University of Northwestern – St. Paul welcomed four new full-time faculty for the 2021–22 academic year. Below is an excerpt of our interview with Dr. Cassandra Bechard, director of bands and assistant professor of Music.
Cassandra Bechard brings a depth of expertise in music, teaching, and conducting to the Department of Music and Theatre. Her experience ranges from directing middle-school through college and community bands, to presenting at music conferences. Before joining Northwestern, Dr. Bechard served as adjunct bassoon professor at Morningside College in Iowa, and conducted bands and ensembles at the University of Dubuque and University of Minnesota.
What is your role at Northwestern?
I direct the Symphonic Band, which has 48 students, and the Jazz Band, which has 18 members. I teach conducting lessons and a Music Education course called “Band and Orchestra Methods.” It is traditionally one of the last music ed courses students take before they student teach.
I am also part of the group of professors teaching the new Creative Ideas course. The class includes all the arts and discusses how justice is shown through the arts. For music, we’ll talk about what music is and how music has been used to voice different social justice-related things. Students will then create their own musical piece using an online platform.
"There’s something very special about seeing a large group connect to each other and to you through music." —Dr. Cassandra Bechard, Director of Bands, Assistant Professor of Music
What did you do before joining Northwestern’s faculty?
I studied Music Performance and Music Education at Central Michigan University. I was one of those students that wasn’t sure which side of the aisle I wanted to be on, so I thought: why not do both?!
During the summers, I worked at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan. Students that attend the camp are in band, orchestra, choir, art, and dance; it's a magical place. I taught music to hundreds of students while there.
I earned my master’s in bassoon at Bowling Green State University. It was during that time I decided education was where I belonged. So after graduating, I took a job teaching band at Roosevelt High School, a public school in South Dakota. I had four concert bands, four jazz bands, woodwind choir, a brass choir, percussion ensembles, and competitive marching band. It was a great job.
My husband and I moved to the Twin Cities when I was accepted to the doctor of musical arts program in conducting at University of Minnesota. (That’s when I fell in love with the state of Minnesota.) And after earning my D.M.A., I taught college band in Iowa for two years.
I’m glad to be back here in Minnesota at University of Northwestern. It’s a great place. And as a Michigander, Minnesota feels a lot like home.
When did your love of music begin?
I began taking piano lessons at the age five. I started bassoon lessons in middle school.
Band was always very important to me. I had a lot of great leadership opportunities through band. It was also a big social setting for me. All my friends were in band, so I always found myself hanging out in the music wing of school. I did sports, but would always revert to hanging out in the band room.
Were you always interested in music as a career?
No! Meteorology was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a tornado chaser. I watched the movie Twister on a loop for the longest time after it came out. I was a subscriber to a weather magazine in middle school! So no, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a musician.
But then I met with a high school counselor and told her I was deciding between meteorology and music. She asked me what one thing I had been doing in high school that I could not live without. My answer was band. She replied, “You have your answer.”
And then she said something really valuable: “We should always get to go to work; not have to go to work.” That made a lasting impression on me.
What inspired you to pursue music education and conducting?
My high school band director was my inspiration.
It started when I was high school drum major. I liked conducting. Then my senior year, my band director let me be a teaching assistant with the ninth-grade band. I got to conduct one of the concerts that year. He was great about helping with score study and how to approach teaching. That’s what got me thinking that I could be a band director.
At first, I was nervous about whether or not music could be a viable career. Working at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp is what sealed the deal for me. I really love teaching students and being in that capacity—in a large group. I also love teaching private lessons, but there’s something very special about seeing a large group connect to each other and to you through music.
What is your instrument of choice?
The bassoon. I had to start on the clarinet in fifth grade. Every day in sixth grade I would knock on my band director’s door and ask if I could switch instruments. She finally gave me a bassoon and asked if I wanted to play it. I said, “Sure! What is it?” I didn’t know what it was, but I put it together and it’s been my instrument ever since.
What type of music do you enjoy playing?
I love playing in groups. I love playing solos as well, but my favorite thing to do is to play in chamber groups—8–16 people. That music is so much fun. In chamber music, there’s a different part for everyone, and the parts all fit together in a complex way. It’s very cool. Often, it’s not conducted; it’s fun to play in a group like that.
What music do you listen to?
I listen to the Christian radio station on the way to work. I like classical music, but at some point, I find myself analyzing the music and chords. When I listen to the Christian station, I just sing along. But if it’s been a day with an overload of noise, it’s silent in my car on the ride home. I know a lot of musicians can relate.
What is your favorite music to conduct?
I love newer music. I love when the music is from a living composer—someone I can reach out to and ask questions. For the UNW Symphonic Band, I’ve programmed a piece by Erika Svanoe, a composer and director of bands at Augsburg University. She’s just down the street, so if I have a question, I can ask her. It’s fun to have that connection.
What part of the process of teaching, rehearsing, and performing gives you the most joy?
I really enjoy rehearsals–rehearsing the music, whether in Symphonic Band or Jazz Band. Concerts are great, but they’re only one moment in time. No one but the students in the band know what it took to get to that point. I love the rehearsals and process and seeing things get better from day to day. It’s so much fun.
Is there a particular concert you’re most looking forward to this year?
There is so much tradition behind the "Christmas at Northwestern" and "Showcase" events, so I’ve looked forward to experiencing them. But what I’m really excited about is our Symphonic Band and Jazz Band concerts that will take place in November. The repertoire I’ve been able to program is exciting. (November 19. Be there!)
What experience or expertise are you most excited to bring to UNW students?
One of my proudest professional experiences was being part of a panel that presented on chamber music at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. It’s an international conference that takes place every December.
Melanie Brooks, director of bands at Winona State University, and I present on our collaboration with composers to have music written for modern chamber instrumentation. A lot of existing chamber music is written for a classical set up—two oboes, two bassoon, two horns, and two clarinets. Because those are less played instruments, we don’t have that make up of instruments in many modern day classrooms.
The other conductors and I reached out to several composers and asked them to write music for the instruments represented in our bands. There are parts for saxophone, trumpet, percussion, and other instruments traditionally left out of chamber works. I love that.
The music we present is from living composers that are male, female, BIPOC—a very diverse group that represents the students we teach. There’s also music for adaptable instrumentation. For example, if your band has 11 people and five of them play trumpet, we have music you can program that will still push them.
I have made great connections with composers along the way. I’m collaborating with them and have been able to join commissions. Next semester, the UNW Symphonic Band will perform a piece that I joined in the commissioning consortium. It’s a cool piece with digital music. I’m thankful I can offer all this to Northwestern students.
Did you aspire to teach in Christian higher education?
It’s been an interesting path! I went to public school from kindergarten through my doctoral program. My first experience in a Christian education setting was when I taught at a college in Dubuque.
What I love about Northwestern is that it’s a smaller institution, so I can get to know students on a more personal level than I would at a bigger, public institution. It’s also a privilege to get to open class in prayer rather than praying in my office before class begins.
Why did you choose to work at Northwestern?
I was holding my infant daughter last New Year’s Eve, close to midnight. (My husband and I decided to ring in the New Year watching Hamilton on Disney+.) My daughter woke up, so I took her to another room. I gave her a bottle and started looking at job openings on my phone.
When I saw that Northwestern had an opening for director of bands, it flew me out of my seat. (I was still holding my infant. Who does that?! Waking a sleeping infant!) I ran to my husband and told him, “This job is open! This is my job! This fits us.”
We knew we wanted to come back to the Minneapolis area if we ever could. So I thought, “I have to apply.” I can’t explain it other than it was God.
What is your favorite part about Christian higher education?
This is such a great place to work. In my Band and Orchestra Methods course, I can talk to students about what it means to be a servant leader. We’re diving into devotionals about begin a leader and integrating that into the class.
The point of course is to keep it centered around Gods’ calling on our life and how we’re going to live that out. How are you going to live that out even if you’re in a public classroom? How are you going to live that out so people can tell there’s something different about you? You can live out your faith and you can pray for your students!
We’re preparing students not only to be a good band and orchestra teachers, but to have a good mindset and to be a servant leader. Being a music director is a critical role, because students often stay with music teachers for four years or more.
What do you enjoy most about working with students?
There are so many things I enjoy! I like seeing how students develop and change from the first day they get here until they leave.
I’m working with some students that will be student teaching next semester. I’ll get to supervise them and see them in the classroom. It is so cool to see students develop and watch them prepare for their careers.
Do you have a favorite thing to do or place to go on campus?
I do! The island. I have to get out of my office once a day, so while the weather is nice, I go down there. I also love seeing deer run through campus in the evening.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I ran a virtual 5K this fall and may push myself to run a 10k. And I enjoy spending time with my husband and our two children. (My husband is also musical; he plays the trumpet and teaches a high school band, but we don’t play in bands together. His musical outlet is singing with and serving as assistant conductor of the Minneapolis Commadores—a barber shop group.)
What would you say to prospective families and students considering UNW?
Northwestern has a PSEO program that allows high school juniors and seniors to take college courses for free. Those PSEO students can start taking ensembles at UNW their senior year and get themselves involved a year ahead of time.
There are a number of special things we do for all our UNW music groups. For example, we hold a retreat each fall for music students to help them get to know each other outside of class. We don’t play music at the retreat; it’s simply worship and small groups. That’s something that is special and unique.
Another nice thing for band students at UNW is that band practice ends when dinner begins. So band students tend to go to dinner together; they call it band dinners. That helps build friendships and special connections.
What can a high school student do to prepare for college-level music auditions?
I always encourage high school students who are serious about becoming music majors to take private lessons—even if it’s only their senior year. The Academy of Music at Northwestern offers lessons; that’s a good way to plugged in. Private lessons really help prepare them for auditions. But if they can’t take lessons, they should work on scales and pick a solo that they love to play—not one they think will impress everybody. If they play something they love, they’ll be more inclined to practice.
What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?
Your time on campus is short even though it may seem like it will be a long stretch. Do everything that you want to do. You always have time for homework; you’ll find it. Get over involved!
What would you say to outgoing seniors?
You can always send emails to your professors and call us with questions. I still call my professors! We care about our students even after they graduate. Professors are your professors for life.