KU bands director takes baton in stride

John Lynch puts 'creative stamp' on program during first year

You might say Kansas University bands director John Lynch is hardheaded.

At his first away football game last fall, a member of the visiting team's color guard accidentally whacked him on the skull with a flag pole.


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Kansas University director of bands John Lynch talks during Monday's KU Wind Ensemble rehearsal. Lynch is finishing up his first year as KU's director of bands and already has put his stamp on the program.

"It almost knocked me out," Lynch recalls, laughing at the memory. A little woozy, he still managed to conduct the national anthem. "After that, it's gotten easier."

That depends on your definition of "easy."

Lynch is wrapping up his first year as KU's new director of bands -- filling the shoes of longtime and much-beloved band director Bob Foster -- and he's already putting his unique stamp on the program.

Since his tenure began last August, Lynch has:

l Restructured the hierarchy of student bands, making KU's Symphonic Band the second-ranking group and moving the KU Wind Ensemble into the top concert band position. The more select ensemble has 55 members but relies on a "player pool" concept that allows Lynch to pull out smaller ensembles for certain numbers and use the entire group for others.

"It puts us in line with most of our peer institutions," he says. "Much of the newer repertoire is written for smaller ensembles. It allows me to do a broad variety of repertoire."

l Revamped the audition process to a "blind" format, in which musicians register anonymously and play from behind a screen. "It's much more like a professional audition," Lynch says.

l Initiated the KU Commissioning Project, which has the KU Wind Ensemble premiering brand new works by up-and-coming, national-caliber composers and commissioned by KU. The group also has played works by KU composers, such as Charles Hoag.

"I'm very much in favor of promoting composers and helping them," Lynch said. "It's exciting to give birth to something brand new."

And there are more projects on the not-too-distant horizon for the motivated (hardheaded was meant only in the most driven-by ambition sort of way) administrator.

"I like doing innovative things," he said. "It's my nature. I'm a builder and a creator. I like to be in a situation where I can make innovative things happen. That's why I like KU. It feels like, here in the band program, anything can happen."

Destined to conduct

Lynch's anything's-possible attitude is nothing new. It probably originated with his parents, who always supported his interest in music.

Lynch played piano and clarinet in junior high and high school, later taking up the flute, saxophone, bassoon and euphonium. His folks drove him an hour and a half each way, once a week to play in the closest youth symphony, and they paid for him to take private lessons with an Estonian pianist who lived in his home town.

Lynch grew up in Jeffersonville, N.Y., a community of less than 1,000 people, two hours from New York City and five minutes from Woodstock.

"It had that sort of artistic vibe," he says of the town, tucked into the Catskill Mountains.

When he was in seventh grade, his band director let him take the helm with the conductor's baton.

"Then and there, I knew that was my career," he says. "It was the most unbelievable feeling, being able to create something with a group of friends and musicians, but also being able to shape and mold the sound. It was electrifying."

Lynch was also the leader of a high school rock band called Labyrinth. He laughs when he recalls it and has to think hard to remember the name.

A European tour with a prestigious national youth orchestra opened Lynch's eyes to the range of high-quality music schools around the country and, though he had been set to attend Ithaca College, his father's alma mater, he opted for Indiana University. He earned a degree in music education and then held several high school band director jobs -- including a stint as director at Monroe-Woodbury High School in suburban New York -- before taking his first college job at Emory University in Atlanta.

While still working, he received a master's degree in conducting with a minor in jazz studies from Eastman School of Music and then a doctorate in wind conducting from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.

'My creative stamp'

His next move took him to where KU Dean of Fine Arts Toni Marie-Montgomery is headed after graduation: Northwestern University. There, he was associate director of the school's bands and also directed the Northshore Concert Band, "probably the most well-known adult band in the country," he says.

"That was really exciting because it got me a lot of national exposure."

When the KU opportunity opened, he couldn't pass it up; and he has no regrets.

"What really is exciting about the KU band is there's this long tradition of excellence," he said, noting the legacy of Foster, his predecessor. "It's gotten national recognition. I had always heard about the KU band program. But I'm also able to put my creative stamp on the program."

Lynch's duties include conducting the KU Wind Ensemble, the school's top concert band; overseeing all aspects of the band program; guiding the graduate wind conducting program; recruiting young musicians; and doing all the administrative things that administrators do.

He also spends hours preparing musical scores in his handsomely outfitted office in the sparkling new addition to Murphy Hall. Most of the south-facing wall of the ample workspace is composed of windows that look out on Naismith Drive.

"It's important for me to have a really nice space that's aesthetically pleasing," he says, glancing around his office.

He rattles off a list of future projects: a CD-recording venture with the KU Wind Ensemble, a national tour and dreams of an international one, a conducting symposium for area high school conductors, and hopes of quickly rebuilding the KU Marching Jayhawks with the help of the Adopt-the-Band fund-raiser and the hiring of a new marching band director, Jim Hudson of Southwest Texas State University.

Though the last few months have been a period of flux in the music department, Lynch sees it as a time of renewal.

"We're just going through a period of transition. Because of that, it's a great opportunity to reshape the music program. It's really exciting that I, as a young, new faculty member, can have some say in the future of this school," he says. "I think you're going to see us continue to thrive."


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