While saxophone was his instrument of choice in his younger years, Milt Allen finds himself playing the piano more these days. Salina Post photo
By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
Dr. Milt Allen has come home and he's still making the music that he's loved since he was a child growing up in Salina.
Allen is in his first semester as chair of the music department at Kansas Wesleyan University. And what a whirlwind semester it has been.
"We had students on campus a week after I got here. The day I moved in, on Aug. 8, I remember I stopped off at the place where I'm living right now and I said, I'm just going to drop some things off, come down to school and drop some stuff off and I'll be back. Came down to school and eight hours later...and that's what it's been like," Allen said. "It's been seven days a week, every day and I haven't been able to get into the community like I've wanted to just because there's been so much to do."
It all started with a phone call
"I always kind of kept tabs on town because Mom and Dad were still around until they passed. Michelle Dolan had given me a call and said would you ever consider coming back to Salina at a smaller college?" Allen explained.
And while home is important to Allen, being able to come home wasn't the main attraction, he said.
"I decided to do some due diligence and really looked at what was going on downtown; really looked at where the arts were," he said. "Our downtown is back! There's heavy involvement in the arts. When I was a kid, it wasn't the same Wesleyan. It's a completely different leadership. A completely different campus. The resources have been there to help the administration do what they're doing. And I've traveled a lot of places and I've never seen that combination of the community, and also our partnerships in the community, and the emphasis on the arts, and where the university is now. So that really appealed to me, and the fact that it was home was kind of bold type, underscore, exclamation point!"
A lot of living in 40 years
Allen brings back to Salina a wealth of experience that he has acquired since he graduated from Salina Central High School in 1979. That experience includes performing at the Olympics and for a presidential inauguration, studying with world-class conductors, and working with a myriad of musicians.
After graduating with his undergraduate degree from the University of North Texas, Allen said he began teaching in West St. Louis County, Mo. While there, he completed a master's degree at the University of Missouri. He then went to the University of Calgary, where he earned a master's degree in an audition-only program.
"It was a pretty neat program. I got to work with, at that time, the finest wind conductors in the world," he said.
Allen then became what he described as a roving teacher in a district in St. Louis County, Mo., but decide he wanted something different, so he went to a smaller, rural school nearby, a position he held for three years.
"The last year I was there, I had a student that was killed by another student. A 12-year-old clarinet player. And I knew the kid who had killed her as well. He was a 16-year-old kid that had some issues," Allen said. "That one really threw me for a loop and I said 'you know, I didn't sign on for this in education. Done.'
"So I moved to an Indian reservation and lived on there for a bit and then decided you know, am I really kind of running from stuff or what, so I came back, actually to Salina and was doing a little bit of radio work for KSAL and those folks. I was the creative part of a team. And then the job opened up at Sacred Heart," he said.
Allen started at Sacred Heart with seven students enrolled in the high school band and 28 in the middle school.
"We got real creative. In five years, we went from seven kids to 72 in the high school band and up to 70 in the middle school," Allen said. "Man, what a run we had. Lots of great things happened. Great student. Incredible support."
During that time, Allen also began picking up more guest conducting a clinic opportunities.
"And then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from Ohio State University and they said 'would you want to come audition for a doctorate?' They had one doctoral conducting associate for the university bands program. I said 'I'd love to audition, sure,' and I was up there in two weeks and before I got on the plane, they offered the position to me," Allen said.
After four years at Ohio State, Allen became director of bands and instrumental division director at Eastern Illinois University. Part of Allen's work was rebuilding the program.
He also accepted a position as a clinician for Hal Leonard Music and Meridith Music Publications.
"They asked me to do a book and I wrote a book for them. In fact, I still represent them when I go out and do clinics. And I also became a clinician for Jupiter Instruments, which is the second largest instrument manufacturer in the world," Allen said.
Then Ohio State called again, this time with an offer of a visiting position. Allen was there for two years as associate director of bands. During that time, he started a variety of musical opportunities, including a huge middle school honor band, he said.
And while he accomplished much, something just wasn't quite right.
"I really did some soul searching and thought 'is this the way music education should be?' The reason I got the doctorate in the first place was I felt that since I had the opportunity I needed to take it if I wanted to change what I perceived to be some issues with how we're training teachers and how music is perceived in our country. And I just kind of had this moment where I thought 'you know, this isn't going the way I thought it would' and so I just kind of, after some interesting goings ons at Ohio State I just turned my back on academia," Allen explained.
Allen worked as a freelance musician for a while. Then, in 2015 he started a nonprofit organization called The Music Guerrilla that focuses on underserved and underfunded music programs.
"That got me involved in doing a lot more things overseas," Allen said. "I've been to Europe several times. Rwanda. Zambia. Haiti. Still have some partnerships that I have maintained that I hope to get Wesleyan involved in for opportunities for our students."
For Allen, it's about the students
Allen said the KWU administration has been supportive of his vision for what music education should be.
"There's a really solid foundation here. What I told the students was that I believe in that foundation, but what I want to build now is a launching pad. I think Kansas Wesleyan needs to create its niche and as someone who has worked in a large school and knowing what goes on up there, one of the mentalities that I do not aspire to is 'we're a small, regional school that serves a regional population,'" Allen said. "I want to posture us nationally and I think we do that by taking an aggressive, different approach, first of all, to music education, which will be our backbone, without question."
Allen's vision also includes a strong performance component.
"So I think just in terms of how we structure our program moving forward, its how do we not just train students. How do we truly prepare our students for what they're going to see because music education and arts education is going to change drastically in the next five to 15 years. The orchestral paradigm. The band paradigm. Not as much, but the choral paradigm as well," Allen said. "We're one of the few countries in the world where when you're trained in education, your trained to be either band, orchestra, general music, or choral, rather than training our students as musicians first and then being able to do any of those things, certainly with an emphasis on one."
Allen said it has become apparent that in some populations, the large ensemble concept can't sustain itself, either financially or in terms of numbers of participants.
"How are we going to reach those kids? What are we going to do?" Allen asked. "But my bigger question is what are we doing at Wesleyan? Are we going to just be gate keepers? Let kids take these courses and then turn them out and hope for the best? Well, we gotta change the thinking. So I think that's where our niche is and that's something I'll put against any size school. Ultimately what should separate us from anyone else is the size. We don't teach teachers here. We mentor music educators. There's a big difference between teaching and mentoring. And music, still to me, with the great people that I've worked with, it's about mentorship, its not about teaching."
Allen also is concerned about student learning.
"I'm selfish with my students and one of the things that we all became very aware of was our students' use of time. There's been enormous performance demands put on our students that I don't think have been in their best interests," he said. "I think it's been wonderful because of the way they've been serving the community and that's great, but our students have been missing a lot of class and faculty have noticed that. A lot of demands which have been placed on students on their time and I think we need to change some of those to be a bit more selfish about the time that our students have and what their reason to be here is for.
"I really want to make sure our students are learning."
Another change includes phasing out the general music degree, Allen said.
"I think it is important that we make sure that when students graduate from here that they don't have to say 'do you want fries with that shake.' So in fairness to them and in preservation of their time, we're going to let that degree go, and that's also a university feeling. And so music ed and music performance is what we'll do," he said.
The department also will begin conducting auditions for students to enter the music education program.
"We don't audition to be a music ed major at Wesleyan, and that's changing. That's changing for two reasons. One, if you're going to make music your life, you need to have a certain level of proficiency at the time you enter college. We owe that to the students. But the other thing that we owe to the students is making sure that we don't get you in here just so we get a body. It's not fair to you if you really don't have the talent or what it takes to put you through four years, so putting that audition in place gives us a gate where we can be honest with these students so we don't get situations like that," Allen said.
For Allen, the journey toward musical proficiency began at an early age.
"I had Barbara Werth in fifth-grade saxophone and I thought, this music stuff's pretty cool. And then I had Mel Herington at junior high and my junior high experience, I knew music, I didn't know what, but I knew that's where my life was going to go. And then when I got into high school, my brainstorm was to double major in music and performance...music and jazz," Allen said. "I'm fortunate because I knew and my whole life's been geared toward that. My vocation could never not be music."