I recently found out that one of my favorite professors is retiring after 35 years at the University of Colorado.
The end of an era, an era I got to be a small part of.
Professor McMurray wasn’t someone whom an undergraduate would describe as “lovable.” He was, to a young 18-year-old with a very limited musical background, downright scary, actually.
He was very good at what he did, and didn’t suffer easily people who weren’t. I don’t remember much of my first audition for him, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t take a decent breath for three hours afterward.
If you ask him, I’m sure he would say I didn’t take a decent breath during the audition, either.
Looking at that time now, I think of him as an anachronism, a style of person and teacher that is from a bygone era.
That fear that undergraduates felt of him is something that my education professors convinced us was wrong, that all our cultural teachings within the school system make clear is unwelcome, and that our society dismisses.
The adage “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” was not a feature of his rehearsals or classroom teaching, I can assure you.
But, boy, did I learn a lot from him. I learned to be prepared at all times, because you never knew when the bright lights of his scrutiny would turn in your direction.
I learned about the power of teaching through metaphor. And I learned that performance is always a reflection of preparation — it doesn’t matter how much you want to be good; if you don’t do the preparation, you won’t be.
But the biggest lesson he taught, the takeaway, was the idea of “informed intuition.”
He would make us study every aspect of a piece of music, every aspect of a composer’s life, every possible nuance and permutation of understanding before we were allowed to “interpret” a piece of music.
That is to say, he didn’t allow us to randomly reach for emotion — he demanded that we knew why we were doing what we were doing, and that would allow us to transcend emotion and create art.
I think back on that now a lot as I’m writing. Clearly, I have no shortage of opinions; but I strive to never put on paper something that is pure emotion, without knowledge.
I have feelings, just like anybody else, and I use those feelings to choose my subject matter.
But it is with knowledge that I understand, and, one of these days, that combination will translate into art.
Later, I developed a relationship with a different Professor McMurray, the one who golfs and plays racquetball and loves philosophy.
Like all good teachers, he was actually a multi-layered man with a driving passion for one thing. And for 35 years he shared that passion with generations of young Colorado musicians.
And, like all great teachers, the best lessons were the ones that were partially unintentional. Thank you, Professor. See you on the tee.
Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.