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Percussion department jams to beat

In this June 4, 2013 photo, Brian Justison, head of the percussion department, plays a 
marimba in the Millikin University percussion house in Decatur. Justison will be starting 
his 25th year at Millikin. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Danny Damiani)
In this June 4, 2013 photo, Brian Justison, head of the percussion department, plays a marimba in the Millikin University percussion house in Decatur. Justison will be starting his 25th year at Millikin. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Danny Damiani)

DECATUR (AP) — At 24 years old, Brian Justison had just received his grad school degree in percussion performance and found himself searching for his first serious employment after long, intensive studies in musical education.

He chose Millikin University, not knowing he would be spending the entire second half of his life to date as an educator there. Now beginning his 25th year at Millikin, the head of the percussion program has built what he believes to be a world-class curriculum that goes far beyond the performance-only training mind-set of a musical conservatory.

"When I talk to high school students thinking about coming here, I tell them 'If you want the conservatory experience, go to Juilliard or somewhere else, because we're going to kick your butt in the classroom,' " Justison said. "That kind of study environment has its strengths, but this program is meant to be a place to find yourself and explore all the possibilities of a music career that go beyond just playing your instrument."

"All-encompassing" may best describe Justison as a teacher and musician. It is something common to many percussionists, most of whom embark on programs of "total percussion" in their studies. That means not studying one particular set of instruments, whether it's drum set or marimba. Percussion students are more likely to learn how to play every one, something that Justison experienced when he started his undergrad education at Eastern Illinois University.

"When I got to Eastern, I really thought of myself as a drum set performer, but then I discovered classical music," he said. "I fell so deeply into classical then that I virtually stopped playing drum set for a few years. The radical elements of it really appealed to me."

Justison arrived on the Millikin campus in 1989 as an adjunct professor of music, staying in that position for nine years under percussion coordinator James Moyer. He was elevated unexpectedly to interim coordinator of the program in 1998 when Moyer departed, remaining there for a year and a half while the School of Music debated its next move. After a national candidate search, the university decided to stay with Justison. Since then, he's built himself into an increasingly central role in the education of every student in the program. His office, in the department's stand-alone "Percussion House" at Main Street and Fairview Avenue, allows him to stay within a few feet of where his students are practicing.

"I feel like the longer I've been here, the more of the big picture I've been able to see, like a camera slowly panning out," he said. "I started to see the centrality of my work with students. I was their teacher as a percussionist, the conductor of their ensembles, a pedagogue teaching them how to teach and an academic adviser. My goal became to help students build on their strengths and interests to help them make reasoned decisions about their future, not just plug them into the curriculum. The conversation of what you want to do with your life should happen on the first day, not after graduation."

Former students such as Rachel Weiss were in close contact with their teacher throughout their years at the university, from long days of practice at the Percussion House to the educational trip that members of the percussion ensembles took to the Dominican Republic in 2007. Weiss, a 2009 music performance graduate, now works as a music librarian for St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and described Justison as one of her most important influences.

"He was somewhere between a father figure and mentor to many of the students," she said. "He brings a lot of really valuable knowledge to every conversation, and I know I always felt like I really wanted to impress him."

When Weiss accepted her position, she recalls that it was Justison's advice that helped her decide how to best exploit the opportunity.

"He told me that when I found a job, I would need to make the best of it and use my initiative to make that job my own, and I think that's exactly what he's done at Millikin for the last 25 years," she said. "He's done so much to build up the status of that department."

Part of that department-building has been the establishment of three dependable, yearly shows that each fulfill a different aspect of Justison's design for the program. The longest-running Halloween show is the yearly stress-reliever and introduction to the percussion department for those from outside the program. The "Synergy" concert allows for university-wide collaboration with dance, theater, art and even science departments. And the "Masterworks" concert is the one "serious" show of the year, featuring the most difficult classical music selections.

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of Justison's tenure, however, was the World Percussion Ensemble's 2012 trip to Cuba, only months after student travel restrictions to the communist nation were relaxed.

"We got in on the ground floor with that visit; if any other college visited Cuba for percussion before us, I haven't heard of it," the teacher said. "I was a little apprehensive about taking students there because it just seemed so off-limits, but it's the epicenter for Latin jazz music. There's experiences there that the students couldn't have anywhere else."

Steve Widenhofer, the director of Millikin's School of Music, cited experiences such as these as capstone moments for students in the percussion program.

"It's a defining moment for kids who have an opportunity like going to Cuba," he said. "These are the things that will stand out in their mind when they graduate. And of course, it's great recruiting for future students."

Likewise, Widenhofer recognizes with satisfaction that Justison was the right choice for the position back in the late 1990s, keeping him at Millikin, the only job he's ever had.

"I think Brian's organizational skills and savvy musicianship have really positioned that department as one of the best in the state and the region," the director said. "He was thrust into the position at first, but he always had the right skill for it. It's an enormous number of things to manage and teach all at once."

Now approaching his 50th birthday, Justison still has plenty left to do in the percussion department. He plans to return to Cuba with students in early 2014, buoyed by the success of the last trip. As a teacher, he feels that he has become "more objective, less opinionated and more open to change" over time, refining everything in the program to offer the best possible chance for students to succeed after their graduations.

"For me there are three questions: What do you like to do, what are you good at and what can you do to sustain yourself?" he said. "Usually at the intersection of those three circles, you find your career or what you do for a living. I do everything I can to put that decision into students' hands."

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