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Cynthia Johnston Turner: Exploring Musical Boundaries

by Andrea Gunn, M.PA.'07

Cynthia Johnston Turner conducting with a baton.

This fall, Cynthia Johnston Turner, Mus’85, Ed’86, starts a prestigious new job at the ­University of Georgia (UGA): ­Professor of Conducting and ­Director of Bands at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music. She will oversee the school’s six concert bands and a 500-piece marching band. She will also personally ­conduct UGA’s wind ­ensemble, as well as teach master and doctoral students in wind conducting.

Over the last decade, Cynthia has made a name for herself as an innovative musician, ­conductor and teacher with her work at ­Cornell University, where she was director of wind ­ensembles. So why is she such a great teacher? Perhaps it’s because she never stops learning ­herself. In 2013, she became a beta tester for Google Glass, the eyewear with a built-in computer. She incorporated the technology into her conducting classes, recording her students’ performances. “It’s much less ­invasive than a video camera that would traditionally be used to show them their work,” she says. She then created, with one of her students, musical applications for Google Glass, and most recently commissioned a musical piece to be performed on Glass.

“It’s been an interesting development in my ­research, exploring how technology is changing what we do – and who we are – as performers and people,” she says. “Because of my work with Google Glass, I’ve become interested in technology in ­general and exploring other products for conducting and ­performing.”

She’s also a firm believer in ­exploration of a different kind. A touring musician herself since high school, she continued the practice with her own students, first a high school wind ensemble, and later with Cornell CU Winds. In 2006, she took CU Winds to Costa Rica, where her students partnered with children in a small rural community, teaching them music, and then ­donating instruments to their small school. ­Cynthia saw the transformations that happened to her students when they formed new connections with their tour mates, as well as their hosts. They grew as musicians, as learners, and as leaders.

This led Cynthia to build “service learning” into her tours and her teaching. The practice incorporates meaningful community service with structured learning. Since then, Cynthia has conducted a number of service-learning tours with her ­students, both in Costa Rica and in the U.S. It’s a practice she hopes to continue in Georgia.

“I’m packing up my office right now, and I just put a box together of all my Costa Rica memories. It’s got photo albums and scrapbooks filled with phenomenal writings by my students on their tour experiences. It makes me realize that this is one of the directions higher education needs to go in order to make a difference. Get out of the classroom and make a difference in the community, whether it’s the local community or a far-flung one.”

The importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone is a lesson she has taken to heart. So when the job opportunity in Georgia came up, she decided to shake things up for herself, even though it meant leaving Cornell and her students there.

“I like change,” she says. “I need new and different things that are hard and fun. Some of my ­students at Cornell will remain lifelong friends. Thank goodness for Facebook! When you build up a program, it’s hard to walk away from it. But experience has taught me that you are also walking towards a new adventure. So, you thank the people who give you gifts; you say thanks to all the learning that takes place and all the people who touch your life, and you walk away and you make new memories. And that’s what I intend to do.”

Read more:

Queen's Alumni Review 2014 Issue #3: A dream realizedQueen's Alumni Review
2014 Issue #3