has been entertaining and enriching audiences of all ages for over 100 years.

The orchestra allows WKU students to perform side-by-side with faculty and other professional musicians and offers the rare opportunity for undergraduates to obtain professional-level performing experience. 

“The orchestra is a vital part of what we do here in the music department,” Dr. Harris said. 

“Onward and upward. The university and community both give tremendous support to the symphony at WKU, and the symphony and WKU strings program gives (sic) excellent support and outreach to the community,” Mr. Stites added. 

“This synergistic situation continues to grow and involve more and more people making and hearing more and more music. It is an exciting time for our students, our university and our region.”

Dr. St. John hopes to bring more diversity to the orchestra in his time at WKU.

“What often happens with orchestral music in particular is it winds up self-segregating,” Dr. St. John said. “I can’t imagine it not being available to anybody and everybody, whether or not they’re a performer, a supporter, a listener or creator of some kind.”

Dr. St. John is currently in the process of writing his own book about string playing in modern orchestra. The book is focused on helping conductors with amateur orchestras, and he hopes to be published between 2016 and 2017. 

“To be an effective teacher you have to be a good learner; that’s the thing I want to demonstrate to any group or class or anybody I’m in front of is that I’m hungry to continue learning,” Dr. St. John said.