It was one of the first four-year degrees offered by the conservatory, and the program is known for turning out top-notch music educators like David McKee ’76, who has served as the director of Virginia Tech’s band, the Marching Virginians, since 1986. He’s such a stalwart presence that his image was even turned into a bobblehead a number of years back to raise scholarship money for Tech. Sadly, the bobbleheads are no longer available. But the real McKee continues to lead the band with the help of skills acquired at Shenandoah.
McKee and his wife, Charlotte (Hickerson) ’76, met at Shenandoah as they both studied music education. “Shenandoah was the foundation of our career training,” he said. “The musical environment was incredibly challenging and inspiring, and there was great music everywhere. We were surrounded by talented faculty and peers, and the atmosphere created a great mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The music education program provided us with a tremendous balance of concepts and skills, many of which are still part of my ‘tool box.’”
While he loved his studies, the personalities at the conservatory meant just as much. “The people made Shenandoah unique and vibrant. We were challenged by faculty and peers alike to grow as musicians in every way. We certainly fed off the energy of others! Faculty members always took time for the students. That is a trait I’ve never forgotten, and I’ve always tried to follow their lead.
“Jim Kriewald, Ph.D., was serving as dean of students during our time at Shenandoah. A great musician and incredible human. I don’t know how he EVER got his work done because there were days when I think I camped in his office. He always took time for me, whether the challenge was musical or personal. I learned from a great musician and friend, someone who became a lifetime mentor.”
Dr. Kriewald, who retired from Shenandoah in 2008 as vice president of research, planning & institutional effectiveness, says McKee often spent time in his office not only for himself, but for others, because he was a resident assistant (RA) during his undergraduate years. Kriewald was impressed with McKee back then, and has remained so while watching McKee lead the students in the Marching Virginians. “Dave is like a father to each and every one of them,” Kriewald said, noting that McKee has passed along, hundreds of times over, everything he learned at Shenandoah.
The music education program provided us with a tremendous balance of concepts and skills, many of which are still part of my 'tool box.' —David McKEE '76
Winchester and Shenandoah literally helped Charlotte and David McKee start their careers. “We got our first job(s) courtesy of Joseph T. Smith, director of bands at Middle Tennessee State University, who was an adjudicator for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Band Festival in 1975 and 1976,” David said. “Charlotte was his judge’s assistant at Apple Blossom, and he recommended me for a job in a tiny town in Middle Tennessee. Charlotte’s job in elementary music opened up about a week before our wedding.”
Both he and his wife have devoted their lives to music education. Charlotte recently retired from 36 years of teaching elementary and middle school choir. David, who earned his master’s degree in education at Virginia Tech in 1986, says that teaching music is special to him because he loves watching students succeed and grow as musicians and human beings, regardless of their future careers. “Music touches everyone in different ways. Over my career at Virginia Tech, roughly one-third of my students have been engineering majors. They find their careers in engineering, but they find their souls through music!”
Music has lent an incredible richness to McKee’s life. Through being a music educator, “I get to do something I love every day, and I’ve had a wonderful career — especially at Virginia Tech. I have an amazing wife (thanks, Shenandoah) and three incredible kids. Many of my great lifelong friends are from my days at Shenandoah!
“I’ve had the opportunity to conduct our Symphonic Wind Ensemble on the stage of Carnegie Hall and direct the Marching Virginians at the national championship football game,” he said. “I’ve been pretty lucky.”
He has also learned a great deal along the way, including what makes music teachers special. “Music teachers love music and share that passion with their students,” he said. “Whether in an ensemble setting, classroom environment or private lesson, great music teachers share their craft and their love of music in everything they do. They model excellence in performance, persistence and diligence in rehearsal, and professionalism.”
Ultimately, according to McKee’s longtime friend and mentor Kriewald, music educators are tasked with “getting a fire to burn in the hearts of young people.”
For anyone inspired to teach music, McKee has some practical and delightful advice.
“There are challenges in every line of work.” he said. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Grow as a musician and educator every day. Steal everything you can by watching great conductors and listening to great musicians. Surround yourself with great mentors. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to fail.”