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A Harmony of Faith & Music: A Q&A with Dean Gary Mortenson

Aug. 14, 2017

School of Music Dean Gary Mortenson joined the Baylor Family in July 2015 with a goal of building upon a strong foundation of excellence to move Baylor’s music school toward ever greater national and international recognition. A celebrated trumpet player, professor and former director of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at Kansas State University, Mortenson has built on the strengths of the Baylor program and launched new initiatives to expand opportunities for service and professional growth for students.

In your own life, how have you seen music and faith come together and influence one another?

From my very first memories in childhood, the two things that were there and have continued with me all throughout my life are the intersection of my faith with music. I grew up in the Lutheran Church in suburban Chicago, and my father was a musician. So naturally, as my musical skills started to progress, I would play in our church. Then word got out, and I started playing at the Presbyterian Church and from there at other local churches. Going to church on Sundays and making music has just been a natural part of my life. Music for me is a way to reaffirm my faith and to also share my talents.

Is this intersection of faith and music in church still a part of your life?

Playing in your own church, before your own congregation, as a developing musician is a very safe place to play. I was a professional trumpet player for 30 years, and since getting more and more into administration, my trumpet playing career has taken a hit. The trumpet is not a forgiving instrument, and I can’t practice very much. I don’t play in public any more, except at church. And so far, I haven’t fallen flat and embarrassed myself or made it uncomfortable for the congregation!

There’s always been safety in expressing myself musically in the church. If music happens to intersect with the very fundamental nature of who you are, then the church is an excellent place to be able to explore that.

How do you believe music can play a role in Christian service and community?

The power of music never ceases to astonish me. We live in a very contentious world today, and we’ve – in many ways – lost our way in terms of civility. Throughout the ages, you can see numerous examples of how, when something was difficult to actually express to someone, the feelings behind the emotion of that thought could be expressed musically. It was no coincidence that after 9/11 music was the very first medium to help the world deal with its raw emotions after the tragedy. So sometimes things that are very complicated to put into words can be expressed through music.

I’ve been very privileged in my life to have traveled all over the world and seen lots of different cultures. Music is something that brings people together. It’s a safe way for people to be in the same room where, if you were to start talking about politics, you’d probably get into trouble in a hurry. If you were even to talk about socioeconomic things, that might become problematic as well. There’s sort of a universal acknowledgement that great music has common elements to it. There’s a rhythmic vibrancy and clarity of understanding to it. From a tonal standpoint, you can hear if something is blending well and if the intonation is good. The minute we start talking about the music, our use of language gets in the way. Conversely, as long as we simply listen to it, there is a common understanding of what we’re hearing.

You came to Baylor from a public state university. Based on your leadership experiences there, and now at Baylor, how does a school of music at a Christian university look different than one at a non-religiously affiliated university?

It’s not really correct to say that state schools can’t delve into religious subjects. Even though I taught at a state school for 26 years, every year my brass chamber groups would play in churches because so much great music was written for the church. So I don’t think you can be a brass player, or musician in any field, without exploring music that was written to help uplift the spirit and be a part of an organized affirmation of faith. But I do think that at a Christian university, you can do it in a more intentional way. For example, it is difficult to do a Christmas concert at a state school and call it a “Christmas Concert.” It will be called a “Holiday Extravaganza” or something like that. Here, when we do A Baylor Christmas, it’s all geared toward the great music celebrating Christ’s birth.

We can also delve deeper. This year, in late October, we mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s pivotal role that we now understand historically as The Reformation. Here at Baylor there is a concerted effort to examine 500 years of protestant thought through music and lectures, to more clearly understand Martin Luther and the significance of the 95 theses posted on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, half a millennium ago. Baylor represents a coming together of the heart, the mind and the soul in an age when a lot of people only want to pursue what they think are high level intellectual pursuits – meaning the mind only. We can be intellectually rigorous as well, but not at the expense of what is in our hearts and the effect that has on our soul. Bringing all of these three elements together is not common in today’s fast-paced world.

How does Baylor’s School of Music encourage and contribute to the mission of the larger University?

To my way of thinking, it would be tragic if a student came through Baylor and never experienced some of the music that goes on in our concert halls. But I know there are hundreds if not thousands of students who manage to do that. So my message to our campus community and beyond is this – we give 350 concerts each year and over 320 of them are free of charge. We open our doors and we welcome everybody. I think a great school of music adds value to its university community.

An education without the arts is kind of like walking in the desert. You’re going to end up full of thirst because something fundamental for survival is lacking in your life. Music is not the only way to enrich your life but it is certainly one way. There’s a whole world of music. It transcends Western culture. It transcends Eastern culture. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. And we’re much richer as human beings if we can understand cultures through their arts. Because what you value most, you lift up through your art. It doesn’t keep us materially alive. Music helps keep us spiritually alive.

I think the Baylor School of Music is a gem. Not just for Baylor or for Texas, but worldwide. We want to share the gifts that God has given us with the rest of the world. We do that through the medium of music, and we plan to continue doing that to the best of our ability.