Faculty Faces - Dr. Karen Griebling

Music professor, violist, and composer Dr. Karen Griebling grew up surrounded by music.

Her parents met in the orchestra at Ohio State University. Her mother, a music theory teacher, played violin; and her father, a chemist and published composer, played cello. Her sister, brother-in-law, and niece are also musicians.

As a child, Griebling often fell asleep listening to music her father was composing, who worked as an engineer for Firestone. 

"I guess you could say I'm a chip off the old block," she said.

An Akron, Ohio, native, Griebling began her "experimental" musical training at the age of four because her mother believed in developing her students' music theory skills in advance of their instrumental study.

She started composing at the piano and began studying viola, bassoon, piano, and voice seriously at the age of 12.

She wanted to learn multiple instruments "largely because I was becoming interested in Paul Hindemith," she said, referring to the neo-classical German composer and Yale University faculty member. "He claimed he could play every instrument he composed for, so I figured I better get cracking."

Northern Ohio was a musically rich environment to inspire budding musicians like her. Griebling grew up sitting front row at concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra. On Saturdays, her dad would drive her and her sister from Akron to Cleveland for a full day of instrument and composition lessons and orchestra rehearsals at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"I loved those days," she said. "I loved the lessons and the opportunity to hang out with dad in the car."

Griebling left Ohio for the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where she received her bachelor's degree in music in 1980. After Eastman, she moved to Houston, Texas, studying with mentors Milton Katims and composer Michael Horvit and performing with the graduate string quartet at the University of Houston, where she received her master's degree in composition in 1982. She went on to Austin, Texas, to study with Donald Grantham at the University of Texas.

In 1986, she completed her doctorate in music composition and moved to Vermont. She played with the Albany Symphony in New York and networked with music faculty members at Dartmouth College, including members of the famous Concord String Quartet, who later became guest performers at Hendrix.

A year later, Griebling joined the music faculty at Hendrix to teach theory and develop the stringed instrument studio program.

College teaching completed a circle of sorts for Griebling.

"Around the age of 12 or 13, I started thinking about being a college teacher," said Griebling, whose grandfather taught calculus at Ohio State and Kent State University.

Teaching was also a natural extension of her experience at UT as a graduate assistant in theory for Dorothy Payne, who, like Griebling's mother, was an influence in her future work as a theory teacher.

"I guess it was fore-ordained I'd end up teaching theory, which I love," she said. Griebling now uses Payne's texts in her theory classes at Hendrix. "Both [Payne and Griebling's mother] were very good at making it fun and interesting, which I hope I'm doing too with my students."

While she was accomplished as a performer and composer, Griebling had little experience as a conductor when she arrived at Hendrix.

"I admired conductors but back then a career conducting wasn't compelling to me the way a career playing and composing was," she said.

"That was a big surprise here and I had to learn it on the job," said Griebling, who had plenty of opportunity to learn on the job. When she first joined the faculty, Hendrix and the University of Central Arkansas shared responsibility for leading the Conway Symphony Orchestra.

"I thought 'The minute I move this stick [baton], they're going to do something, and God I hope it's what I want'," she recalled. "It was actually kind of terrifying."

As her confidence in conducting grew, she started the chamber orchestra at Hendrix in 1990 with six students.

The program has since grown to include 20 to 30 "really dedicated students … enough to handle Haydn, Bach, and chamber orchestra music by contemporary composers like Bartok," she said. "We've even premiered and commissioned new pieces from local professional and student composers and distinguished guest composers."

Many students come to Hendrix from larger orchestra programs with 75 to 80 students, she said.

"One student looked at our group's size and said, 'I can't fake it in this group' and I told them, 'No, we can hear every last note you play'," she said. "We may not be as big as other programs, but what we're doing is working and we're attracting really good students, really good musicians."

"Their creative energy just spins off," she said. "It energizes me and their fellow students … and I love that."

Staying energized is a necessity for her survival, she said.

In addition to music theory and chamber orchestra, Griebling teaches a course on world music and, over her career at Hendrix, has had several music composition students who have gone on to top doctoral programs such as the University of Michigan.

As a violist, Griebling is a long-standing member of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which plays 100 services a year. She is also active in the new organized Conway Composers Guild and performs with the Conway-based Cross Town Trio, which includes fellow Hendrix music faculty member Dr. John Krebs on piano and University of Central Arkansas music faculty member Dr. Jackie Lamar.

"When you're visible doing what you teach, people notice," she said. "It helps in recruiting as well because I'm practicing what I preach. I do and I teach."

Her close connection to the performing community is "particularly appropriate for Hendrix," she said. She often helps prep students for auditions for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and mentors students who want to be professional musicians.

"I try really hard to impart on students the facts of life of a professional musician," she said. "You have to develop discipline, be on time, prepare, learn the music, and know the directions to the venue … don't leave anything to chance."

She has also connected Hendrix students with internship opportunities in the performing arts.

"The management of symphony includes educational outreach, marketing, recording, and arts management," she said. "That can be an excellent hands-on learning experience for students."

Music, by nature, is an exercise in engaged learning and a natural opportunity for students completing the requirements of Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning, Griebling said.

"Odyssey has helped the music program quite a lot," she said. "It's helped us recruit, in a sense, because we generate a lot of Odyssey credit. Making music is very 'hands-on'."

In addition to the organized ensemble opportunities for Odyssey credit (e.g. chamber orchestra, choir, wind ensemble, etc.), several students have developed individual and collaborative projects with the support of Odyssey.

"We see a lot of interesting and creative things," she said.

Ryan Gaston, a senior music major from Booneville, Ark., is one example. Last summer, Gaston won top honors in the University of Louisville Young Composer Competition for New Electro-Acoustic Music for his original composition titled "Nocturne: Crickets (Inside & Out)." Through an Odyssey project about human communication skills, Gaston led a campus performance of "Dream Retrieval Ritual," reconstructed from information found in recently discovered anthropological documents, with music and staging provided by the HCE New Music Ensemble. Gaston would like to develop an electronic music studio at Hendrix.

"When I first started, I came out of one of the best electronic music programs in the country," she said. "Twenty years later, we have a student wants to build an electronic music studio at Hendrix. To see someone tackle that and get support for it … that's exciting."

In 2005, with the funding support of Your Hendrix Odyssey, Griebling led the Hendrix College Chamber Orchestra in making a commercial recording project, which was released in Europe, Asia and North America on compact disc by Centaur Records.

The recording attracted a lot of international attention because it included two world premieres of previously unknown works by the Armenian-American composer, Alan Hovhaness. 

"That was a lot of work but really eye opening for students," she said.

Griebling saves the summer for composing her music. Once she's off the academic and symphony calendars (approximately mid-May to mid-August), she writes daily from about 6 a.m. until late into the night, often taking her first break around 3 p.m. Last summer, Griebling composed six pieces.

During a sabbatical last fall, she wrote a paper on the18th century Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn and completed the libretto for an opera about the 15th century British monarch, Richard III, a project she conceived in 1975.

Griebling would like to see her Hendrix students stage an opera.

"It would be a huge expense and undertaking, but that's something I'd like to tackle before I retire," she said.

She would also like to explore the dance music tradition more with Brigitte Rogers, the instructor of the Hendrix Dance Ensemble, a relatively new offering in the College's expanded Theatre Arts and Dance Department. Specifically, she would like to see a fully choreographed performance of Blue Danube at Waltz Night, the chamber orchestra's annual fundraiser.

"We've collaborated on quite a few projects already," she said.

Along with classics professor Dr. Rebecca Resinski, Griebling and Rogers staged a performance based on the works of Sappho in 2010. 

"Rebecca translated Sappho's poetry and created a dramatic structure from it, I composed the music to set Rebecca's lyrics for two sopranos, oboe, viola and harp for my colleagues (Hendrix College music faculty sopranos Suzanne Banister and Joanne McDade) and Brigitte choreographed our work for the Hendrix Dance Ensemble, and it was performed at the Conway Art Fest in October 2010," she said. "At the performance, I was particularly impressed by the way Brigitte's stage design and costumes and poses reminded me of the work of the American classical-revival artist, Maxfield Parish. It brought all the arts together in a way that seems only possible at a place like this. And talk about 'hands-on' collaborative projects for faculty and students …wow!"

"I was nervous and wasn't sure what would ultimately happen, but it was such a wonderful experience," she said.

She's pleased to be a place where she can come up with new possibilities.

"Being in a college environment forces you to try new things because the contact with young people is so stimulating and energizing," she said. "Things are always occurring to me. Ask me tomorrow and I'll come up with three different projects … If I every stop trying new things I might as well be dead."