Music was answer for HCC professor Award salutes his dedication


November 08, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

It wasn't until he was in his 20s -- late in life for a musician -- that Brian Johnson found his true calling: the piano.

By then, the trim track star was well into college, studying to become a computer scientist -- a profession that would give him a decent income and a well-respected job.

"I was playing it pretty safe," said Mr. Johnson, now an assistant music professor at Howard Community College. "My high school music teacher told me to go into music, but I said no way, I was going to get a job."

Lucky for him, he got fed up standing in line until midnight with other computer science majors for time on the campus computer. Now, after six years of teaching music, he is the winner of the college's Outstanding Faculty Member award.

"We try to select someone who is an outstanding teacher and who cares about students and who has demonstrated that care," said Carol Copenhaver, a vice president at the college. "Brian is absolutely wonderful with students. He works 12 hours a day with students. He is willing to do anything that needs to be done."

As this year's outstanding faculty member, the 33-year-old professor and father of two gets to lead the faculty processional during graduation ceremonies. He also was the guest speaker at a September luncheon for outstanding students.

"I love music," he said recently in his small, tidy office. "It's just a dream to be able to teach music for a living.

"The students are a big part of it," he added. "It's very gratifying to see them able to accelerate to a level they can transfer to a four-year school."

Mr. Johnson grew up in a home with a piano, which his mother played occasionally. But credit Elton John for sparking his interest in music -- it was Mr. Johnson's desire to play the singer's tune "Crocodile Rock" that prompted him to ask his parents for piano lessons.

Mr. Johnson went through high school in Chicago as a track star who sang in the chorus and learned piano on the side.

His athletic prowess won him a scholarship to Illinois State University where he met his wife, Eileen, a music major, and started as a computer science major. He graduated in 1982 with a degree in piano performance.

Soon after, he earned a master's degree in voice and piano performance and worked for a nondenominational church that played contemporary jazz. He eventually pursued a doctorate degree in music but entered a seminary to become a minister.

But the ministry, he says, was "too far removed from music. It wasn't quite it."

He and his wife joined a Christian rock band that toured the country, doing two to three gigs a day at high school drug and alcohol assemblies.

"It was a great experience," he says. "We went from the East Coast to the West Coast, as far east as Allentown, Pa., and as far south as Shreveport, La."

But the pay was meager: $25 a week. When the year-long tour ended in 1987, Mr. Johnson called around, looking for a job.

He came to Maryland that year to visit a friend. By coincidence, the community college was looking to hire a part-time music professor to teach voice and piano lessons. He got the job.

"The community college environment -- there's something very different about it that's very nice," said Mr. Johnson, who is working toward his doctorate degree in music at Catholic University. "One of the things is the faculty aren't cut-throat with one another. They're not competing for the best students."

And the students, he says, "are extremely teachable. They really want to learn. I think because I started so late, I have an affinity for late starters."

Starting late wasn't as hard as overcoming a trait he inherited from his father that made piano-playing difficult.

At certain wrist angles, his hands shake uncontrollably -- this in a field that requires strength and precision in the fingertips.

"I thought after my first year in piano performance... it was crazy to go on," he said.

But through practice and help from his college music teacher, he learned to control the shaking and to develop fingertip strength.

"The thing that was the weakness became the building point for success later on," he said.

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