Art smarts: Music teacher Robert Gifford receives state award for arts education

Saturday, April 10, 2010
Retired Southeast Missouri State University music professor Dr. Robert Gifford poses in his home with some of the music, instruments, and keepsakes he has acquired throughout a music career that has taken him to the Ukraine and many other countries. Gifford recently won the Missouri Arts Award for Arts in Education. (KRISTIN EBERTS)

On Feb. 10, Dr. Robert Gifford received the 2010 Missouri Arts Award for Arts Education, the highest honor for contributions to the Missouri arts culture. The award was presented by Missouri Arts Council chair Nola Ruth in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol building in Jefferson City, Mo. The glass award, designed by Springfield, Mo., artists Gabe and Terry Bloodworth, has been sitting in Gifford's dining room for barely two months -- but really, it represents his lifelong passion for the arts.

Robert Gifford's music career began when he was in elementary school. A band director had come to his tiny hometown of Green City, Mo., with a trunk full of musical instruments. When Gifford told him he wanted to play a horn, the director reached into his trunk, pulled out a brass instrument, and asked, "How would you like to play the trombone?"

Gifford had always wanted to play a horn. He remembers listening to an evening radio program featuring classical music, and he thought it was "so neat." After the trombone, he learned to play the baritone and tuba. His father, a lawyer, had dreamed of his son attending Harvard Law and following in his footsteps -- but after Gifford attended a summer music program at the University of Kansas, he knew he was meant to study music, not law.

"It's hard to explain, except that it gives me a constant lift or boost. There's something about making music that's just a good feeling," says Gifford, now 68 and living in Cape Girardeau. "There's almost always music going through my head."

Since college, Gifford has taught students from elementary school through college, as well as students as far as Barbados, Costa Rica, Austria and the Ukraine, where he's been 12 times. He played in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Command Band, playing four times at the Rose Bowl parade, once at Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and once on "The Ed Sullivan Show," along with Janis Joplin. He has four degrees in music: a bachelor's degree in music education from the University of Kansas; a master of music degree from the University of Michigan; and master of fine arts and doctor of musical arts degrees from the University of Iowa.

Recently retired as a music professor from Southeast Missouri State University, Gifford says he's busier now than he ever was during his career. He serves as guest conductor and lecturer at various schools, working with bands and individuals to improve their music techniques. He's on the board of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, where his wife, Ann, an education professor, is currently president of the board of directors. And he's extremely passionate about keeping the arts in schools, traveling frequently to network with other music educators and speak with legislators about the importance of the fine arts. Gifford serves on the board of directors for the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education and Missouri Citizens for the Arts. Two years ago, the the Alliance for Arts Education began sponsoring Show Me Arts, an organization of student-led groups that advocate for the arts in their communities and beyond.

"These children may be doctors and lawyers someday, but they're really passionate about how they've experienced music in their lives," says Gifford. On March 16, he traveled again to Jefferson City, where more than 1,000 children, parents and teachers met to speak with legislators about the arts in the schools. The day included performances of dance, jazz bands, string orchestras, visual artwork and even a recorder ensemble.

"There are about 3,000 music teachers in the state, and probably as many art teachers," says Gifford. "It really hit me that all we ever did was say I wish we had this, or I wish they did this, or I wish we weren't treated this way. I guess my platform is for us all to get together and speak in one voice."

But it's not just Missouri where the fine arts programs are in danger. "With the current economic situation, more schools are having trouble with money," says Gifford. "They tend to cut whatever they feel are frills or extracurriculars. Ironically, it's never the football team."

Fortunately, the music world is one where everyone "knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody," says Gifford. Many of his opportunities have come through fellow music educators, members of arts organizations, and conductors and composers who visited Southeast Missouri State University.

"I feel like I want to be a 'missionary' for music arts and what the arts can do for people," says Gifford. "One thing that inspires me is people themselves, as human beings. It seems like everywhere I go I encounter people who are friendly, warm and kind-hearted. And it makes me feel good, like I'm doing something worthwhile." There's nothing like seeing the smiles on people's faces as they make music or see a shiny new instrument. It's especially inspiring to meet musicians in the Ukraine, who are often crowded into a too-small practice space, overflowing into the hallways, and playing instruments held together with duct tape and rubber bands. When Gifford brings them new reeds from Shivelbine's Music Store, the students line up, thrilled to receive just one new reed.

"Music is extremely valuable to them and I think it's because of their culture," says Gifford. He notes that American music schools study mainly western classical music and jazz. Ukrainian students study a wide mix which includes their native instruments, classic Russian traditions and western music. It seems like even the smallest villages have highly regarded art and music classes. "They have a great interest in maintaining their cultural traditions," says Gifford. "I think music, even if you don't have very much, is something everyone can do and enjoy. Everyone is equal. ... It levels the playing field for people."

And as a conductor, Gifford has always hoped to create performances so exciting that a powerful energy can be felt between himself, the musicians and the audience.

"Ideally, I want the audience to be moved by the music. I want them to enjoy it, be inspired by it, like the melody. Everyone has their own way of relating," says Gifford. "A recording -- even if it's the best performance ever -- it's still in a sterile box. Live music has errors and mistakes, but it's happening at that moment. ... That's what live music is all about." He adds, "The most important thing is to be as musical as you possibly can with what you're doing. Whether you're young or old, make as much music as possible."

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