Interview: Dr. Craig Russell

Written by: Lauren Vukicevich

In the past few months that I have been working at Music Motive, I have met some amazing musicians. I have talked to talented teachers and developing students, all with such a wide array of musical interests and from so many different backgrounds. Through this process, I have been wondering how so many diverse people all fall in love with the same thing – music. I thought I would try to gain some perspective from someone who has experienced different styles and eras of music, and Dr. Craig Russell immediately came to mind. Not only is this Cal Poly music professor extremely knowledgeable about many aspects and genres of music, but he is also passionate about all of it.
3340461068_f8f37233dfWhen did you know you wanted to be a music teacher?
My whole family has been involved with teaching: my two sisters, my brother, and I all became teachers. My grandmother was a teacher, and my mom was a teacher before she became too involved with running our household while my dad was dashing off to work at the labs. Growing up, I taught tennis for the county in the summer, and I have taught guitar since junior high. Then, when I became a music major in college, I was lucky enough to land a summertime job at Hummingbird Music Camp. During my masters program, I taught junior high in order to pay rent and tuition.  In short, I’ve been in a classroom (or a tennis court, or a summer camp bandshell) for as long as I can remember. The lucky thing for me is that the dream got to continue. I still LOVE teaching. Lucky me!


Which class has been your favorite to teach? Why?

I love every discipline and every genre and classification of music (or of knowledge in general, for that matter). One of my favorite classes is Music Appreciation because I get to spend time with so many exciting students who have such varied fields of expertise and such different passions. It is thrilling to press the play button for a piece by Monteverdi, Mozart, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Brahms, or Dizzy Gillespie, and see students’ reactions. I love to see them get excited about something “new” to them that makes some sort of emotional and personal connection. I also teach everything from Music of the 60s (concentrating largely in “protest” musics) to Music of the Middle Ages. It’s just like fabulous cooking; I can enjoy almost any restaurant or any iTunes playlist as long as the food or the music was prepared with love and emotional dedication.

In our society, how do you feel the role of “musician” has changed over the years?

It fascinates me how the 19th century saw a complete transformational change in the role of musicians in Western society. Before Romanticism, musicians were seen as professionals with expertise, much like a solid engineer or high quality chef. However, in the aftermath of Beethoven (and corresponding attitude shifts in society due to the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution), the musician got elevated to superhero status, much like a DC or Marvel comic book hero. Liszt wasn’t a “mere musician”—he was like Batman or the Flash.  Berlioz wasn’t a mere craftsman, merely an accomplished “composer”—he was the Green Lantern.  Musicians became bigger-than-the-life within the society that valued their contributions.

And that superhero status has continued to this day. Who is more famous and would cause the biggest stir at the airport?—our nation’s best civil engineer or Lady Gaga? I assure you that Lady Gaga would make national news, whereas the brilliant civil engineer might not even make the Tribune. I’m not necessarily advocating that particular method of valuing our contributions to society—I’m just observing and stating a fact. Musicians, in some contexts, are almost worshipped in ways that other professions are not given that privileged status.


What do you believe sets good musicians apart from great ones?

For me, it isn’t about “ability.”  If I were to measure a musician’s value, it would not really be an athletic determination, but a determination of humanity and authenticity. I don’t ask myself so much if the musician is impressive: I ask myself whether or not the musician is genuine. Does the artist remind me of my humanity?

I have heard fabulous virtuosos who can accomplish astounding physical feats in performance who have—at the same time—bored me to sleepiness. On the other hand, I have heard 3rd graders put on a show with very little athletic prowess on their instruments but who touch my heart and have provided actual, real, thrilling, and profoundly important art. What was the difference? Well, the dull and meaningless performance was a result of the performer just being on cruise-control. He or she was phoning it in and was really ready for the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible so he or she could collect the check and get out of town. The 3rd graders, on the other hand, were playing with joy and passion and reminded me how glorious it is to be alive in this universe with other living beings!!

That’s why some of the simplest rock songs are still my favorites. The Kinks can barely play their guitars, but they made fantastic music. As long as music reminds me of life, its many wonders, its struggles, and the of the multifaceted aspects of humanity and existence, then I would classify that as being “good music” made by “good musicians.”  To this day, some of my favorite musicians are almost “beginners” if you were to measure their technical accomplishments. But that is just peripheral stuff. Don’t just listen to the flurry notes coming from someone’s soulless fingers, listen to the PERSON.


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