Stories Upon Stories: Music History at Luther College

A former Fulbright scholar and professional oboist, Dr. Jim Griesheimer of Luther College is filling his first year of retirement with continued connections to teaching and his former students. At Luther, Griesheimer taught courses in music history, and his former students universally praise his sincere and passionate connection to his subject. Since he was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2010, he has also officiated the weddings of several Luther students.

Not a Lecture-a Retelling of Favorite Stories

Luther graduate Kurt Gulsvig, now a talent agent in Los Angeles, shares that Dr. Jim Griesheimer is a teacher that students will undoubtedly remember. Even though he dreaded history courses normally, Gulsvig found himself captivated by Griesheimer’s teaching style and enthusiasm for the subject matter. “Dr. Griesheimer spoke about these composers as if he were there for their life events,” Gulsvig explains. “He writes out the movement themes from memory and never uses a textbook. He speaks as if he were there with these composers. It’s not a lecture to him; it’s retelling his favorite stories, and you can’t help but listen intently.”

Fellow Luther graduate Gerard Krupke agrees, saying that Griesheimer “brought music history to life” by helping him feel the humanity in a symphony’s structure or in the details of composers’ lives. Krupke notes, “I remember several mornings that brought me to the music building quite early, and I observed him in the classroom quite literally practicing delivering his lecture, which were always memorized as he kept no notes for himself.” Krupke also recalls many times Griesheimer would come to class with a stack of books, marked in a spot or two for reference; when the moments from the texts were shared, though, it was never about facts and figures, and instead “they were love letters, hate mail, editorials about the premiere performance, etc. that gave us a glimpse of the person behind the compositions.”

This was one of the first times Krupke remembers viewing these composers as people with egos, tempers, and broken hearts; moreover, those stories moved Griesheimer with each and every telling. “It wasn’t history to him, as most of us think of history,” Krupke explains. “These people were as real as those he interacted with every day, and he cared for his instruction as if he were helping us understand them as he knew them, not simply memorizing lists of dates and events.”

Now that Krupke has taught for over a decade in the public school system, he more fully understands the many things effective educators do to improve their craft, while he also appreciates the more ephemeral qualities that make certain educators memorable- the educators who both motivate and inspire by organically connecting with their students, an ability in which Griesheimer excelled because he was sincere, real, and utterly without pretense. “There is a comfort and trust that develops in a classroom that is led by a teacher wholly comfortable in themselves,” Krupke notes, “providing a safe environment to experience something real even in a subject as distant and irrelevant as History class can sometimes feel.”

Another Luther graduate, professional actor and singer Michael Penick, felt that same connection when Griesheimer lectured. “He talked about all these figures as if they were old drinking buddies, laughing at funny anecdotes or becoming emotional when discussing their failing health,” Penick describes. He also explains that Griesheimer respected and cared for more than just the composers he brought to life; he exhibited that same level of emotional connection to his students, taking time to know each student at a personal level.

Officiating Weddings,As Students Continue Their Own Stories

Teacher and Luther graduate Sarah Jane Palmer first encountered Griesheimer at a department-sponsored lecture, where she was in awe of his passion for the content and his expressive and powerful mode of lecturing. When he was later her advisor, she felt comfortable sharing her love of learning and her passion for handbell music. Palmer shares, “Because he was able to show raw emotion and was willing to have his heart on his sleeve, I was able to speak confidently about a subject in which I felt strongly.”

Because she had learned so much through Griesheimer’s words and actions, she asked him to serve as officiant for her wedding. Once he had fully learned their backstory and the events leading up to their union, he was able to weave together a sermon that Palmer says had the entire congregation moved to tears-because the passion and emotion he always shared in his lectures transferred perfectly. Griesheimer presided over another wedding of two other former Luther students who are now teachers, Erin and Jesse Bunge, and they were also touched by his time and dedication to designing the ceremony in a way that showed his deep and abiding connection to them both. The Bunges share that Griesheimer is passionate on all levels-about his students, about his friends, and about his subject matter. They feel lucky to know him as both a former educator and as a current friend. At their wedding, they felt he offered a message that was “perfectly and uniquely us.”

Griesheimer also officiated at the wedding of Blake Nellis, a professional dancer, choreographer and arts photographer who began as one of his students and later became one of his colleagues at Luther. Nellis, who knows Griesheimer well, notes his friend’s “patented pop-culture wit and whimsy” that he regularly exhibits with memorized limericks or clever remarks. “The man has a memory like no other,” he explains, “and he brings things up when something sparks his memory, not just to hear himself retort fancy stuff like many big-brains do.” He praises his friend’s generous sharing of knowledge, whether about music, baseball, foreign language, religion, poetry, baseball, history, and a list that continues.

Nellis also credits Griesheimer for bringing him a “transformative semester” both musically and personally. “Dr. G lectures like it’s the final class period of your life-long journey in music. He pours his heart and soul into the life and works of these musical masters and then shares that with everyone who will listen. He knows it. I mean, he really knows it-like he was there. He gives the details and stories so you can feel the people coming out of the music.”  Nellis remembers a day when Griesheimer had written out cello, piano, and violin parts for a Schubert trio, and “about a measure and a half in he made a scoffing noise, shuffled over to the chalkboard and erased a natural (or added a sharp or something like that).”

Flabbergasted, Nellis realized Griesheimer “heard it coming” because “he was inside of it and guiding it, and it was pure joy to be a part of it.” What stuck with Nellis even more, though, was his friend’s belief in what others had to share and the amount of power and responsibility he had, simply because his students so deeply trusted him. “Music might be the most powerful non-human, non-nature energy I’ve ever experienced,” Nellis adds, “and so many of my strongest memories come from Jim. Now, as an educator and artist, I often look back on these memories to inspire new work, focused classrooms, research, and fellowship in the arts.”

The Story of the Music

Jesse Angelo, a professional actor in London, believes one of the greatest gifts for any student is being taught by an educator with mastery in his field but also someone who shares that knowledge with the “full fervor and passion that led them to that position in the first place.” Angelo said Griesheimer’s “personal delight for music” was ever-present, as he shared quips about the greats. “We’d all be in class laughing through the eyes of Haydn as if he were there and one of our good pals,” Angelo adds. “As a great storyteller, he could set the scene in any language, period or composition. He’d provide word by word translations in real-time, or jot down sections and tracts of various instruments from larger musical compositions, and all completely from memory.”

Angelo sees Griesheimer’s personal connection to his subject and his emotional insight as keys to what made the “academic learnings of music” so vibrant and unforgettable, and he was always available to support and make vibrant “our factual and academic learnings of music.” In particular, Angelo remembers the day they covered Mozart’s death. “The delivery of this seminal moment in music history has stayed with me to this day because of the direct personal connection and buy-in Dr. Griesheimer developed in me as a pupil of music,” Angelo notes. “When Mozart died in the historical narrative of that lecture, I felt I had lost a dear friend.”

As Angelo continued to learn from Griesheimer, he came to understand that there was something both profound and personal about all of his mentor’s teaching. Because Angelo acknowledges his former teacher’s authority of subject matter alone-while remarkable-could not have fostered this continued passionate pursuit of understanding music that has stayed with him long past his time at Luther, he believes he was “forever changed and matured through the generosity of spirit Dr. Griesheimer taught with.”

Current music teacher Joe Svendsen describes the experience this way: “Despite the overwhelming amount of information that gets presented in an undergraduate survey course, he always made every lecture fascinating with some anecdote or tidbit that no one would find in a textbook.” Also impressive to Svendsen was the way Griesheimer would write out-from memory the instrumental parts to symphony movements, while simultaneously lecturing on another topic. “We were all so in wonder of it,” Svendsen adds, “yet Dr. Griesheimer was never anything but incredibly modest and human.” Even with a passage he had probably taught hundreds of times, Griesheimer would be profoundly moved, Svendsen notes, adding, “To teach us the history of notation and biographies of composers was one thing: to teach us the evocative and affective power of music through the ages was a priceless lesson.”

Professional percussionist Danny Young has that same vivid recollection, of his jaw dropping as he watched Griesheimer writing from memory “note by note of each individual instrument” of the symphony from the day’s lecture. While Young notes that’s impressive by any standards, what he was even more impressed by was this educator’s ability to get “a whole classroom of hardheaded college students to literally break down in tears after finally understanding the history of the music and what inspired it.” Young feels Griesheimer has a rare ability to open students’ eyes to how powerful and meaningful learning can be, while also inspiring his students to be better people overall in the way they approach their lives- teaching them to question things and push themselves, while remaining both humble and kind.

Andrew Boddicker, a teacher now residing in London, believes Griesheimer is unparalleled in subject mastery. “Recalling the melody, harmony and structure of any piece at any moment often puts me in a trance or disbelief,” Boddicker explains, “but he wasn’t some robot spilling information; he is physically moved by the opportunity to share with his students the depth of beauty in the works he uncovered with us.”

Continuing His Own Story

At one year retired after forty years of teaching, Griesheimer finds himself trying to “concentrate on the nuisance factors” of teaching-the 140 students every spring and the unceasing flow of work to be graded; however, he can’t help but miss the lecturing and mentoring. He is trying to ease into the transition by continuing to teach and speak at events, comparing the changes to the move from parent to “a grandparent with a baby.””My career has unfolded in a fairly variegated way,” he explains-in the early years of his adulthood, he was interested in aviation, so he learned to fly. He was living what he calls a “GQ kind of life” for a while, and then when he married and had children, his interests changed, and he found himself unwilling to take those same risks. Though he was a professional oboe player at one point, now he’s more “a historian who occasionally plays the oboe.”

In addition to continuing to accept multiple offers to present and lecture-as he says he’s “just a girl who can’t say no” to a chance to share what he loves-he’s also pursued another parallel path of service. Over the last six years, he underwent a series of workshops and retreats to become ordained, and he now handles two parishes. Having learned long ago not to panic when things began to take a different shape than he may have initially imagined for his next step, he concludes, “My whole career has been a series of happy accidents.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.