It happens every year, that symbolic ritual that seems to define academia: commencement. It’s that bittersweet time when we all dress up in medieval robes, endure long speeches and even longer degree-awarding ceremonies, and reflect on Big Things.
Every year is different. Variables like the weather and the quality of the speeches create indelible memories, but for me, it’s the graduates themselves who are the most memorable. One of my favorite things about teaching at a small liberal arts college is that you really get to know a large percentage of the student population, especially when you teach large introductory classes and conduct school ensembles. And then there are your major advisees and private students with whom you have close relationships. Seeing them all come and go over the years never fails to inspire a wide range of emotions including pride, surprise, relief, and in a few special cases, a parental sense of loss.
I have a unique perspective on the whole graduation thing. Before I became a college professor I regularly played the trumpet and sometimes directed music for commencements at other colleges and universities. Now I am one of the faculty marshals for our ceremonies at Goucher and it’s quite interesting being on the other side.
My particular job is that of a “hooding marshal” which means that I am one of two faculty members who bestow the white sashes (symbolizing the liberal arts) with the Goucher school colors (blue and gold) on the back that we drape around the neck of each graduate. We also direct faculty traffic for the recessional and get some of the best seats in the house: front row, left center. My favorite part of the job is that we get to see all of the students right before they receive their degrees when we put on their hoods
With Michael Polonchak after commencement.
at the foot of the stage just before their names are called. It’s always interesting to witness the different reactions students have to receiving their degrees. Some are serious, determined, emotional; others are triumphant, cocky, bored, or distracted. You see everything. It’s all so wonderfully human.
One of the strangest things about the end of the academic year is how sudden it is. One week everyone is enduring the unbearable stress of finals, deadlines, recitals; and then the next thing you know, it’s all over and the campus is a ghost town. It’s amazing how swiftly and completely the transition takes place.
This year I witnessed it firsthand. I had to attend a board of trustees committee meeting just thirty minutes after commencement while the outdoor reception was in full swing. By the time I left the meeting over an hour later, everyone was gone and all of the chairs and tables had been put away. You would never have known that three hours earlier the same grounds had just hosted that peculiarly poignant rite of passage known as commencement.
Elisa Koehler is Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Formerly the Director of the Center for Dance, Music, and Theatre at Goucher College and the Music Director and Conductor of the Frederick Symphony Orchestra, she is a professional conductor, trumpeter, and author. Dr. Koehler has performed on both modern and period instruments with the Bach Sinfonia, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Handel Choir of Baltimore, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Washington Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Baltimore’s Bach Concert Series, and as the leader of Newberry's Victorian Cornet Band. Her publications include two books: Fanfares and Finesse: A Performer’s Guide to Trumpet History and Literature (Indiana University Press) and A Dictionary for the Modern Trumpet Player (Rowman & Littlefield), numerous articles on historic brass for the ITG Journal, and new performing editions of the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concerti for Carl Fischer Music. She was named a Distinguished Alumna by the University of Tennessee in 2009 and elected to the Board of Directors of the International Trumpet Guild in 2017. In 2014 Dr. Koehler received Goucher College's highest faculty honor, the Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award, which recognizes an exemplary faculty member in the areas of scholarship, teaching, and service. She earned a doctorate in orchestral conducting from the Peabody Conservatory, a master’s degree in trumpet performance from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and bachelor’s degrees in both music education and performance from Peabody.
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