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Rock to Renaissance musicologist gets teaching prize

March 8, 2013

Part of a cake in the shape of an electric guitar

Professor Reynolds' new prize was celebrated with a cake shaped in the distinctive curves of the Fender Stratocaster guitar that Jimi Hendrix so famously set on fire and then smashed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. (Karen Nikos/UC Davis photo)

Peek inside the office of Christopher Reynolds, UC Davis professor, musicologist, choral singer and son of a choir conductor, and a visitor sees the expected — rows and rows of books, stacks of sheet music and a sketch of Beethoven on the wall.

But take a few more steps inside and you bump into a life-size cardboard cutout of Elvis clad in a shimmering gold suit, a gift from a co-worker. To talk to Reynolds for a few minutes is to learn his favorite musician of all time is the late, great guitarist Jimi Hendrix, with the band Led Zeppelin coming in a close second. “I could do a whole quarter on Zeppelin,” said the professor, who has taught at the University of California, Davis, since 1985.

In fact, he plans to teach “a whole quarter” next year on a different British import — the Beatles.

His teaching abilities, punctuated with enthusiasm for all his subject matter — a vast breadth of music from Renaissance to rock — were recognized today when UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi interrupted Reynolds’ “History of Rock Music” class to announce that he is the recipient of the 2013 UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement.

Established in 1986, the prize was created to honor faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. The $45,000 prize is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation. The winner is selected based on the nominations of other professors, research peers, representatives from the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees, and students.

With the professor’s students, family members and UC Davis officials looking on, Katehi surprised him with a cake shaped in the distinctive curves of the Fender Stratocaster guitar that Hendrix so famously set on fire and then smashed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. For today’s purposes, the flames were edible. 

“He has a gift for connecting with his students by encouraging them to find their own approach to the material discussed in class and inspiring them to think critically about music,” said Katehi, in presenting the award in an announcement to his class.

UC Davis Foundation Board Chair Bruce Edwards said Reynolds' work is inspiring. “It's exciting to celebrate someone as talented and inspiring as Professor Reynolds. His talent and dedication to UC Davis bring great joy and pride to the university, and we are proud to have him as a member of the Aggie Family." The foundation will sponsor an event on May 9 to celebrate the award.

“I am incredibly grateful to the donors at the UC Davis Foundation who established this prize,” said Reynolds. “This is an amazing and humbling honor that they give. And I'm grateful as well to all of my students and wonderful colleagues who have been so generous in their praise. It's a real privilege to work with the students I've taught here, and I'm blessed to have such great colleagues.”

For his part, Reynolds said he was shocked, but thrilled, to hear of the award when Katehi told him. But to those who have taken a class from him, it’s no surprise at all.

“I am in awe of him,” said Calvin Lymos, who directed the UC Davis Gospel Choir and earned his bachelor’s degree in music from UC Davis in 1993. Lymos, who now directs a gospel choir at the 24th Street Baptist Church in Sacramento, said he was always impressed with the breadth of Reynolds’ music interests and knowledge: “He is versatile. He is open to what music has to give; open to what the earth has to offer.”

In their evaluations, students praise his lectures, his knowledge of history, and mostly write that he is “awesome.” Wrote one student about the rock history class — which Reynolds has taught since the 1990s — “Thanks for teaching this class.”

Reynolds does not mind, and actually embraces, that courses in rock once never got approved. In the not too distant past, most university music coursework stuck to “serious” music. “That means German music,” he quipped — although German music is a subject in which he also excels.

In a letter recommending Reynolds for the teaching prize, Department of Music Chairman Henry Spiller wrote that Reynolds’ teaching of the rock class had been met with skepticism by some faculty — skepticism that seems “quaint” now. But, Spiller said, it precipitated an important paradigm shift for the Department of Music and for the university as a whole. “We make more of an impact on students’ lives by showing them how to apply the methods of humanistic inquiry to the subjects that they find compelling than we do trying to dictate which subjects they should appreciate,” said Spiller. “…This paradigm shift stands as perhaps his most important achievement.”

It is a different teaching experience to teach rock and roll to 150 students, most of them nonmusicians, than to teach Beethoven, Reynolds explained. “When I’m teaching Beethoven, I’m the expert. It’s new to them. In rock and roll, every group of students that I teach is going to have some knowledge of what I’m teaching. I’m teaching fans, some of them really knowledgeable fans.”

He resists being an uncritical fan himself, but knows what he appreciates. “One of the things I look for is someone who has a variety. I find Jimi Hendrix particularly amazing,” Reynolds explained, describing how the late rocker wrote and performed in a variety of styles. “But he doesn’t let his virtuosity get in the way of the music.”

Reynolds is known to his students and fellow faculty to be at once a very warm and kind person, while at the same time being a rigorous instructor.

Laurie A. San Martin, an associate professor of music at UC Davis who long ago was also Reynolds’ student, said this combination impressed and inspired her.

“I remember rather vividly actually, that he would show these beautiful slides of Europe — the churches and courts where Renaissance music was performed, towns, and people too.”

“They were often his personal pictures from travels. As a teacher myself now, I look to this example — living and enjoying the experience to help tell the stories from history. His love of the subject always came across and it was also always obvious that he is and was a very good person to his core.” 

Music and teaching as life

Teaching is a family tradition. Reynolds’ father taught music at UC Riverside, where he also conducted the two choirs. His great-granduncle taught classics for half a century at UC Berkeley. One of his sisters and a brother-in-law also are music professors in New York. His wife, Alessa Johns, teaches English at UC Davis. They grew up together in Riverside, and their families were close.

Exposed to a lot of music while growing up, he thought the one thing he should not be is a music professor, since that is what his father did. He studied philosophy, but took music courses, too, at UC Riverside. When it was time to declare a major, he discovered he had taken many more music courses than philosophy courses, so ultimately declared music as his major. He went to Princeton for graduate school, but told his friends he might come back home in a year. But the siren’s song of music drew him in still, and he eventually earned his doctorate in musicology.

As a musicologist, he enjoys teaching about the meanings of music and the ways that composers influenced each other, rather than focusing on dates and biographical facts. He sings (bass or baritone) and plays piano — musicianship not necessarily expected or required of a musicologist. He, his wife and son, Gabriel, all sing at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis, a choir that he also has conducted for many years.

Music as scholarship

Reynolds devotes about 30 minutes a day to acquiring on eBay and elsewhere sheet music written by women composers. He has collected about 5,000 pieces, of which 3,000 have been donated to the UC Davis Shields Library as the Christopher A. Reynolds Collection of Women’s Song. The collection is a testament to the activity of women composers in a field considered dominated by men, said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, in the College of Letters and Science. A musicologist herself and Princeton classmate of Reynolds, she said in her letter nominating him for the teaching prize that his commitment to this work is both scholarly and ethical.

“Professor Reynolds’ work lays the groundwork for further consideration, by students as well as scholars, of the role of women in American music,” Owens said.

Reynolds is the author of two books: “Papal Patronage and the Music of St. Peter’s, 1380-1513” (UC Press, 1995), and “Motives for Allusion: Context and Content in Nineteenth-Century Music” (Harvard, 2003) and numerous award-winning articles. He is currently writing a book on Wagner and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and is founding editor of the journal, Beethoven Studies. He is the president of the American Musicological Society, one of many prestigious posts he has held during his career.

He has studied and taught 19th century German music, and lived so many years in Germany in the course of both his research and as director of the UC Study Center in Germany, that his son, Gabriel, now 15, once was identified as an English-as-a-second language student while entering school in the United States.

“We laughed at that. We spoke English at home, but apparently he had a little bit of an accent.” His son, who speaks English and German today, due to frequent family trips to Germany to keep up his language, plays guitar and viola.

Reynolds, a firm believer in students going abroad for their education, said the 15 years of his life spent outside the United States have been among his most rewarding years. But, every day is rewarding.

“I sometimes just look around and say, ‘This is so much fun. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’”

About the UC Davis Foundation

The UC Davis Foundation is a nonprofit organization that plays an essential role in sustaining and enhancing the excellence of UC Davis by highlighting the impacts of philanthropy and stewarding private donations to the university. It is governed by a distinguished volunteer Board of Trustees. Its mission is to secure, steward and manage private gifts for UC Davis. Established in 1959, the UC Davis Foundation has a rich history of stewarding private contributions that advance the university’s mission. Gifts made through the foundation leverage the core funding the university receives from the state of California, enhancing UC Davis’ ability to teach, discover and serve the public in ways that shape the future of our world.

The UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees plays an integral role in leading The Campaign for UC Davis, the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign that seeks to raise $1 billion from 100,000 donors by 2014.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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