A Suite Finale
Three Indiana State professors are turning a new page in their own musical score

April 24 2007

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - They’ve worked under four University presidents and six department chairs, witnessed countless changes on campus and in the classroom and influenced the lives of a legion of student musicians during their tenure at Indiana State University. Now three Indiana State professors are turning a new page in their own musical score.

Combined, John Spicknall, William Hughes and William Denton have nearly 120 years of experience in teaching music students at Indiana State. Teaching a variety of classes from general education courses and standards for music majors to specific instruments, they have each influenced hundreds of students. Aside from their longevity, they have a common tie that binds them together - a love of teaching and a passion for music.

Spicknall was first bitten by the music bug as a young boy living in the Washington, D.C. area.

“They had a theater orchestra, made up of 12-15 people. I remember being amazed at the sound of the instruments playing together. They would play an overture prior to the musical and would play after the show was over. Getting to hear those instruments live was a magical experience,” he recalled.

At first his mother, Stella, started out suggesting he and his siblings stay after for the music, but pretty soon it was Spicknall asking if they could stay longer.

“She started out suggesting we stay, but later on, I wanted to stay,” he said.

Spicknall started playing the clarinet in seventh grade and never looked back.

“Music chose me. It soon became central in my life,” he said.

Like Spicknall, music was a part of Hughes’ life growing up near Pittsburgh and in southern Illinois.

“My parents were not formally trained, but they were both involved in music. We did a lot of singing in the car during trips and at family gatherings - usually in parts. It was a part of our lives,” he recalled.

Hughes began his music career on the piano at age seven “because back then that was the thing to do if you were interested in music.” But the match between 88 keys and Hughes would turn into a lifetime love affair.

Growing up in a small town in western Kentucky, Denton became interested in music during elementary school, due largely to a strong music program.

“When I got to high school I decided to go into the band program. I started out on clarinet and saxophone before becoming interested in the instrument no one else wanted to play because it was challenging and different from the others. I started playing oboe as a freshman in high school and it carried through my college career to today,” he said.

Over a period of seven years, their backgrounds and musical talents would come together at Indiana State, a place they would call home for the next three to four decades.

Spicknall, a student at the University of Maryland, found himself competing with a friend for the Indiana State gig. In fact, both of them ended up at interviews here and at a college in Ohio.

“He wanted the job in Ohio and I wanted the job here, but the offers went the other way,” Spicknall recalled. “We ended up flip-flopping.”

Spicknall was excited about the opportunities at ISU.

“It was a multi-faceted opportunity to do something in clarinet and jazz while teaching general education classes. I was very excited about the diversity of opportunities,” he said.

Hughes learned about Indiana State from his teacher, Claire Richards, who mentioned while walking down a hallway that Lloyd Gold was leaving ISU.

“Why don’t you apply for that job'” he remembers her saying.

Hughes applied and when he hadn’t heard anything for several weeks, he called Jim Barnes [department chair] to see where things stood.

“When do you want to come'” he was asked. “I came down for the audition and the interview. The rest is history.”

Denton, fresh out of the University of Illinois with a master’s degree, wanted to teach rather than look for an orchestral position.

“I had several mentors who were coupling teaching and performing and this really appealed to me,” he explained.

At the age of 22, Indiana State was his first job.

Students have changed over the years, according to Hughes and Denton. Not in terms of musical ability, but in their ability to focus on learning.

“Life was simpler when I started teaching. Now students have to make so many choices. Students 20 years ago had to manage their time, but time management wasn’t as important as it is today. There are so many more pressures today that they have to deal with,” Denton said.

In order to adapt to the changes, Denton has had to change the way he teaches, often expending more energy than in years past.

“Their attention span is limited and they’re used to getting information in sound bytes. I find myself at a slight disadvantage because that’s not how I teach.”

He’s also had to take advantage of PowerPoint and computer-assisted instruction -- “bells and whistles,” as he calls them.

On the flip side, the gains in technology have helped in the music theory/music skills classroom.

“There are so many programs dealing with aural music and written music that the students can utilize,’ Denton added.

“It’s been a great help, but it’s been a challenge for me personally. I’m not terribly technology-savvy,” he added.

Spicknall has mixed opinions concerning changing technology.

“Technology is a double-edged sword - it bites us sometimes but it also allows us to do some phenomenal things,” he lamented.

Technology came in handy when he organized a reunion of former jazz band alumni from 1972. By working through Alumni Affairs, he was able to gather emails and addresses for many of his former students.

“To imagine doing that without the technology we have today would’ve been difficult,” he concluded

Hughes has noticed students are sometimes not prepared for the individual work that goes into music at the college level.

“They think it’s going to be like high school choir or band,” Hughes said.

That’s when he steps in.

“It’s important to have good faculty role models and mentors to help them work through that. I’ve always seen that as part of what I do. I practice with my students during the early semesters,” he added.

But one thing hasn’t changed, according to Spicknall.

“The serious music students are still the same, no matter the year. When you see students who are bitten with the same bug that bit you, they have to be committed or they won’t go anyplace,” he added.

As committed educators and professional musicians, all three continue to hone their skills. For two professors, a one semester sabbatical developed into a unique learning experience.

Spicknall, with no prior formal training on the piano, wanted to learn accompaniments for clarinet so he could accompany his students during a lesson. So he sought out the expertise of Hughes.

“I signed up for the course just like any other student,” Spicknall said.

Hughes was leery of how the learning experience would pan out.

“I had a little trepidation about teaching a colleague,” Hughes said.

Both professors got something out of the experience.

Hughes wanted to learn more about jazz instruction, so they talked about the principles of fingering and touch. What he learned made him a better teacher.

“But what I learned,” Hughes said, “and what John learned, was how different the learning of jazz is from classical piano.”

While it was easy for Hughes to learn from a printed score, that was not Spicknall’s learning style.

“His jazz was mostly by ear and looking at his hands on the keyboard,” Hughes said.

Spicknall, smiling, added a footnote - “He didn’t give me an A. He was very kind - I think he gave me a B+.”

Regardless of the grade, the experience gave Hughes a greater understanding of his friend and colleague.

“I’m in awe of what John does. I wish I could do it. It would be so much fun to sit down at a piano with all these tunes and make challenging music on the spot,” Hughes said.

Sitting down with each of the professors provides a birds-eye view of ISU history, with each one of them making many valuable contributions.

In addition to being involved with music department curriculum changes and working with competitions and recitals highlighting student musicians, Denton was one of five founding members of the Faculty Woodwind Quintet.

It was an ensemble formed by consensus. “All five wind professors mutually agreed that this would be a good situation where we could take time from our schedules to rehearse and perform on campus and be a recruiting tool.”

Years later, Denton is a strong advocate of faculty ensembles.

“It’s important for faculty to be involved in an ensemble. It’s important for students to see their teacher doing the same thing they’re being asked to do. It also creates a sense of community between the faculty and increases communication, both verbally and musically,” he said.

One of Hughes’ proudest moments was the establishment of the music department’s convocation series.

“That was my baby,” he said, smiling.

Music students have always had an 11 a.m. time slot on Tuesday and Thursdays without classes in order to attend recitals. In the past, the department had the 11 a.m. recitals at various campus venues - Heritage Ballroom, Stateroom, Tilson Auditorium and the former Elks Building.

“With the new building we had a recital hall literally in the middle of what we do - classrooms, rehearsal and studio areas.”

Hughes had specific ideas on how to best utilize the new space.

“We needed to have a time where we could come together as a community during that hour. I wanted to have a time where faculty and students could come together around a guest speaker, presentation, performance or international music.”

Hughes developed a proposal outlining the series in 1996; and the series was unveiled in Fall 1997.

Spicknall, together with Charlie Brown, Andre Hammond and Richard Clokey, formed ISU Friends of Jazz in the early 1980’s. The project was an outgrowth of the weekly jazz show the quartet hosted on WISU for 20 years.

“We all had different tastes, so the banter was always interesting,” Spicknall recalled.

The synergy on the airwaves translated into a collaborative effort to bring jazz acts to campus. Clokey would arrange for the funding, Brown would make the arrangements, and if possible, Spicknall would arrange classroom sessions with the artists.

Although the Friends of Jazz dissolved in the late 1990’s following Clokey’s retirement, Spicknall and Brown still collaborate to bring jazz acts in on a more frequent and smaller scale.

“We’ve had high caliber jazz musicians come in over the years. I’m proud of some of the bands I put together for performances with players such as Bobby Shew, Gary Foster, Todd Coolman and Wycliffe Gordon,” Spicknall added.

Committed educators, all three hope they have left an impression.

Spicknall, who was recently honored with the President’s Medal for his service to the University, hopes students took away from him “the joy that music can create, either as a listener or as a performer, the magic of music and music-making.”

The jazz professor can be found making music at Stables, performing alongside many of his former students, something he finds very special.

“The idea of making music is more exciting when there’s someone to make music with. They were students, now they’re colleagues. It’s interesting to have the sharing that went on in the student-teacher relationship graduate to the meeting of the minds on an equal level. I have students who have exceeded my level of performance. It’s really great to see them reach such as high level.”

Hughes and Denton hope students took away lessons they can apply no matter where their path in life takes them.

Denton hopes students have taken away the importance of thinking, acting and doing on their own.

“The student who mirrors the teacher is learning little. The student who thinks for themselves based on what they’ve learned from the teacher - that’s freedom,” he said.

Hughes hopes students learned more about themselves.

“I hope they have a sense of their own strengths and weaknesses so they can live a productive, joyful life,” he said.

For both Denton and Hughes, it has been a privilege to spend 40 plus years in the classroom, influencing two generations of music teachers, performers and business people.

“What I’ve done over the years has been worth it. It’s gratifying and humbling in a way. When you touch someone’s life and make it different, that’s incredible,” Denton said.

“It’s still fun,” Hughes added. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn from my students.”

There is no doubt the mark each of the men has left on those who studied with them.

Peg Shaffer, a former student of Spicknall’s, credits him with making her a better musician by opening her eyes, heart and arms to all forms of music and musicians.

“The most important thing I learned from Doc was his passion and desire to share great jazz styles, musicians and groups. He was always non-judgmental; open, honest and diligent,” Shaffer said.

The experience of studying under a master was made a little sweeter with the opportunity of sharing the stage with him.

“It was an honor to have played a few gigs with him,” she added.

Denton’s influence can be found today in classrooms at Plymouth and Fountain Central high schools. Alumna Cindy Wagner uses many of his ideas and techniques when instructing her students.

“One of the reasons I decided on ISU was because of Dr. Denton. I will always be grateful to the musical and personal lessons he provided me with! I rely on his expertise to this day and still want to grow into the kind of musician and teacher he would be proud of,” she added.

Alumnus John Pinson, band director at Fountain Central, said Denton has influenced him in a number of ways.

“I aspire to teach and lead by example the way he does,” Pinson said. “He goes out of his way to better his students, no sacrifice is too great. This is a lesson all of us in education can learn from.”

Keith Sorrels is following in the footsteps of his teacher, who he regards as an incredible oboist. Sorrels is a graduate student at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, pursuing a degree in oboe performance. His weekly lessons with Denton were not only educational, but inspirational.

“Dr. Denton put me on the path to being a professional oboist and helped me realize that I won't be happy doing anything else,” Sorrels said.

Dan Peo, a piano student of Hughes', appreciates the professor’s commitment to his students and holds dear time spent under his wing.

“I’ve had the chance to collaborate often with him as a student and now as a faculty member, and I will cherish many fond memories of time spent in rehearsal with him. He and I did some duet work for my senior recital, and I will often chuckle when thinking about the time we spent preparing for those performances,” Peo recalled.

With their academic careers nearing an end, comes the challenge of beginning a new chapter.

Spicknall, on retirement leave this semester, is easing into his new life.

“I’m enjoying not having the regular routine and I welcome the opportunity to practice.”

In the past, “music has been all-consuming” but he’s now making family more of a priority. But he fills the need to make music by teaching jazz piano lessons a couple of hours a week at DePauw University and playing in their faculty jazz quintet.

“I’ll do a limited amount of teaching, but mostly I want to center in on the family,” he added.

Hughes takes another approach. “Life always presents opportunities, challenges and change. It’s going to be a natural process.”

Aside from spending more time at the piano and visiting the Adirondack Mountains in the fall, he’s leaving his options open.

“I have a lot of interests, so I think I’ll keep plenty busy,” he concluded.

Fast Facts

William Denton
Tenure at ISU - 42 years, began in Fall 1965 as first double-reed specialist
Ensembles: Founding member of the Faculty Woodwind Quintet, Oboist for the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra for 42 years, and member of the ISU ensemble Philharmonia A Vent

William Hughes
Tenure at ISU - 40 years, began in the Fall of 1967 Instruments played: Piano (primary), pipe organ and oboe (earlier) Ensembles: Played on numerous occasions with the Faculty Woodwind Quintet and served as keyboardist for the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra for 25 years

John Spicknall
Years of service to ISU • 38 years, began in Sept. 1969
Instruments played - clarinet and jazz piano Ensembles: Played with numerous Indiana State faculty ensembles and the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra

-30- Contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or pmeyer4@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Combined, John Spicknall, William Hughes and William Denton have nearly 120 years of experience in teaching music students at Indiana State. Teaching a variety of classes from general education courses and standards for music majors to specific instruments, they have each influenced hundreds of students. Aside from their longevity, they have a common tie that binds them together - a love of teaching and a passion for music.

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