Imagine realizing your true passion early in your career, striving to live your dream and finding avenues and opportunities along the way to help you fulfill that dream, over time, instilling your dream in the minds of people who become new allies and help move your now shared dream to reality. Then, at some point, you find yourself in the middle of a revolutionary new phenomenon and realize that your dream is being fulfilled beyond imagination. This is the story of Birch Creek’s long-time friend and faculty member G. Alan O’Connor who, after nearly 30 years directing the Steel Bands at Birch Creek, will be retiring at the end of this summer.
Having received a Bachelor Degree and Performers Certificate from SUNY-Fredonia and a Masters in Percussion Performance from the University of Illinois, G. Alan “Al” O’Connor was the first to establish an actively performing steel band in an American university, and in 1987 he established a steel pan major field of study within the Northern Illinois University (NIU) music department. O’Connor was appointed Head of Percussion Studies at NIU in 1968 and served as Associate Dean of NIU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts from 1989 – 2000. He retired from NIU in 2002.
As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, one of the composers on the faculty wrote a piece for four very large percussion setups that included steel drums.
“I had never seen one of these before. It just intrigued me as a musical instrument,” said O’Connor. “I did some research and found they originated in the Caribbean. As it was, my wife and I were married that summer and we honeymooned in the Caribbean. I had an opportunity to hear a steel band in its natural habitat and it absolutely blew me away.” That was the beginning of the dream.
In 1982, Jim Dutton, co-founder of Birch Creek, asked O’Connor to incorporate steel band into the percussion curriculum at Birch Creek. “I had vacationed in Door County with my family about seven years earlier, so I was familiar with the area,” O’Connor said.
In 1982, he agreed to work at Birch Creek for one summer only. He has returned to Birch Creek every year since then, except one. During O’Connor’s early years at Birch Creek he realized the uniqueness of Birch Creek.
“Birch Creek provides students and faculty with the opportunity to concentrate on one, and only one thing, for two weeks. The level of intense study is achieved because of this singular focus. It is something you don’t get to do for the rest of the year. Students begin to understand what is really involved in a career in music – the commitment that is needed to be successful. The fact that students can work on their music where they’re isolated from everything else, they don’t have time for distractions because of the intensity of the session. I believe exposing the students to the rigors of the profession is probably the most valuable experience they could get,” he said.
O’Connor believes this is also one of the reasons faculty members return year after year: “The experience of being in isolation and being able to do what you really love and not be under pressure is a tremendous mental boost. I feel invigorated when I leave Birch Creek after two weeks, even though I’m exhausted.”
He also credits part of that inspiration to his fellow faculty members stating, “They are excellent teachers, but great human beings first.”
Over his 29 years at Birch Creek, O’Connor has noted several changes. First he commented about the strength of the support system and donors as well as the stability of the organization. He also noted how the general playing level of students has steadily risen.
“The top steel band at Birch Creek is at a higher level than most college bands,” he said. “There is no question that the steel band training students receive at Birch Creek helps them get accepted into university music programs.”
Over the course of his professional career, O’Connor has received seven grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to support his artistic endeavors and was nominated twice for Fulbright Fellowships. Being part of the evolution of the pan movement has been a great learning experience. O’Connor considers himself basically self-taught on the instrument. Because little music existed for the instrument in the early years, he had to search out people who could arrange music. Over his career, he has premiered over 25 of his own compositions and has more than 70 arrangements for steel band to his credit.
O’Connor is very gratified to see that the steel band movement has grown like wildfire across the United States, Europe, Japan and Asia. The movement has had a great cultural impact in enhancing the growth of world music.
After his retirement from the University of Illinois in 2002, O’Connor continued his work with the Birch Creek students. This 2012 concert season marks his last season as a faculty member at Birch Creek. Birch Creek is incredibly grateful to O’Connor and will always remember his quiet leadership, great sense of humor, and many accomplishments.
We can all look forward to seeing O’Connor, perhaps on a golf course rather than in a concert hall, as he promises to continue to vacation here, in beautiful Door County, well into the future.
The Percussion & Steel Band will perform July 12 – 14 and July 18 – 21 at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, located at 3821 County Road E near Egg Harbor. For more information about Birch Creek, visit http://www.birchcreek.org or call 920.868.3763.