Artists: Dr. Gretchen McNamAra

I met Dr. McNamara (or "Dr. Mac" as she's known around the Wright State Music Department) when I was a junior in high-school. I had recently decided that I wanted to major in music and my high-school band director suggested that I take lessons from someone at a professional level. I didn't know a whole lot of professional trombone players: so he put me in contact with Dr. McNamara. Her work with me was what got me acceptance letters into several universities (that I certainly wouldn't have been able to get before then), what made my decision to attend Wright State University when I began college, and what kept me from completely de-railing as I began the very intense process of studying music. During my year at WSU she was like a second mother to me: when my mother would call and ask about my grades I'm sure she had some measure of comfort knowing that during my weekly lesson Dr. Mac would be giving me the same lecture face to face. In a way, she's still like a second mother: keeping in touch even after I transferred from WSU and regularly asking about my practice habits, work ethic, and my life in general. Even though she is a master of her craft: this mothering is Gretchen's true art, the art of teaching and the art of caring. I am fantastically excited that she was willing to be this month's featured artist: I wish that this blog would do her work justice. It wont, but hopefully it will give you a look into the work of a woman who's art is teaching art

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Music has a way of pulling people together that are like minded and have similar ideas, vision, and motivation. That’s where you build relationships. That’s where life happens: In community with others.

"I started in fifth grade, like kinda normal band recruitment type stuff. Music had just always been a part of my life, my dad and my grandfather both played trombone. But when it was time to go try instruments my school program was really pushing strings and then they said I should play flute, I never really got to try any brass instruments and I wasn't bold enough to say that I wanted to try the brass table: I was kinda shy, but I didn't want to play flute because my sister played flute.

 So I came home and was like: 'I want to play trombone'  and that was it, my dad took me to Kennelly Keys and I showed up to band with a trombone."

For me, personally, [Music] has been a little bit my identity...it was a family to be a part of. All of my friends growing up were kinda part of that circle, college friends, marching band, it was all of that sort of social interaction and cohesiveness.

"So that's how I got started, and that was just always the area I spent my time In school: I did honor bands and extracurriculars in music, regionals, et cetera. So when It came time for college I was kinda considered a top recruit in the area for trombone since I had done a lot with All-State, and Solo and Ensemble. I actually only applied for one place though: University of Washington, where I pursued music education and got a performance degree alongside it to get more performance experience. 

After that I went straight into a masters of trombone performance at Kent state, that door just opened and I jumped on it; that was in 1994, I got an assistantship and a full ride to do that. It was a really great experience because at Washington I was a small fish in a big pond of graduates and at Kent It was the opposite: I was the only grad student, so I really learned leadership skills there. I learned to have more confidence and security: which was really good for me."

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"After that I got a teaching job. I taught high-school for five years out in Maryland at a performing arts magnet school called Patapsco. I was missing trombone teaching and playing, and I had always wanted to teach at the college level: so I took a leap of faith, quit my job, took lessons, worked part time and tried to get into grad school. I took a year to audition and finally landed at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music: Landed myself back in Ohio which I never thought would happen (laughing)."

I was missing trombone teaching and playing, and I had always wanted to teach at the college level: so I took a leap of faith.

"Immediately after I finished my Doctorate at CCM the job opening came up at Wright State so I applied, interviewed, and got hired that summer, along with getting married and having a honeymoon. It was a crazy summer! Interestingly: I was never Dr. Hopper and I've never been Ms. McNamera I just went straight into a different phase of life!"

"So I started in fall of 2007, my primary responsibility is to teach applied trombone, when I started at Wright State I also taught music theory, but after my maternity leave that got shifted and I took over the Jazz Ensemble in 2010. So now my responsibilities are Applied Trombone, Jazz Ensemble, Instrumental Methods, Faculty Brass Quintet, and then I pursue opportunities to clinic and perform on and off campus as much as I'm available." 

"For me, personally, [Music] has been a little bit my identity. Partially that was gender driven because I was a girl playing a boy instrument, but also because of my family: it was a family to be a part of. All of my friends growing up were kinda part of that circle, college friends, marching band, it was all of that sort of social interaction and cohesiveness. So most of my friends are musicians. I think that's part of it: it's always been a way to express who I am as a human, but the music is just sort of a tool.

I consider myself an educator before I consider myself an artist, which has been a new realization to me. I have pursued, aggressively, performing at a high level: but it's always been driven by being a better educator. I always feel like I'm able to represent a good character as a good educator through music. I don't consider being a trombonist as my larger identity anymore: It's more of a facilitator of character building, discipline, leadership and life qualities. Of course music as well: I can teach performance and pedagogy but it's more about building character and discipline. Personality traits more than artistic traits: although art is of course a part of that. Developing a musician is a piece of that puzzle, but not necessarily the whole picture." 

I consider myself an educator before I consider myself an artist, which has been a new realization to me. I have pursued, aggressively, performing at a high level: but it’s always been driven by being a better educator.


I asked Dr. McNamara about her experience as a women part of an instrument group usually dominated by males: 

"I cant honestly say that I've had too many bad experiences, I've had experiences: but I haven't had a consistent bad experience working around mostly men. Like I joked earlier: there was a turning point when I realized that the male:female ratio had it's benefits [Laughing] like 'this is actually kinda ok!". 

But I do think generationally there were a lot of women who really carved paths for me that I haven't had to carve. I can see that from women that are ten to twenty years older than me: they had a much harder go. I was never really discouraged growing up: my band directors always encouraged me and so I've only had a handful of negative experiences. I get a lot of warnings like 'you know this is a male dominated environment' and I'm like 'well... I've been in it since I was 10, so I have a pretty good idea, that's not news to me' [Laughs]. That kind of stuff is always a little weird."

Dr. McNamara Has been a guest artist at an all female brass conference at St. Thomas university called Brass Chix along with some other female confrences: which she says has been a good experience: but sometimes hurts their cause. 

"I'm not a big fan of playing the gender card: I'm all about empowering women and girls to follow their hearts and do what they love, but sometimes it becomes only about that, it gets used almost as a crutch. I just have always taken whatever opportunity has come in stride, whatever it is: but I don't think I could have done that without the women that came before me."

Ironically two of my 4 trombone teachers have been women. So my first trombone teacher in seventh grade was female, and my masters degree professor was female. The others were male: but my very first one was a woman, so I always had really strong role models. I sought out my teacher for my masters, Jodi Davis, out at Kent State. She was a woman working at the college level and that was appealing. 

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I last asked Gretchen the question that every music educator gets asked at some point or another in their career: why is music education important for more than just the furthering of the arts? 

"Kinda similar to what I said before about using music as a way to convey personal characteristics as opposed to using your personal characteristics to express music. You can't really learn music in a vacuum, and you can't really learn music only on paper: the whole point of music is to experience. You can learn music from a literal perspective; the black and white, the ink, the theory and history behind it, and that's all important but you cant really experience music without some sort of music making. There has to be music making for all that history and theory to make sense." 

"So from that disposition I think it's the doing, the music making, that grows people. And we usually make music with others so there's communication skills that need to develop, and leadership skills that need to develop, and collaboration skills that need to develop and the art happens out of that: but if those other personal skills aren't in place the art is stunted. You can't make really good music with people you don't get along with, or at least communicate well with.

Then, of course, there's always historical perimeters that influence music making. You want to perform things that at least fit what the composer would have wanted; but one of the really fun things about music is that there's still an interpretive piece of it. You can create a way of performing a piece that's different than what the first person did or what the next person did."

You can’t really learn music in a vacuum, and you can’t really learn music only on paper: the whole point of music is to experience

" I can remember getting a lot of affirmation for my interpretation of pieces I was playing along that way. That was really nurtured in me: is to not play in a box. To not play like the person next to you, but to make your own choices. Different reasons to play the same music a different way, and that should be hand tailored.  That's the creation of something unique that really comes out of those other disciplinary skills: the discipline to learn the pedagogy and learn how to play. You cant do the music if you cant do the technique. " 

Ultimately, people don't usually make music by themselves: they make it with other people and I think music has a way of pulling people together that are like minded and have similar ideas, vision, and motivation: that's where you build relationships. That's where life happens: In community with others. It doesn't happen by yourself, the work has to happen by yourself in a practice room, but good life happens with other people, and music making happens with other people. 

"For me: I think that's why we need it. We need art to pull people together and develop as people. There isn't a culture out there without music. It's like the movie Castaway, there's no music in that movie. You're watching it and you don't really know what's weird about it and then you realize: 'oh my gosh! there's no music' we use music to depict all kinds of things. Music is about working with others and developing skills  applicable any situation: being able to set reasonable goals and achieve them? that's a strong skill-set for post education life. Work ethic, and discipline, willingness to listen, to take instruction and feedback: all of those things are hard, but without them you can't develop. It's very intellectual, but it's also very personal: music teaches skills that you need to function in a job and in life." 

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Dr. Gretchen McNamara is currently in her 7th year as professor of Applied Trombone at Wright State University. She is the Director of the Wright State University Jazz Ensemble and Trombone studio. Likewise, she teaches clinics and has been involved in several local and national consortiums and performance groups. She can be found on the web at a www.gretchenmcnamara.com

Alex Grodkiewicz3 Comments