College of Education faculty, staff discuss love of music

Jessica Buterbaugh
September 18, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For many, music is a part of life. Whether a musician or just an individual who enjoys listening to the radio or a mix on an iPod, music is a universal language. Some use it for background noise to study while others find it helps them relax and unwind from daily stress. Like others, for many of the faculty members in the College of Education, music is a part of their genetic makeup, defining who they are not only as professionals but also as individuals.

A connection to faith

It’s been said that music can heal the soul. For Jim Herbert, it did exactly that.

“For me, music is a kind of spiritual experience,” he said.

Fourteen years ago, Herbert, a professor of counselor education and rehabilitation and human services in the College of Education, received frightening news from his cardiologist — he needed quintuple bypass surgery.

“When the doctor sits you down and tells you that you have to do this surgery and there’s a chance you may not make it through, well, that’s a very sobering kind of feeling,” he said.  

“It really was a crystal clear moment. I remember lying in the bed right before they’re wheeling you down to surgery and what came to my mind wasn’t about how come I didn’t write that book or how come I didn’t write more grants or how come I didn’t publish more papers. It really came down to ‘how are you loved and how do you love other people?’”

After that “life-changing moment,” Herbert did something he hadn’t done in nearly 20 years. He picked up a guitar.

“It really was a crystal clear moment. I remember lying in the bed right before they’re wheeling you down to surgery and what came to my mind wasn’t about how come I didn’t write that book or how come I didn’t write more grants or how come I didn’t publish more papers. It really came down to ‘how are you loved and how do you love other people?’”

— Jim Herbert,
professor of rehabilitation and human services

Although he’s always loved music, Herbert didn’t start playing until he was 20 years old.

“I’d go to parties and see a couple of people playing guitar and I thought, ‘I’ve never played guitar. Man, that looks like fun. How do I do that?” he recalled. It wasn’t too long after that he joined a band and played the local Baltimore scene. After a few years, Herbert came to a crossroads.

“There’s a pivotal moment in your life when you either have to decide that you’re going to commit to music or do something else,” he said. “And as much as I love it and have a passion for it, it doesn’t really address all of my career and vocational needs.”

So Herbert opted for a career in rehabilitation counseling and education, a profession that has spanned more than 40 years.

“I got consumed with the ‘real job,’” Herbert said of how he became disconnected with music. “Unfortunately, I fell into that trap.”

But it is a trap Herbert has promised himself never to fall into again. After his surgery, he sought out music again and started playing in his church’s worship band, which led to playing in a local band known as Jigsaw. While Jigsaw has since parted ways, music is still a big part of Herbert’s life, providing him a therapeutic release from the chaos of every-day life.

An easy way to get away

Jackie Edmondson, associate vice president and associate dean for undergraduate education, also relies on music to take her away.

“It’s just always there,” she said. “It just helps you think about the world differently and to feel.”

Edmondson, who is also a professor of education in curriculum and instruction, understands the chaotic life that academia can bring. For her, playing second violin for the Nittany Valley Symphony allows her to escape into the world of music and culture.

“Music is a part of my life. It always has been,” she said, adding that she grew up playing the piano but always had an affinity for the violin, an instrument she began training on only three years ago.

Music is such an important aspect of Edmondson’s life that she incorporates it into her work. She served as editor for Music in American Life, a four-volume book series about how music and artists have shaped American culture with many contributors being colleagues from the College of Education. Currently, she is working on another series that looks at the intersections of world history, music and culture.

“There’s so much of our stories connected to the music we listen to and perform,” she said. “It always feels like it connects us to different people in different times and places.”

A social experience

“I first got interested in learning to play the guitar because I noticed that rock and roll guys got girls,” joked Charlie Hughes, professor of special education and one-fourth of The Grateful SPLED.

In addition to Hughes, The Grateful SPLED – a tribute to The Grateful Dead and a play on their professions – is comprised of David Lee, David McNaughton and Doug Dexter, all professors in the special education program and each with their own unique musical ability. For Lee, it was not so much attracting girls as it was the pop culture of his youth that influenced his desire to play music.

“Music is a part of my life. It always has been."

— Jackie Edmondson,
associate vice president and associate dean
for undergraduate education

“I can remember vividly sitting in the living room of our house and I was probably 17 or 18 with some friends watching MTV and thinking ‘if these guys can do this, we can do this man!’” Lee said. The next day, he and his buddies bought some used instruments and began teaching themselves to play.

Like Lee, Hughes is also self-taught. “I never had any lessons,” he said. “I just plunked away for a while and then in the late 70s, I joined up with a guy who was really good and we started doing an acoustic duo.”

McNaughton, however, brings a little more experience to the band. He grew up playing the piano and as a young high school student, starting playing in a band called The Zoids. However, after that, it wasn’t until 2006 when The Grateful SPLED formed that he started playing again.

Doug Dexter, the fourth member of the band, is the odd man out. Not only is he the youngest member of the band, he is also classically trained. As a child, Dexter became skilled on the clarinet and tenor saxophone. After high school, he attended the Berklee College of Music where he earned a degree in music business and also picked up the guitar.

“I grew up surrounded by music,” he said. “I was always that music guy that always sought out those kind of obscure bands and tried to have the most knowledge of all my friends about all the happening bands that nobody heard of.”

“It’s cool to see what everybody brings to the table,” Lee said, noting that each band member grew up in a different decade and, therefore, has an affinity for a specific genre. Together they play 1960s rock, folk rock from the 1970s and even some U2 and R.E.M.

“Everybody plays a different style and it’s just really cool being around these guys,” Lee said.

“It’s just fun,” Hughes added. “You get to hang around with people you really like doing something you really like doing.”

The Grateful SPLED has performed at multiple venues, including Centre County Grange Fair and The Last Cowboy (now The Arena Bar and Grill) in State College. They’ve also been known to perform for College of Education events such as the new graduate student reception that is held in the fall.

“For me, it’s just the comradery that music brings,” Dexter said. “It’s just fun to go down to the basement and just…jam. Music is a universal language.”

A learning tool for others

Growing up in a musical household, Alison Carr-Chellman, professor and department head of learning and performance systems, understood the importance music has on one’s life and was influenced by her mother.

“‘Girls, go play something for me,’ my mother would say after we finished doing the dishes in the evening,” she said.

Carr-Chellman and her sisters each played an instrument and sang, and performed at weddings and parties such at the annual postman’s ball. When she was in high school, she was involved with school musicals and band, but all that changed when she went to college.

“It was all about school,” she said. “And when I went to graduate school, it was the same deal. So there was no music during that period of time in my life.”

It wasn’t until after she moved to State College and settled into her faculty position with the College of Education that she finally welcomed music back into her life by joining The Big Pink Dog, a band comprised of faculty and students from the Learning, Design and Technology program.

“I don’t do it for me anymore. Now, I’m doing it for my kids. I want my kids to love music the way that I love music.”

— Ali Carr-Chellman,
professor and department head of
learning and performance systems

“I didn’t go into music as a living and I’m glad I didn’t because as much as I love music, if I were doing it professionally, it wouldn’t be a release,” she said. “It wouldn’t be fun. It would be a job and I think that would ruin music for me.”

Eventually, the members of The Big Pink Dog went their separate ways and Carr-Chellman worked on music here and there, but, once again, it was not a large part of her life like it had always been. That changed two years ago when she committed to another musical project — adviser of the glee club at Centre Learning Community Charter School in State College.

“I don’t do it for me anymore,” she said. “Now, I’m doing it for my kids. I want my kids to love music the way that I love music.”

A balancing act

Just like professionals need balance in their lives, so do students. School and learning can be tedious and exhausting, and it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. But music allows students to relax and learn in a different way, according to Larry Boggess, instructor of educational leadership and director of faculty development for Penn State World Campus.

“There’s so much research out there that says you need to keep music in schools because it helps kids think and kids who can think better do better academically,” he said. Understanding the important correlation between music and academics, Boggess implemented music into his middle school social studies curriculum earlier in his career.

“The Civil War is one of the most powerful moments in the United States’ history,” he said, explaining that music has always been a natural part of his life.  “The conflict and hundreds of thousands of soldiers died over these ideals. And here it is, like 45 to 50 pages in this book and it was just boring as all get out.  So I actually took all the academic content and wrote like 12 songs [about the Civil War]. It was one of the most memorable things I ever did as a teacher.”

Not only was it memorable, it was effective, even with seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“The next year the kids asked their teacher, ‘Are we going to sing at all in history?” Boggess said.

As the former principal for the State College Friends School, Boggess supported school music programs and even wrote a musical about the Civil Rights Movement called “King of Montgomery” for the students to perform. And although his career brought him to Penn State a few years ago, the school still performs the musical every year in honor of Martin Luther King Day.

Regardless of the reason, music is an important part of the lives of many, especially individuals in the College of Education. Professors such as Kim Powell and Kai Schafft are both practicing musicians, and Beth Grinder is first violinist for the Hershey Symphony Orchestra.

Assistant professor of education Jennifer Frank sits on the board of SOUNDS, a local nonprofit that hosts late-night, alcohol-free original music events for people of all ages in the local community. Even Dean David H. Monk, along with professors Fran Arbaugh and Anne Whitney, sings in the State College Choral Society.

Like many of his colleagues, there was a time when Boggess could have been a musician or an educator, he said, but chose to be an educator.

“I know that when the thing that you love becomes the thing that you must do to make money, it tarnishes it. But right now whatever I do in music, whether it’s performing or in front of the piano composing, it is all pure pleasure, pure love,” Boggess said.

Last Updated September 30, 2015