Home Arts & Entertainment Shannon Shaker plans to make a difference as GRCC’s Director of Bands

Shannon Shaker plans to make a difference as GRCC’s Director of Bands

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Shannon Shaker (Photo Courtesy of GRCC)

“I wanted to be in band more than anything in the world,” said Grand Rapids Community College’s Director of Bands Shannon Shaker, when asked about her first interest in music.

“My mom initially told me I couldn’t join band,” Shaker said. “We didn’t have the financial means for me to get an instrument. My only act of rebellion in my entire life, I snuck to band. I was hooked.”

Shaker, 36, from Grand Rapids, was just appointed to GRCC’s Director of Bands. She believes she has found a way to help bring her love of music to more students than ever before. While working as a band director at Frostburg State University in Maryland, she began to hear about the opportunities available in the community college scene.

“While I was there, I found other band directors that were teaching at community colleges and really loved what the community college experience offered them and their students,” Shaker said.

“I started to look for positions at community colleges. (They) really align with my values of providing all people with access to a high quality musical education,” she continued. “When the position of director of bands opened at GRCC, it was kind of like a dream. Grand Rapids is a wonderful city, and the music department here is really outstanding.”

GRCC is well known for its music program and is accredited by the National Association of Schools and Music, a benchmark only achieved by two community colleges in Michigan. For Shaker, the combination of accessibility and high quality education makes GRCC a great place to study music.

“Because of that, we are meeting standards by an outside accrediting body in the field of music,” Shaker said. “Most universities are accredited by (NASM). While we are offering an affordable education, our curriculum also meets really high standards of music education.”

Shaker fell in love with music when she first started playing clarinet, and made it her lifelong goal to share that love with others. Her recent appointment as Director of Bands is significant; she is the first woman to hold this post. Still, it didn’t come as a surprise to her.

“I have been the first woman in most conducting positions I have been in…” Shaker said. “I have only really studied with men, because it is such a male dominated field. It is not novel to me, but what it does show is that GRCC isn’t afraid to break out of the mold, to look for change makers and to value diversity. I was seen as the best candidate for the job and my gender was not a concern. It is only significant given our implicit biases, because conducting is such a male dominated field.”

In fact, the lack of representation for women in collegiate band conducting prompted Shaker to explore the topic further in her doctoral research project at Arizona State University. She soon found that the field she loved was not as diverse as it could be.

“​​I was thinking we would have around 10% (women in college band directing positions) in the 2017-2018 school year… And the data showed 11% and that was on par,” Shaker said. “The reason I decided to do it was because no one had counted the numbers since the 1993-94 school year, in which 5% of college band directing positions were held by women. So when people in our field started discussing our gender issues, they were using that data from 20-plus years ago, and the perception was that it had changed a lot. I wanted to find out where we actually stood, instead of just making assumptions about what growth had been made.”

In her new role at GRCC, Shaker plans to bring even more diversity into the world of music education. She hopes to do this by bringing music from different cultures into the music program here.

“​​I would like to continue to expand and diversify it as much as possible,” Shaker said. “Something that some people are doing in the field is working on certain instances and getting arrangements and getting composers to write authentic music that isn’t in the Western European style.”

One way Shaker plans to give the music program a boost is through music composed by traditionally marginalized groups. She fondly recalls a colleague who recently programmed the music of Beyoncé for his own students at New York University.

“Incorporating music that is relevant in the students’ lives is important. I am looking for composers who maybe haven’t composed for wind band, but have composed other music, bringing in music from their cultures and backgrounds. I started with women, but it’s got to go far deeper and far more broad than that,” Shaker said.

“In an upcoming concert (which took place on Feb 11), the GRCC Wind Ensemble is performing ‘A Mother of a Revolution’, by black composer, Omar Thomas. It was written in tribute to Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans activist. Not only is that piece written from his point of view and his experiences, it’s also celebrating this highly marginalized group.”

By programming music that represents a wider range of people, Shaker hopes to put an emphasis on inclusion and expand the minds of the music students at GRCC. With a keen eye toward diversity, and by lending our ears to the different music of the world, Shaker hopes to set a great example for her students.

She is excited to announce that Campus Band is being offered in the fall, which will be available for credit and for audit as well. For those interested, you can search for MUS 194 on the class registration website.

In her spare time, Shaker greatly enjoys rock music. There are also a few staple pieces of music that she always tries to play with every group she works with.

“I really love Queen, they are probably my favorite band,” Shaker said. “My favorite band piece I have ever conducted has to be ‘Armenian Dances’ by Alfred Reed. Another favorite I conduct with every group is ‘Chasing Sunlight’ by Cait Nishimura.”

When she isn’t busy conducting, Shaker enjoys spending time with her husband and the family pets. “We have two dogs that are both rescue dogs from shelters,” Shaker said.

And as far as hobbies go, Shaker said,  “I really enjoy cooking, baking and hiking.”

Shaker believes the future of the conducting field is bright. “​​My advice to aspiring band directors would be to take advantage of every opportunity you have to perform with and teach with bands and instrumental students,” Shaker said.

“Interact with as many different bands as you can, go observe band directors who you respect and look up to and see what they do. Attend conducting symposiums. Become as familiar with the profession as possible, and also in doing so, you build a network of mentors and colleagues and peers that you know when you enter the field.”

Kevin Dobreff, Music Department Head and Program Director at GRCC, is excited about the inclusion of Shaker to their music program’s team.

“Shannon brings a very clear understanding of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to her rehearsals,” Dobreff said. “Her work with finding composers of diverse backgrounds and sexual orientations is phenomenal because it helps our students understand that the music out there available for wind ensemble is not just written by dead white guys. It helps to have the students play music made by people who look like them.”

In addition to her focus on inclusion and equity, Dobreff cites Shaker’s great work ethic as one of her best qualities.

“​​She is extremely outgoing, and very approachable,” Dobreff said. “She is very kind and caring and works well with both students and faculty. She is a real team player. Another thing that is very important about her is that she is extremely well organized. We do a collage concert every year and this year Shannon organized the entire performance which is no small feat because it includes all of the ensembles in a collage format. There is no intermission, and we go from act to act using lights. She completely organized this for us.”

When she thinks about her days as a youngster who snuck to band practice, who only wanted to play music and belong, she remembers that, sometimes, things do work out.

“My parents were able to get me a clarinet and from the first day the band room was my favorite place. I knew that is where I belonged. I knew since kindergarten I just wanted to be a teacher. I had the same band director from sixth to 10th grade. I was sitting and watching him conduct, and I was like I’m going to be a band director.”

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