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From N.Y.C. to GRCC: How Robin Connell wound up teaching music back in her home state once again

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By Jacquelyn Zeman

Detroit native Robin Connell found her way to the Grand Rapids music scene via a 12-year stint of her career spent in New York City.

Grand Rapids Community College music and jazz instructor, Robin Connell is a Detroit native who came to Grand Rapids to teach music. She originally graduated from Grand Valley State University with a Bachelors of Music. It was many years after graduating with her first degree before she wound up teaching and living in Grand Rapids once again.

Courtesy Photo
Professor Robin Connell has been an adjunct music professor at GRCC since 2001.

Right after graduating she went to New York because she had a job offer to join a rock band.

“I wanted to be a musician, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how!’” she said. “…I literally got a phone call from a bass player, and they needed a keyboard player. So then I moved to New York City.”

Connell said she learned a lot in New York, where she ended up transitioning from a pianist to a jazz artist.

“I didn’t go there to be a jazz musician,” she said. “A lot of jazz musicians go to New York because that is where you go to make the big time…I went because I did not know where else to go! It was a start in music…and I ended up playing with some of the nation’s top musicians while I was there.”

While she was in New York she studied under several famous jazz musicians, the most famous being Bob Brookimire.

“I loved jazz, but I could not play it,” she said. “When I got there, and I was working in this band, I was totally amazed because I knew the best jazz musicians in the world lived in New York. What I did not know, was that you can literally walk right up to them (the musicians), and say ‘can I take lessons?’”

When Connell is asked about her academic background, she usually explains who she trained with in addition to naming the schools she attended.

“I do have a few degrees, but all of my actual training was in New York City with top of the line jazz musicians…that definitely formed me as a musician.”

To get out of playing for the top 40 bands, Connell started playing in restaurants.

“I had racks and racks of keyboards, and I sold them all to buy my baby grand piano I have now. That way I could make money, and still keep learning new songs.”

Connell played gigs all over New York. Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island all were places she performed regularly.

“I was a full-time musician, so I went where the work was,” she said. “…I played at the World Trade Center, Waldorf Astoria, the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Sofia’s in the Edison Hotel was one of my favorite places to play because of all the people from the theater district I was able to meet while I was there.”

She described Sofia’s as being very similar to her current job, entertaining and playing, at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids.

“Part of the job is playing the music, while the other part is just talking to the people and making sure that they feel welcome,” she said. “You just ask them, ‘Are you having a good time in New York, or Grand Rapids?’ You are kind of the social person. Not a just a piano player when you are doing that kind of gig.”

Connell said she had a hard time being social when she first started working as a musician. “It was really hard for me to socialize (on the job) at first,” she said. “I am really talkative now, but when I started out I was really shy, and insecure. I had a teacher who whose advice I still live by today: ‘You pretend it is your party, and you are the hostess.’ And I still say that to myself now. You can’t be shy in this business. You can’t just go sit in the corner, which is what I used to want to do on my break. I would be out of the job if I kept doing that.”

Connell started teaching piano at Long Island University, and discovered she loved teaching. This was shocking to her because she never intended to be a teacher. When she was in New York, she also discovered that she really wanted to write music.

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Professor Robin Connell taught many talented jazz piano students at Interlochen Center for Arts, including Nora Jones.

While studying with New York musicians, Connell realized that there were holes in her education that she wanted to fill, as even jazz musicians kept referencing classical musicians.

Eventually she decided to leave the city to take on graduate school in Colorado. “Living in the city was very expensive, and I wanted to have a family,” she said. “The only thing is, nowhere compares with New York artistically.”

Connell ended up attending the University of Northern Colorado, where she worked as a teacher’s assistant while she studied for her master’s and doctorate degrees. Connell is the recipient of several music grants, with two from the National Endowment for the Arts and several from state arts councils. These grants assisted  her education.

Each summer, although she did not live in Michigan anymore, Connell came home to teach at Interlochen Center for the Arts, which is located near Traverse City. She started the job in 1990, and while she taught there she met her future husband and fellow musician, Paul Brewer.

While she worked at Interlochen, she got to teach a variety of very talented students. She taught jazz piano to young Norah Jones, Eldar Djangirov, and many other students who went on to pursue music as a professional career. Her stepson and former Interlochen student, Paul Brewer, went on to be a world famous jazz bass player.

She started teaching at GRCC in 2001, and has taught a variety of music classes since joining the staff.

“She is a really good teacher, but especially good with one-on-one teaching,” said Collin Lewis, a GRCC music major who is currently taking Connell’s music theory course. “She always encourages her students to keep trying. Sometimes she tells us stories about when she was in school, and when she struggled, and had trouble with theory. She is great at encouraging her students to keep moving forward even though they struggle.”

Kevin Dobreff, the head of the music department said that Connell is a “very accomplished performer and arranger in the jazz genre. Her work with our beginning theory students is long standing and of very high quality.”

When Connell completed her doctorate, she went on several job interviews for full-time professor jobs at a few universities. She was offered a full time job at a school in Massachusetts, but she decided to join her husband in Grand Rapids where he had been offered a full time position at Aquinas College.

Today Connell teaches at both Aquinas College and GRCC as an adjunct professor, and continues to perform at various venues in the Grand Rapids area on a regular basis as a soloist, and with her husband.

“I’ve have had to work on a lot of music that I don’t like,” she said. “I recognize that if I only learn and play stuff that I like, that is not good for my career…When someone requests a song that I don’t like, but they want to hear, I think of it as me giving them a gift, and I play it with all of my heart.”