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Chemeketa’s music program thrives

In 2013, the Chemeketa Choir had 12 people. There was no band or orchestra until the fall of 2015. Today, Chemeketa has three choirs, an orchestra and a band.

Chemeketa students practice their instruments in one of the music rooms on the main campus. Photo by Saul Rodriguez

Since the return of Chemeketa’s music program, it has grown substantially and is showing no sign of slowing down any time soon. Kerry Burtis built the music department up from almost nothing to where it is today. His only intention was to create a good program for his high school music students who chose community college before transferring to a four-year university.

“I wasn’t looking for a job, I was trying to provide something for my students after high school,” Burtis said.

Burtis started teaching at Chemeketa part time in 2013 and has been Chemeketa’s first full-time music director since 2015. Before that, he had been a high school choir teacher for 29 years. He started inquiring about Chemeketa’s music program (or rather, lack thereof) in 2004 and decided he needed to make a difference. He was successful. Burtis discussed where Chemeketa music began, and where it is now.

“We went from one little room, which we used a fourth of the time, to three rooms we use 100% of the time. We have over 25 music students who consider music to be their major. We have a couple hundred students who take music classes, so it’s up quite a bit from 6 or 7,” said Burtis.

“We have students now who are being accepted to the universities with preparation. They’re being accepted because they’ve had band, orchestra, private lessons, and piano, and music theory, and they are now qualified to go to a four-year school, whereas before, Chemeketa did nothing to prepare them for that. We now have a music program.”

The music programs at Chemeketa are always excited to welcome new students. Band, orchestra, and concert choir are held in the evenings, which allows anyone from high school age to adulthood to join.

“We really want a place where people can come and just make music. We also want a place for the serious music students, because to be a music major you have to show that you have credit earned as a band, choir, or orchestra member. Not just that you were in a band, choir, or orchestra,” Burtis said. “We have that now, and we didn’t have that before. So people can transfer to other colleges.”

As for instructors, Chemeketa hired who was needed, as they were needed.

“You need a flute teacher? We hire a flute teacher. You need an oboe teacher? We hire an oboe teacher. Now we have oboe teachers. Some have several students, some have some, some have none,” said Burtis.

Burtis is also excited about the music classes Chemeketa has to offer, especially its composition and conducting lessons.

“I’ve got nine conducting students, [Bill Whitley] he’s got a dozen composition students. That’s amazing because you don’t normally have private composition or conducting lessons … [until] you’re in your third or fourth year … usually at grad school. I didn’t do private conducting until I was in grad school. The fact that we even offer it is pretty amazing.”

When asked where the music program is headed, Burtis said they have plans to add courses and expand allocated class space. For instance, Burtis wants to start a piano lab, so new students will not have to seek out private lessons to learn how to play. He foresees designating an entire room to keyboards and computers, where people can work alone on their projects. Additionally, he wants a music lab classroom, with a lab assistant to help students hone their skills in various subjects.

Overall, though, Burtis admits there isn’t much more to add to the program. He is enthusiastic about the future of Chemeketa’s music program and proud of what it has already become in five years.

“I believe that if you build it, they will come. That has been proven true, because we have built it, and people have come.”

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