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John McKinney
John McKinney

Longtime Glenville State University music faculty member John McKinney retires

GLENVILLE – Glenville State University Professor of Music, John McKinney, has retired with nearly 40 years of service to the institution.

McKinney is well-known for creating and directing the famous Percussion Ensemble concert at Glenville State for an astounding 39 annual performances. The last of those concerts was held in 2019. Plans were already underway for the 40th annual concert in 2020 when the performance was canceled due to COVID-19.

During his years at Glenville State, McKinney worked with ten different university presidents, saw the construction of several campus buildings, taught and interacted with countless students, and built a legacy of music.

That musical legacy traces all the way back to McKinney’s teenage years.

Inspiration Strikes

The idea for organizing a Percussion Ensemble at Glenville State began simply enough – from a magazine spread. “In 1965 I got my first Ludwig percussion/drum instrument catalog. It included a two-page centerfold showing all the instruments they made. I was mesmerized, carefully removed the two pages, and taped them to the inside of my closet door where I would see them every morning and evening. I told my mother that I planned to have all those instruments someday. She would just smile and make no comment,” McKinney said.

Later on, he discovered an album made by RCA to demonstrate the “new” music medium known as stereo. It used percussion instruments to show off this recording because of the wide spectrum of sound possible with percussion. “I was hooked,” he said. “Nothing like this existed in my high school band program, but I never forgot the feeling that magazine spread and album had on my thinking.”

During his four years at Glenville State as a student, he had hoped to do something with the idea of a percussion ensemble. Unfortunately, during most of his time, he was the only percussion major and the program had limited instrumentation. McKinney was finally able to witness a live percussion ensemble performance in 1971 at West Virginia University. Seeing that performance only steeled his resolve to make something similar happen.

Living the Dream

McKinney graduated from Glenville State in 1973 before continuing his education at West Virginia University. He would go on to spend several years as band director at Calhoun County High School.

“With my first high school Band Director job, I got the opportunity to put this percussion ensemble idea into action. I prepared the typical Christmas concert with the concert band. However, I also created, after school hours of course, a very small percussion ensemble. We played Jingle Bells and were a hit! The uniqueness of the group stole the show, and I was elated with the first success,” he recalled.

In 1979, McKinney was hired by the WVU Foundation to run the Drumline for the WVU Marching Band. “There were more students in the drumline than in my first marching band,” McKinney remembers. There he met and studied with Phil Faini, the Percussion Director, who helped clarify his percussion ideas.

In the spring of 1981, McKinney met with Gary Gillespie, chair of music at Glenville State, and made him an offer. “I offered to come one evening a week for the semester and create a Percussion Ensemble with the current music majors, do a concert, and show him what I could do. All for free with no charges at all to the institution,” McKinney said.

Gillespie agreed.

“I had to bring three of my high school students with me each week to have enough performers for the show. We had less than 70 folks in attendance, but the families, including mine, thought it was a success. There were no openings for new faculty for me, so I was hired as an artist in residence for the next year to continue the Percussion Ensemble and to start a Jazz Band as well…all while I continued to teach my full-time public-school job. I was hired full-time at Glenville State the following year at the end of the second concert and the adventure began,” McKinney said.

While many now only recall McKinney for Percussion Ensemble, for his first 25 years at Glenville State he was the Marching and Concert Band Director, in addition to directing Percussion Ensemble and occasionally the Jazz Band.

“When John McKinney arrived as an adjunct percussion teacher at Glenville, the music department was growing from eight majors in a dying department toward a resurrection. John worked with the students available at the time, none of them were percussion majors. He immediately organized a Percussion Ensemble, and small though it was, their first performance drew great interest and the performers had a blast. That was the beginning of one of the greatest successes ever to take the stage at Glenville State,” Gillespie recalled.

Gillespie, who is now an Emeritus Professor at Glenville State, said that McKinney established himself as the “Pied Piper” of the department once he was promoted to full-time status. “Word got out about the Percussion Ensemble, and area high school students began to audition to become percussion majors. In no time, the Percussion Ensemble performances gathered the largest audiences of all other ensembles, even the excellent Concert Choir and Concert Band. John’s skill as a music maker wasn’t restricted to the percussionists; he was a builder and perfectionist in working with his extraordinary marching and concert bands. Because his academic and musical legacy is superlative, his spirit will be ever present in the Glenville State University Music Department,” Gillespie said.

Expansion and Growth

Throughout the years as the Percussion Ensemble show evolved, so did the sets, sound, and lighting. Construction and planning for the shows posed no problem for the multitalented McKinney. Armed with a family background in construction and a contractor’s license, he had no qualms about designing and building the stages upon which his ensemble would perform.

“Each year we used a very large truckload of scaffolding, delivered from Charleston, along with dozens of wooden platforms built by the ensemble members. It usually took about six weeks to build the set, move on the instruments, rehearse, and bring in the sound and light crew from Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was exciting for all of us from the first day the scaffolding arrived, through construction, rehearsals, food, friendship, interacting with the audience, and making music,” McKinney said.

From humble beginnings as a single show event, the Percussion Ensemble grew exponentially, at one point performing a demanding seven shows in five days. “As exciting as this was for us, it became physically overwhelming. The performers under 50,000 plus watts of lights and the exertion of playing percussion instruments for one to two hours each show, were becoming exhausted. Losing three to five pounds a show in water weight was not uncommon. Muscle cramps and injuries became the norm. Finally, we had to reduce the number of shows to maintain the quality expected by the audience. I like to think that we made a definite impact on our audience, gave them joy and entertainment, and changed their perspective of a Percussion Ensemble,” McKinney noted.

The shows didn’t just change in style, they also increased in substance. Performances often included African Drum and Dance, an Udu Ensemble (clay pot drums), and a Japanese Taiko Ensemble. And the music wasn’t the only thing taking the Ensemble members beyond the borders of Gilmer County. The show itself was also traveling.

Taking the Show on the Road

McKinney recalls packing instruments into two large U-Haul trucks and performers onto a bus as the group traveled to over 100 public and private schools throughout West Virginia. They also played in Parkersburg, West Virginia and Washington, DC for alumni events, at the Greenbrier Resort, at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, and beyond.

After a special show on campus with bluegrass performers Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, the group invited McKinney and the Percussion Ensemble to Nashville to perform in the Ryman Auditorium alongside them again. McKinney recalls arriving at the home of the Grand Ole Opry to set up and hearing from worried Ryman staffers that their audience would not like the percussion addition to the traditional bluegrass show. “We got two standing ovations from the thousands in attendance, and an invitation to come back again! This was the first time that a Bluegrass Band and a Percussion Ensemble performed together on a national stage, and Chevrolet expressed an interest in a national tour of our two groups. Afterwards, Jim and Jessie took our entire group to the Wild Horse Saloon in downtown Nashville for dinner, music, dancing, and fun. It was an incredible trip.”

Memories

“The most cherished memories I have with Mr. McKinney are after rehearsals when we would get to spend hours talking about the music and continuing to learn from him, even though some of us had graduated years ago,” said Stephanie Messenger, a 2007 Glenville State graduate and longtime Percussion Ensemble member. “Being by his side on stage at the piano, it was always a treat for him to turn and smile at me because his joy was infectious and I couldn’t help but smile back, even when it was because I played something terribly. Mr. McKinney is the kind of teacher who you never want to stop learning from.”

“To be in Percussion Ensemble was to be a member of a family. We were a collection of unique personalities who came together to be silly, throw our everything into a collective project, and care deeply for one another along the way. I joined Percussion Ensemble in August 2010, and I played Separate Ways with the group at Music Fest that fall. When we finished the song, Mr. McKinney jumped and yelled “YES!” to all of us. We were all so proud of what we had done because it made him proud, and it was infectious,” said Glenville State graduate and former Percussion Ensemble member, Sara Rollins. “I was lucky to be part of the Percussion Ensemble family for 10 years. In that time, I came to know Mr. McKinney as a determined, silly, talented, intelligent, professional, and loving person. I consider he and Mrs. McKinney to be two of my closest confidants and my biggest cheerleaders. Thank you, Mr. McKinney, for helping me reach my true potential as a Master of the Rhythm Universe.”

“One of the biggest pearls of wisdom that Mr. McKinney gave me was the understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in a massive stage production. As a performer, being able to see the ins and outs of being a director and learning through that process different techniques that I still use today when rehearsing my own ensembles was invaluable. Looking back, it was always very apparent that he and Mrs. McKinney truly cared about the students they worked with, even though it may not have always seemed like it in the moment,” said J. Seth Elmore, a December 2016 Glenville State graduate and former Percussion Ensemble member.

And the Beat Goes On

In October 2021, the music wing of Glenville State’s Fine Arts Center was named in honor of McKinney as the McKinney Division of Music. “The naming of the McKinney Division of Music was incredible and completely unexpected. Thank you to all who made this happen. I am constantly humbled when I think about this or see it on the wall,” he said.

“I would, of course, like to acknowledge my parents and sister for always believing in me. Gary Gillespie, Harry Rich, and Buddy Griffin for their constant support and efforts. Lloyd Bone and Jason Barr for always asking what could they do to help. The many faculty I have worked with and for their support for my programs. The thousands of students…may your lives have good memories of our time together. And to my wife Cheryl for always being there for me with her time, talents, and love,” McKinney said.

“Some have asked about my sudden retirement,” McKinney noted. “One’s health affects all things in life and my recent cancer diagnosis during this past year is no exception for us. My health demanded that I make this change.”

He says that he hopes the fine arts programs at Glenville State continue to grow, prosper, and teach good music. In his retirement he has plans for a few construction projects, a little writing, composing some music, and enjoying the next chapter of his life with his wife Cheryl and his family.

“Mr. McKinney has been more than just an instructor at GSU – he has been a mentor and paternal figure to both students and faculty alike. His years of dedication to the institution and the Department of Fine Arts have created a legacy that will last forever on this campus. We will miss him dearly and we wish him the absolute best in retirement,” said current Fine Arts Department Chair, Dr. Jason Barr.

“John McKinney is the type of professor many of us in academia strive to be,” said Glenville State University President, Dr. Mark A. Manchin. “He is knowledgeable, there’s no question about that. But he has so many other traits that make him not only a great instructor, but also truly an inspiration to his students. As Harry Rich, one of our Emeriti Professors and a friend of John’s, has been known to say, he has “teaching magic.” That extra-special something that gets students excited about learning and keeps them hooked. Glenville State University appreciates his years of service and we congratulate him on this milestone. I hope that John enjoys this new chapter and stays close to his alma mater.”

“When all is said and done and the sets, lights, and props are gone…may everyone remember that it was always about the music,” McKinney said. “No amount of props, lights, sets, and costumes matter if the music is not great! It was always about teaching the students to make great music and in doing so, they became great artists and teachers. No matter what else, you could always count on the music being outstanding, every show.”

“To all the members of the Percussion Ensemble and band alumni who have performed with us over the years, please know that you have been part of something very special for thousands of audience members made possible by your talent and a gracious giving of your time and energy. You will always be a part of our Musical Family, and we thank you so much for all you have given to us. And remember, if you are on time, you are late; always bring a pencil to rehearsal; if it is electronic it will fail; and never forget that we are Masters of the Rhythm Universe!” McKinney said.

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