Behrend professor writes coda after 25 years with jazz, concert and pep bands

Gary Viebranz will retire from the college this month
Gary Viebranz, teaching professor of music at Penn State Behrend, smiles while conducting the commencement band.

“Music is a visceral thing,” said Gary Viebranz, a teaching professor of music and the longtime director of "Music at Noon: The Logan Series at Penn State Behrend." “It can make us happy or provide an outlet for pain or grief.”

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Music is as close to time travel as humans can get. Hearing a particular song can transport you to earlier days: dancing in the kitchen with your mom, your first solo drive after getting your license, your high school prom, maybe even the day you buried a loved one.

“Music is a visceral thing that can actually cause changes to our body chemistry,” said Gary Viebranz, a teaching professor of music at Penn State Behrend and director of instrumental ensembles at the college, including the jazz, concert and pep bands. “It can make us happy or provide an outlet for pain or grief. ... Some songs are forever burned into our memories. I can remember songs that I played when I was seven years old.”

Viebranz has been making music since he was a child. He got his first instrument — a paper-headed drum set — for his fourth birthday. By age 6, he was playing the trumpet.

“It came somewhat naturally to me, and I practiced a lot, because I enjoyed it, so work ethic was easy for me to find,” he said.

Viebranz knew early on that he wanted to be a music teacher. For several years after college, he taught music at the high school level in the Cleveland area. A return to graduate school opened his eyes to the possibility of teaching college students.

“Crazy as it can be at times, teaching at the collegiate level is much calmer and more predictable than public high school,” he said.

Viebranz began teaching at Behrend in 1999. This month, after 25 years with the college, he will retire. Penn State News talked with him about music education, his career and his post-retirement plans.

Q: Can anyone learn how to play an instrument?

Viebranz: Yes, but it takes more persistence than some people want to put into it. It’s never too late, though.

Q: How many instruments can you play? Which is your favorite?

Viebranz: I play tuba, baritone, trombone and bass guitar. Tuba is my first love and my go-to.

Q: Is there an instrument you want to learn in retirement?

Viebranz: There are things I’d like to play around with, like my theremin, which is an electronic instrument that you don’t actually touch. I’d also like to get back to playing bass guitar again.

Q: Not everyone who participates in a school band wants to be a working musician. Why do you think students make time for it?

Viebranz: The point of music education isn’t to have a career in music. It’s to spawn creative thinking and make something abstract into something you can hear and feel. Music can serve a lot of purposes in a person’s life. It can be a way to escape or grieve or relate or find joy or relieve stress.

Q: What changes have you noticed in teaching for 25 years?

Viebranz: It has become harder to find inroads into students’ mindsets, to widen the focus and have them entertain the idea that there is not always a single solution or result, but that there can be many ways to achieve an expected result.

Q: One of your most popular courses was about the Beatles. What did you cover?

Viebranz: We studied everything from pre-Beatles to Beatlemania and on through the group’s breakup. They recorded 13 commercial albums, which made it easy to set up the course by covering one album each week through the semester.

Q: "Music at Noon: The Logan Series," which you directed, is one of the college’s most enduring musical traditions. How did you get involved?

Viebranz: The program had been going for 10 years when I came to Behrend. Several years later, I said I would do it for a year, and here we are. It’s been going strong for 34 years. I have been involved for 17 of them. And yes, it will continue after me.

Q: Do any "Music at Noon" performances stick out in your memory?

Viebranz: In their own ways, they have all been memorable. You have to live each concert in the moment. One of the unique things about the program is that it draws an all-ages audience, from Erie elementary school children to college students to older community members.

Q: What would people be surprised to find on your Spotify playlist?

Viebranz: Well, you might be surprised to know that I don’t have Spotify. That said, I have eclectic musical tastes. I’m open to listening to anything, and I don’t worry about labels. Of course, I enjoy the music of my youth — things that were popular in the mid- to late-1980s — the most.

Q: What will you most miss about Behrend?

Viebranz: The people. Many students, faculty and staff members have become like family.


Heather Cass

Publications and design coordinator

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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