Friday Faculty Focus: Karen Fannin

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January 6th, 2017

Dr. Karen Fannin (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Karen Fannin (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

On this week’s episode of Friday Faculty Focus, KVNO’s Brandon McDermott sits down with Dr. Karen Fannin, associate professor in the School of Music and director of bands at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. They discuss the intricacies of conducting and the importance of communication within music.


Brandon: Dr. Karen Fannin thanks for joining me this week.

Dr. Fannin: Thank you.

Brandon: You teach courses on conducting here at UNO – want to know what are some of the most important things to learn about conducting that many, say from an outside perspective, may not know?

Dr. Fannin: Conducting is so much more complicated than it looks. Sometimes people see a conductor and they think, “Oh, conductors do a two pattern, or a three pattern, or four patterns and that’s all a conductor does,” but it goes so far beyond that. Conducting is great because you get to synthesize everything you know about music. It’s important to be a really good performer on your instrument or voice it’s important to have a great knowledge of music history and music theory you can analyze a scores and you get to connect with composers. One of the neat things is we get to play everybody’s part. I‘m a euphonium player – which I love – but as a conductor I get to imagine what it’s like to be an oboe player or a tuba player. Putting all those parts together is really fun.

Brandon: Music has taken you all over the world, from China to Sweden and all over the United States. What have these different cultures taught you about music?

Dr. Fannin: I think what’s most interesting is how similar everyone is. Music brings everybody together -that’s what’s most fascinating. When I was in China, I went to a school in which they were all Chinese nationals and their dream was to come to school in the United States. So, I was there for a day and did rehearsals and of course they did not know English as well as people the United States do. So a lot of the teaching was making sure that I was also teaching them musical terms and that they were learning some English in the course of the rehearsal.

But, music brought us all together and it’s just amazing that we could go and have a rehearsal that looks a lot like (what) we would have here in Nebraska – but we’re in China and that that’s really fascinating. I taught at a camp in Alaska last summer and I’ll be teaching there again the summer – Sitka Fine Arts Camp – and what was really fascinating was meeting a few students who live in villages, very small villages, who are just like us and they have the same musical knowledge. I met one student who hunts and gathers for most of his food and that’s what his family does. He’s like you and I, he played the trombone well – this is what he does – but music again the music just brings everybody together.

Brandon: I noticed you had an interest in “interdisciplinary connections” in music. Can you talk about what that means and what interests you there?

Dr. Fannin: I got interested in this about ten years ago when I lived near Little Rock, Arkansas. I was conducting the Little Rock Wind Symphony at the time and we were asked to put together a presentation for a group of utility managers on the similarities between music and business. The CEO of this particular company was an amateur musician and he saw that there were some parallels and he was interested in putting together an informative yet fun session for his employees that were coming from around the south.

That was that was how I got into it. I put together this presentation/performance on how what we do is an ensemble is similar to how companies operate. So for instance a conductor can get up in front of a group and micromanage the group, by trying to give every single bit of information about the music and it affects how people play. You’re getting in their way and you’re taking away their expression because they’re getting too much information. Then you can do the opposite and just not give them enough. So that people aren’t together and they sort of don’t know where you’re going in terms of a direction and so that’s a really evident example of what we can show musically and through sound what it’s like to manage.

Brandon: You’ve touched on this a little bit – but you’ve presented on communication in music – talk about the importance of communication, when it comes to music.

Dr. Fannin: Well it’s crucial. I alluded to this earlier, but as a as a conductor how you communicate with the ensemble non-verbally with your eye contact, with your gestures – affects people’s playing at affects how people play – yet it’s very interesting because you can’t analyze it. It’s just sort of is this allusive thing with reading body language. You can break it down and teach things to do, but that’s an aspect in terms of conducting with communication. Chamber musicians communicate all the time – as simple as one person starting the group – if you have a line that starts and the flute and then it passes to the oboe, they have to communicate with each other to navigate that passing so we don’t hear a break in the seam of the music.

So there are all kinds of communication aspects that are non-verbal and then there are all the communication aspects that are verbal. So it’s really important as a conductor to think about how you address a group and how you talk with others that you’re respectful, which I find very interesting and fascinating. I’m a big opponent of using the word “I” a lot. You’ll find me not using the word “I” when I teach in conduct. I don’t usually say “I want you to do this,” or “I want to do that” because that reflects an authoritarian leadership style and I’m interested more in a collaborative leadership style. The language makes a big difference in how we say things and how people feel empowered.

Brandon: Dr. Karen Fannin, thanks again for coming on the show.

Dr. Fannin: Thank you. It’s been great to be here.

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