Terry Austin conducting.
When Terry Austin came to VCU, the job was "exactly what I wanted," he said. "I wanted to come and build something." (Jud Froelich, VCU Alumni)

Retirement concert honors the legacy of VCU’s longtime director of bands

Terry Austin's friends, colleagues and former students celebrated his 36-year career at VCU with a concert.

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The lobby of the W. E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts was abuzz Saturday night as people milled about reuniting with old friends. These guests came from as far away as Canada, Texas and Colorado to celebrate the career and impact of Terry Austin, Ph.D., who retired last month after serving as VCU’s director of bands for 36 years. 

“I can only say not enough good things about Terry Austin,” said John Guthmiller, former chair of the Department of Music in the School of the Arts. “[A] true friend, a fantastic colleague, a very talented teacher and a person who is responsible for building and maintaining a first-class band program at Virginia Commonwealth University for 36 years.”

The retirement concert was filled with music, former colleagues and students and memories.

Getting started with music

Austin said music came naturally to him at a young age. During his junior year of high school, he was one of 50 students from around the world to attend the Performers Institute at Indiana University. Austin said the band director at his school nominated him for the program and even got Austin a full scholarship for it. He said the classes only intensified his desire to pursue a career in music.

When a faculty member asked the young musician where he planned to attend college, Austin said he didn’t know.

“And he said, ‘You're coming to Indiana University.’ I said, ‘OK,’” Austin said. “And that was how I made my choice.”

Austin said he’s had many influential teachers and instructors throughout his life.

“Having access throughout my career to terrific teachers has been something that's really driven me, and it's also sort of made me want to live up to that,” Austin said.

One of those role models was his college band instructor, Ray Cramer.

“He has such an influence on me in every possible way – as a person, as a teacher, as a conductor. Just a remarkable person,” Austin said.

Cramer was supposed to be a guest conductor at the concert, but was unable to attend due to a personal emergency. However, he was watching the livestream and his presence was still felt at the event.

Since becoming a teacher himself, Austin said he’s always wanted to re-create the experience he had as an undergraduate playing at a national conference in 1971. They were performing “The Leaves Are Falling,” which ended dramatically. “I still get these cold chills because it was such a powerful, powerful moment,” he said.

Austin was able to provide that kind of experience for some of his students during their last in-person concert before the pandemic. They played “Of Our New Day Begun” by Omar Thomas, which is about the mass shooting in 2015 at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Austin said when they finished the song, he and the students were met with absolute silence from the crowd.

“That is probably the most profound musical experience I've ever had, and I think all of my students felt the same way,” he said. “When you can move an audience to absolute stillness like that, that's the most powerful applause you can possibly get.”

Terry Austin faces the audience on the stage with musical performers behind him.
Former colleagues and students came from as far away as Canada, Texas and Colorado to celebrate the career and impact of Terry Austin. (Jud Froelich, VCU Alumni)

An expansive career

After earning his undergraduate degree, Austin taught middle school band for a few years. He then began graduate classes at Butler University before taking a teaching assistantship while earning his master’s degree at the University of Hawaii.

Once he returned to the mainland, Austin taught high school band in Ohio before realizing he wanted to be a college band director. After finishing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he taught for two years at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In his second year there, he came across a notice for a school he’d never heard of – Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I thought I had nothing to lose by applying because the job description was exactly what I wanted: instrumental music education and band.”

Austin said he never saw the job as a steppingstone – when he came to VCU, he was in for the long haul.

“I wanted to come and build something. … I wanted to see what I could build,” he said. “And I took great satisfaction in the things that I was able to do during this time. I had more opportunities and more successes than I ever would have thought possible when I first came here in 1986.”

Matthew McCutchen, the director of bands and an associate professor at the University of South Florida, studied under Austin while earning a master’s at VCU. McCutchen said Austin’s tenure at VCU is remarkable because most band directors change institutions fairly frequently.

“[Austin] had plenty of opportunities to leave, but [VCU] was his place and that's where he set down roots and the entire state of Virginia has benefited from him,” McCutchen said.

Wide photo of the stage at the James W. Black Center with the band and Terry Austin.
The retirement concert for Terry Austin featured 72 of Austin’s former students performing and three guest conductors. (Jud Froelich, VCU Alumni)

Impact beyond the VCU community

McCutchen said Austin’s work is internationally recognized.

“He is not only well-respected, but he's very well liked in the profession – and those don't always go hand in hand,” McCutchen said.

In addition to collegiate work, Austin started the Greater Richmond Youth Wind Ensemble, which is composed of the top high school musicians in the Richmond metropolitan area.

“I love to teach. I love music. I love kids … it's kind of a trifecta. You do all the things that you love to do,” Austin said. “And I've always loved working with undergraduate students, that's really my passion, but I really loved working with high school students too.”

Austin also founded the Commonwealth Winds, an ensemble of Richmond-area teachers and professional performers. It started because some of them wanted to put on a concert honoring band director Frederick Fennell after he died.

“We had so much fun doing it that everybody said, ‘Can we just keep doing this?’ And so we have,” Austin said.

“And the thing that's really fun about that more than anything else is to see a bunch of band directors sitting in front of you reconnecting with music in the way that they first connected with music, and just to see the joy on their faces, to just be sitting in their old places in the band playing music again instead of standing on the podium teaching.”

There for students

Austin has been instrumental in pretty much every step of McCutchen’s career, he said, including helping him get a job at a high school, and into graduate school at Florida State.

“All of us, no matter how old or how long we're in the process, we need a mentor. And when I have a question, Terry is the person I call to this day,” McCutchen said.

Linda S. Johnston, administrative director for the Department of Music at VCU, has worked alongside Austin for 34 years. 

“He's very devoted to his students and it's very obvious when you talk to the alumni, there are certain faculty members they always ask about and Terry is one of those,” she said.

While Austin has done everything from collaborating with military bands and conducting in Japan, Johnston said she’s always been impressed by his dedication to teaching and his students.

Johnston said one time a student who needed to go for a student teaching opportunity was having car issues. Austin picked up and dropped off the student.

“He just does that kind of thing,” Johnston said.

Austin said he’s in awe of the work and careers his students have forged since graduating and is honored to be a part of their growth.

“That's another reason why this event … is just so special to me, because I get to reconnect with a whole lot of those people,” he said. “But I'm just really thankful for the students that I was privileged to have here.”

Philip Coston, the associate director of bands and director of athletic bands at VCU, was in the 10th grade when Austin came to his school as a guest artist, and then again later for a day-music program. Coston went on to study music at VCU with Austin teaching many of his classes.

Even after Coston graduated college and began teaching middle and high school students, he said Austin continued to serve as his mentor.

Coston said Austin has taught him many lessons over the years, including that they are in the teaching field to help students, not to bolster their own careers.

“We're not using the students from a performance standpoint to make ourselves look good. We are here to pour information and knowledge into them so that they can be successful in their careers and [we try] to keep that at the forefront of everything that we do,” Coston said. “I think that's the big takeaway of it.”

Terry Austin on stage receiving applause, including by others on stage.
When considering the large number of former students who traveled to Richmond for his retirement concert, Terry Austin said, "I'm speechless." (Jud Froelich, VCU Alumni)

Coming together for a night of music

Saturday’s concert was composed of 72 of Austin’s former students performing and three guest conductors.

“I knew the names on the list of all the people that were coming, but names on a list don’t smile at you. Names on a list don’t have joy on their face,” Austin said.

He said he was excited to see students he’s taught over the years come back to VCU to play at this concert.

“You know, there's a lot of personal sacrifice involved for people to come back and spend a couple of days in Richmond. And some of them have fairly young children and some of them are traveling a long distance,” Austin said. “The fact that people would do that for me is, I'm speechless, honestly.”

Austin said he hopes the concert reconnected former students with a good time in their lives when they were at VCU.

In addition to alums playing in the band, some composed music for Austin. The three pieces that had their world premieres at the show were “Terry Takes a Walk” by Bruce Boughton, “Each Life Converges” by Peter Meechan and “Fengshen, The Return Home” by Gordy Haab.

Meechan said when he was contacted about composing a piece, it was suggested he focus on Austin’s close friendship with Dennis Zeisler. Zeisler, who was director of bands at Old Dominion University, passed away in 2020.

“I thought long and hard about what friendship meant and what mentorship meant for all of us,” Meechan said. “And I think, in all of our lives, Terry is one that represents both of those things in a way that we can look up to and try to be.”

Haab, a VCU alum and award-winning video game and movie composer, reconnected with Austin while they were both in China. The band performed the world premiere of a song from a Chinese blockbuster movie series Haab worked on.

“I think it was an inspirational moment in time for both of us so it seemed fitting to use music from the film for this concert,” Haab said in a message passed on by McCutchen.

Austin’s friends, former students and colleagues are also using this opportunity to start an endowment scholarship in his name. Their target is the minimum needed to start one, which is $50,000. You can donate to the fund online at support.vcu.edu/give/departmentofmusic.

What’s next for Austin?

“My immediate plans are to do some travel that has been put off,” he said.

Austin conducted “Traveler” by David Maslanka at the concert as a way to express this desire.

However, there’s still a lot of music in Austin’s future. He will continue to work with the Commonwealth Winds and Virginia Wind Symphony in Norfolk, Virginia, as the artistic director for festivals at the Nashville Symphony Schermerhorn Symphony Center and Carnegie Hall, conduct at the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo and more.

“Those kinds of events that I've been doing for a long time, I will continue to enjoy [them],” Austin said.