News Column

Music to their ears

October 14, 2013


Oct. 14--The music program at University of the Texas of the Permian Basin hit a crescendo when its new bachelor of music degree premiered this fall.

Now, under the guidance of seasoned music educators, with the bachelor's degree a done deal it is giving some outside credibility to a college climate that's in a region famous for producing talented musicians and ensembles.

"The level of excellence in music education in local schools in Midland and Odessa, in the public schools, is just really one of the finest in the nation," Professor of Music Tom Hohstadt said. "The kind of talent coming out of the schools you don't find out there."

The journey of the program isn't without its valleys and peaks, as told by those who attended when it began in the 1970s to the students who take classes now at the $81 million Wagner No l Performing Arts Center.

Kathy Lollar, a music educator in the Permian Basin for 35 years, attended UTPB in the 1970s. She wanted a music degree and to become a music teacher while balancing being a young wife and mother. Lollar said it wouldn't have happened "if it not were for the music department at UTPB," she said.

In the early years, UTPB was desolate, Lollar said. The 15 or so students in the music program shared rooms with other subjects and practiced their instruments in the hallways. When the department was cut, everything was auctioned off, from the pianos to sound booths to instruments.

Only programs considered viable could remain at UTPB, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Bands Dan Keast said, referring to the 80s bust in Odessa that certainly affected the university. At the time, the music department was struggling. Keast was hired in 2004 to restart the program. He didn't have a building or instruments. All that was left was harpsichord sheet music.

"That was crazy," Keast said. "I can't even start. There wasn't a harpsichord in any school anywhere."

The story goes that Keast and the rest of the choral and music students bounced around campus for years from trying to rehearse in the Mesa Building stairwell ("that quickly was shut down," Keast said) to teaching in the gym annex area. To which math professors said, "'You're destroying my class!' Well you're destroying my rehearsal!" Keast said while laughing.

They finally landed in the laundromat.

The cute, yet mildly irreverent, title for the former laundromat was the MUSH Room: "Music Used to be Student Housing." Other working titles were MALE Room: "Music And Laundry Environment" and LAME Room: "Laundry And Music Environment."

"It was our birthing grounds," Keast said.

Despite its one-room schoolhouse feel, it worked, and music was made and students were taught. But when Wagner No l Performing Arts Center two years ago opened to also house the music classes, Keast said, "Heaven. It was heaven."

"Once they moved into Wagner No l, everyone could experience life with each other," Keast said.

Eleven years ago, Keast was asked to build a music department.

"It took a decade to get the first big product," he said. "What you have is a degree ... the final piece of the puzzle."

For years, the degree was under a guise of the humanities department, so while the education remains the same, students can graduate from UTPB with the same degree title as other college graduates.

"There's a little more reality to it. What we were doing before it looked like a duck, but it wasn't quite a duck. Now we've got it right. Our duck quacks like a duck and it's all wonderful," Keast said.

The program's first two graduates will walk the stage this December wearing pink tassels (pink is the academic color for music).

Daniel Guerrero, 23, is a senior music student at UTPB who will wear his pink tassel next fall. He's an Odessa product and learned how to play the trumpet in ECISD schools. His love of music really started in seventh grade when he joined the band. From there, he went to Odessa High and Odessa College studying with trumpet player and his former private instructor Erik Baker.

Upon his arrival to UTPB, Guerrero did worry about how a humanities degree with a focus in music might look to future employers.

"How is this going to work on a resume?" Guerrero said.

He said the connections that Keast and other professors have in the community, coupled with the education he's received, set him up for landing his first band director job.

"Having a bachelor's of music is one more notch in the belt for UTPB," Guerrero said.

Hohstadt said the program has a snowball's momentum, with a trifecta of an explanation to support that statement.

Firstly, the administration is gifted, Hohstadt said.

Keast has a penchant for "creative administration," Hohstadt said.

"There's no sitting on your laurels. You must work hard for everything you get. He's a natural. It's one of the reasons we've grown so quickly," Hohstadt said.

Secondly, Wagner No l is one of the finest performing arts centers in the world, and the music department is attached. Chairs of the Midland-Odessa Symphony and Chorale are actually the instructors for music students.

"A ready-made faculty, so inch by inch we can grow our own. It's a real blessing very few music programs have," Hohstadt said.

Thirdly, the public school system is known for its level of excellence in music education. Hohstadt, who's been closely connected to UTPB for six years, is the Philharmonic Orchestra director, an international symphony conductor, author, recording artist, composer and soloist. He has a far reach and is familiar with programs across the U.S.

"Years ago, a couple of local band directors decided they wanted the best in the whole state of Texas. That was a pretty boastful thing, but the amazing thing, they actually did it," Hohstadt said.

That brought everyone's game up.

"These two little cities, through the influences, set it for the whole nation," he said.

The future is wide open for the program that has 25 in the major, but 536 in music lessons and music classes at UTPB -- a 40-person increase from 2012.

The online courses are growing in popularity as UTPB counted its 5,000th student this semester setting an all-time record for enrollment.

Follow reporter Lindsay Weaver on Twitter @OAschools.

--Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.


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