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Doctoral Student’s Love for Music Inspires Research

Hands of a musician playing on a double bass closeup in black and white tones.

August 8, 2023

Mike Cleary left a pre-med program of study for one that lights his soul on fire. In his first year of study in the University of Northern Colorado’s Doctor of Arts in Music Conducting, three research areas have piqued his interest: a WWII-era musical composition, the double bass and loss.

“My maternal grandmother is from France. She and my grandfather met while he was stationed there with the U.S. Army. Darius Milhaud’s “Suite Française”is a 1944-45 French band piece that includes folk song arrangements,” Cleary said.

Each of the suite’s five movements is named for a place in France where allied troops fought. Cleary could have concluded the piece was based entirely on geography, but he dug deeper.

“The themes of love and loss in the folk songs Milhaud used provided a deeper connection between the Americans who were playing the piece and the people of France,” Cleary explained.

Although his emphasis is in Wind Instrumental Conducting, Cleary has played double bass, a stringed instrument, since high school. Through his project “Double Bass in Wind Band Pedagogy,” he aims to aid band directors in guiding string players.

Mike Cleary
Mike Cleary

“I’m the odd one out when it comes to wind ensembles. It’s part passion project, part making sure the next generation of bassists get a better education than I did because it was a lot of learning on the fly for my teachers,” he said.

He’s applied to present his pedagogical research at conferences in Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Even people who aren’t immersed in the world of music can connect to Cleary’s topic, “The Theme of Loss in Wind Band Repertoire.”

“I lost my dad in high school. And then last summer, I lost my mom. Both unexpectedly. This last academic year has been one of the toughest,” he said.

His research uncovered how music was helping others cope with grief and loss.

“I want to interview living composers in the wind band medium about how they portray loss through their orchestration, and which instruments they perceive as the most healing,” he said. “I want people to see how cathartic music can be. The list can provide a foundation for choosing pieces to make audiences feel a certain way. It’s important for the average person because you can search all day long on Spotify or YouTube for sad music, but there’s nothing quite like classical music to make you feel something.”

Cleary was lost after his father’s death until his high school band director helped him find an outlet for his feelings. When he started his college career, he first minored in music and majored in pre-med before realizing music classes made him want to get up every morning. Before coming to UNC, Cleary earned a bachelor’s from the University of Portland and a master’s in Music from Central Washington University. He came to UNC to study with Associate Professor of Music and Director of Bands Wesley Broadnax.

“He’s a fantastic leader and teacher. He invited me out to visit last year, and the rest is history,” Cleary said.

Broadnax was equally impressed by Cleary.

“What makes Mike unique and exciting for me to work with is his eagerness to learn and absorb as much information as possible. He has a strong desire for research, is inquisitive and takes initiative. Our students absolutely adore him,” Broadnax said. “Mike had some struggles, but the way he navigated those was admirable.”

In addition to his research, Cleary holds a teaching assistantship, handling logistics for the 100 undergraduate musicians in the marching band. This summer, he’s working with youth at a Boy Scouts of America camp on the Oregon coast.

When he returns to his studies next fall, he will continue to prepare for his future career.

“I had a very influential teacher in my high school career. I want to be able to support my future students by providing a safe space because safe spaces aren’t always guaranteed. And music should be one that is safe,” Cleary said.

— written by Brenda Gillen