Big changes in music department start with Bode

Liz Sieng

Photo Credit : Fennell

Over the next two years, sweeping changes in the music department will leave it almost completely unrecognizable.

By the end of 2011, a total of four music professors (out of six that teach regular, classroom-based courses) will have left the department. Set to retire next year are Dr. Lee Thompson, professor of music and head of piano and accompanying studies  and David Glenn, department chair and director of jazz studies. Dr. Edward Dixon, associate professor of music and director of the Whitman symphony orchestra,  is currently spending his last semester as conductor.

This major shift in the department began with Dixon’s decision to retire, but picked up significant momentum when Dr. Robert Bode, professor of music and head of choral and vocal studies, also decided unexpectedly to leave this semester, resulting in mixed reactions from students and professors.

In 1986, partners Bode and Thompson arrived in Walla Walla and began teaching at Whitman. Having formerly served as the department chair, Bode currently directs Chorale and Chamber Singers and teaches voice lessons, conducting and 19th-century music history. Like all professors of the music department, Bode teaches classes in applied music and history.

“Even though he wasn’t acting as the chair, it always felt like he was the boss because of his charisma and presence,” said junior Jackson Maberry, music major and conducting student under Bode. “He always seemed very in charge in a good way, and he is very likable and knowledgeable.”

Next year, Bode will begin working at the University of Missouri: Kansas City Conservatory of Music. As the Director of Choral Activities, he will conduct choral ensembles and teach choral conducting and choral literature at the graduate level. Originally, Bode planned on returning from his current semester on sabbatical to continue teaching at Whitman and temporarily serve as the symphony orchestra conductor.

“I never had any intention of leaving Whitman, and I certainly wasn’t looking for a new job!” said Bode, in an e-mail. “I have loved it here and I know full well that I am never going to find students any brighter or an administration more supportive than I have experienced here at Whitman.”

Bode explained that he was unexpectedly invited to apply for the director position at the University of Missouri: Kansas City.

“At first I told him that I wasn’t interested in moving, but the more we talked the more I began to realize that I want to work with graduate students before I retire from teaching. I see this as my best chance to influence the next generation of choral conductors,” said Bode. “The Dean wants to create one of the best graduate programs in conducting in the United States and I want to help build that.”

Having received the news of Bode’s departure this past March, students were surprised and disappointed.

“It was so strange. We weren’t expecting it whatsoever,” said Maberry. “We all were all hungry for a relationship with him. With all his skill and knowledge, he could shape us [the choruses] into something beautiful.”

“It was awful. I ran into a practice room and started crying,” said sophomore Michael Blackwood, a music theory major. “I can’t imagine the music department without him. I really respect him and like him academically and professionally. I really love him as a person.”

While praising Bode for his musical talent and teaching skills, students wrestled with feelings of sadness and affection.

“[As a first-year] I was so struck by how much like a little family this place is. Dr. Bode and Dr. Thompson both have a huge role here,” said junior McKenna Milici, a vocal performance music major.

“[Dr. Bode] is so good at what he does. The main thing I would say through this whole experience is that I’m really personally upset that I won’t spend the next year with him. He has all of this knowledge; he knows how to make us have a brilliant sound, which is a hard skill to teach. I’m really sad that I don’t get spend more time with him, but he’s going to teach conducting to grad students. He’s going to share incredible knowledge and talent with more people,” she said.

Glenn explained that as part of the sweeping exodus of professors, Dr. Bode’s leave allows room for a positive change. Glenn pointed out that these professors were all of similar age and reaching retirement.

“It’s a huge loss. He’s an incredible talent,” said Glenn. “At the same point, with all of us leaving, it gives the department a chance to reinvent itself. Even if it stays the same, which we’ve built up, an influx of new people always brings new things. It will probably be a younger generation of faculty.”

In addition to teaching, Thompson and Glenn will spend this semester and their last year in the process of hiring and structuring the department. Thereafter, Thompson will join Bode at the University of Missouri: Kansas City and work as a freelance pianist.

“One of our goals is to make sure that we maintain what is needed for the students: as much continuity and calm as there has been for the last 20 years,” said Thompson. “I can completely understand that the underclassmen feel affected first-person. They see what the other students have had.”

Bode and Thompson both expressed their appreciation for Walla Walla and the family-like community in Whitman’s Music Department.

Photo Credit : Fennell

“I leave here with a real bitter-sweetness. This has been our home for 25 years,” said Thompson. “On the other hand, this is an exciting new chapter for us.”

As the semester comes to an end, shifts in professorship will affect music students of all levels in the upcoming school year.

“I’m really excited to that after being here for 25 years, he’s making this change. He’s going to kick it up to a new level,” said senior Harrison Fulop, a vocal performance music major. Having worked with Bode since his first year, Fulop hopes to continue the relationship next semester as a graduate student at the University of Missouri: Kansas City.

“I’m sort of just hanging tight and seeing who will be the master of my conducting next year,” said Maberry. “Dr. Bode set the bar high.”