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
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.
“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
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
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
“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