Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Bob Demaree

Dr. Bob Demaree

Growing up, Dr. Bob Demaree, Director of Choral Activities at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville was surrounded by music. His dad was a professional musician and a professor at Indiana University at South Bend. Although Demaree was raised in a musical household, he had many interests and began his collegiate journey at Indiana University as a chemistry major.  

“I was in their honors chem program. I had an amazing high school chemistry teacher, and I loved it. I loved the ideas of chemistry and problem solving. I made a mistake, because at that point in my life, I didn’t know what engineering was and Indiana was not an engineering school,” he said. “I was still active in music, and after a couple of years, I realized it was what I knew best and what I felt most strongly about. I switched to choral music.”

In 1992, Demaree joined UW-Platteville and said he’s indebted to his predecessor Dr. Gerald Darrow. Demaree recalled what a fine man Darrow was and how he worked at the university for more than 30 years until his retirement.

“I made it a mini goal for myself to get to 2024 to match him with 32 years,” said Demaree. “It says something about a community like UW-Platteville, where you have two guys running the ship for 65 years.”

As Demaree approaches nearly 30-years of teaching, he credits his peers in the music program. “I have never had a better set of colleagues than I have right now,” he said. “The integrity, excellence, the musicality and teaching ability is just off the charts good; I’m so lucky to be with them.”

You teach a variety of classes including choral conducting, choral literature and music history. What inspired you to pursue teaching?

Ensemble music: band, district choir or jazz band is different from being a soloist. As a performer myself, my instrument is my choir. There is no way to do ensemble work without teaching because you are in effect training the ensemble, you are exposing the ensemble to styles and nuances of the music. I don’t think I ever decided I was going to be a teacher. I was going to be a choral musician and being a choral musician, you teach.

I graduated college with a voice degree. I never graduated with a music education degree. I ended up taking a different path and never taught at the K-12 level. Once I decided I was going to do choral music, there was a crossroads I reached when I was pursuing my master’s degree. I could have gone back and picked up an education certification. The real answer for me was to get my doctorate and get a job at a university, and that’s what happened.

How has the UW-Platteville music program adapted to the challenges of COVID-19?

We have done amazing work, absolutely amazing. Last spring was really hard. The extension of spring break was announced on Friday, March 13. That Sunday, we were supposed to have a big concert with all the choirs and orchestra, and it got cancelled two days before. We had done a lot of work already that semester. As a department, we decided to shut down all the ensembles in fear someone could get sick. 

This fall, we worked diligently over the summer. We, as individual faculty, were very active within our own professional stations to find out what the best practices were going to be dealing with COVID-19. Everyone understood immediately singing of any kind was going to be a real problem. We all were learning a lot over the summer of what could and could not happen. When we got to fall, it was determined you could sing with a mask, indoors for 30-minutes at a 10-foot distance minimum between every two singers. It allowed us to get our choirs back. We did a virtual choir video called the “The Road Home.”

Now, in the spring, the restrictions have lessened some. We are allowed 45-minutes singing indoors. I think the biggest thing we can say is that to date, a year into the pandemic, we are not aware of a single case that was created or passed within any of our music groups. It was the prime directive; we can’t get anyone sick. 

You can’t imagine how much tech my colleagues and I had to learn that someone can give a voice lesson or flute lesson when they are not in the same room as the student. It’s been amazing the number of things my colleagues have overcome. 

What do you hope students take away from your classes and their involvement in choir ensembles?

We want all students, regardless of which choir, to have some basic experiences that are the same. The first and most important thing is we can encourage and excite students about this art form. We can create a sense of community within each ensemble. The singers all feel they are valued, regardless of their talent level, and are all capable of working together to create something bigger than themselves. It’s the most important baseline. Along with that, we want to teach them skills, how to sing and read music better, how to listen and differentiate different styles. Those are all mechanical things, but ultimately we are trying to get them to experience what it is to create real art. We want them to experience the breadth of different styles and understand why this music was created, and what resonance it has and what it says about cultures and history. Real art reflects society and the world at large. We want our students to not just appreciate it, we want them to create it. My job is being a guide.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your time at UW-Platteville?

I have been blessed with winning awards, but it’s the students and friendships. For me, one of the greatest outpourings was a year ago January, when Chamber Choir made its first ever international trip as a full choir. It was the first time any UW-Platteville ensemble had gone abroad as a full ensemble. One of the ways we fundraised, nearly two years ago now, was to hold a huge alumni event and we asked alums to come back for a reunion. We had our current group sing for them and then alumni sang with the students. It was the fifth reunion we have had, and we never had fewer than 80 alumni. Alumni come with their spouses and kids. They can’t wait to do it again and some alumni want me to have a reunion every year. Why is that important to me? Because it says that those basic principles have come to fruition; it did matter and they do care. The alumni have a deep love for what they accomplished at UW-Platteville and their friendships with each other is another layer. A huge amount of choral alumni are all still connected to each other. That’s as good of a testimony that I could have. It’s really the interconnection, it mattered to them. It wasn’t making music just for the sake of making music. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The students. That’s one thing I learned from my dad, being a choral musician and university professor for his entire career. He built a program for more than 30 years. I remember when he retired he said, he was very well aware the traditions he had built there were not going to last. He said, “You can’t build monuments in higher education. Your monuments are your students.” I think that is true. The best part of my job is talking with students, encouraging, sometimes challenging, saying things they don’t want to hear but need to hear, opening the world of choral music and music in general.

The music program is absolutely a teaching institution. We are all about the students and teaching them. We are all about helping our students grow towards whatever they are going to become. It’s absolutely the students.