by Mark McGowan
Robert Chappell remembers well when his second life in music began.
Chappell earned his bachelor’s degree in music in the early 1970s and, with a classical training in piano and percussion, embarked on a career as a professional musician. After a stint with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Chappell moved on to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and made an important acquaintance.
“My friend turned me on to world music. He said, ‘Listen to this tabla player.’ I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. And I’m playing triangle back there behind the orchestra?’ ” Chappell says. “Now I’ve lived a lot of places, learned by experience and studied the music of different cultures.”
For five years, Chappell performed throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Japan as a keyboardist and percussionist with the Paul Winter Consort. He also toured extensively with his own jazz-world group, Rhythmic Union, with NIU colleague Liam Teague and with their Latin-Caribbean ensemble Panoramic.
Scholarly interests about drumming took him to Africa, India and to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Among the many lessons of those worldwide travels, Chappell says, was to disregard the Western notion “that the way we learn music is the only way.”
“I’ve found you really need to stretch the students with all their faculties, and all their senses, when they learn music,” he says. “It requires hearing and seeing and touching, and I’m trying to figure smell into this. I’m sure we can probably smell the sweat from the competition.”
At noon Thursday, Feb. 14, Chappell will present his ideas about teaching and his exotic instruments in “Learning Through Experience: Using the Five Senses and More to Increase Musical Awareness,” a Presidential Teaching Seminar in the Capitol Room of the Holmes Student Center.
The seminar is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. Refreshments will be served at 11:30 a.m. All are invited. Call (815) 753-1085 for more information.
“We want the people who receive the Presidential Teaching Professorships to share their experiences with other faculty. These people have been identified as our most outstanding teachers, and we’re always looking for ways we can improve our teaching and our engagement with students,” says Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver. “My experience with the seminars is that I always learn something valuable and interesting that I can incorporate into my own teaching.”
Chappell, who joined the NIU School of Music in 1983 as head of percussion studies, promises to engage his audience in unique and exciting participation. He’s bringing a Ugandan xylophone, some Indian tablas and other percussion.
“I want them to try to learn a composition in different ways – visually, orally – and I’m going to have some people try to do it without an instrument by putting them out in the hallway to mimic the motions,” he says. “Then, we’ll put a little group together to play.”
He hopes people recognize the relationship of teaching music to the teaching of any topic. He equates learning music to learning a foreign language: “It requires total mastery, time and dedication.”
“In today’s world, students are used to multimedia presentations and having things done in a very entertaining kind of way. I’m not saying you have to put on a clown costume to be a professor – it helps on occasion – but if you’re trying to teach a concept, you have to be able to present that concept from multiple perspectives,” he says. “For the students of today, and students who come from different cultural backgrounds, we as professors have to be as flexible as we possibly can.”