The Sounds of Success

Tibbitts Award winner Ake at a loss for words about honor

4/9/2009 | By: John Trent  |

For a professor who is known for his ability to communicate and connect in meaningful and memorable ways with his students, David Ake’s reaction recently about an honor he had won was a little out of character.

A little out of character, but also completely in character for a professor who is known for being heartfelt and authentic – the kind of teacher that can regularly shower students with a thousand reasons to embrace the subject matter.

When Provost Marc Johnson entered Ake’s classroom in the Church Fine Arts Building on March 27 and announced that, "David Ake has won the Tibbitts Award … he’s the best teacher on the entire campus," Ake’s students broke into a round of applause.

Ake, a professor of music at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1999 was not just caught off-guard with the news that he was this year’s winner of the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award.

He was caught speechless. Well, nearly speechless.

"I was not expecting this … umm … umm … umm … yeah," Ake stammered.

Congratulatory hugs from his longtime Music Department colleague Larry Engstrom, College of Liberal Arts Dean Heather Hardy and College of Education Associate Professor Tammy Abernathy helped rescue Ake, if only for a moment.

"I’m not … uh … ahh … ahh," Ake said. And then finally, still a bit flustered, Ake managed a smile. "I am deeply honored," he said, to more applause from his class.

Later, Ake, in his office, explained why he had such difficulty coming up with something spontaneously memorable to say.

"I was just so surprised," Ake said. "I would have never imagined that all those people would find the time to come by and announce it in person. It was overwhelming. I was genuinely surprised, which is rare for me. That was … that was … that was great."

It was great, and deserved, according to Engstrom.

"David is a great teacher for many reasons," said Engstrom, the director of the College of Liberal Arts’ School of the Arts, an accomplished jazz trumpet player and also considered one of the campus’ most skilled teachers. "As a scholar, he’s a triple threat. As a musicologist, he’s one of the world’s leading experts on jazz cultures. As a performer, he’s a very creative jazz pianist. As a composer, he writes beautiful and provocative music. It’s unusual for someone to be gifted in all of these areas, and this provides him a unique perspective."

In the classroom, Engstrom said that Ake has a rare ability to make an early connection with his students, one that carries through an entire semester and often lasts well after the class or the semester has ended.

"David has a great sense of humor," Engstrom said. "And he uses that effectively to keep his students interested and engaged through an entire class session. He cares deeply about the subject matter and about his students. He is very organized and thorough in his approach to communicating ideas and concepts to his students. He challenges his students to think critically.

"Add to all that David’s warm and pleasant demeanor, and that he’s a really nice guy, and I think you can see why he’s most deserving of this award."

In conversation with Ake, it’s obvious that everything that Engstrom has said is true. Ake has a genuine kindness and intelligence about him, whether it is through his native-of-Illinois voice, which has a homey, Midwest naturalness to it, or through his thoughts, which often reach deep and resonate like a tuning fork struck hard.

It’s a winning combination, particularly as it concerns his teaching.

"I orient all of my courses from the position that music is never just sound; it’s created by people and it always reflects and helps to configure notions of identity," he said. "Once students buy into that, and see and hear how it works, then it’s not too difficult to maintain their interest."

Ake’s record of scholarship further reinforces this position. He has already written a critically praised book, "Jazz Cultures" (University of California Press) on this very subject, with a second book due in 2010. The combination of research, teaching and his own experiences as an accomplished jazz pianist – he has played with such outstanding musicians as Ravi Coltrane, Charlie Haden, James Newton and Bud Shank, and has appeared on a number of recordings and is a regular with the University’s excellent jazz quintet, "The Collective" – has helped make Ake one of the campus’ most well-rounded professors.

His students realize this fact almost from the very first day they are in one of Ake’s classes. He teaches core courses, including History of American Pop Music and Survey of Jazz, for non-majors, as well as courses in jazz piano, jazz history, and jazz combo for music majors on all levels.

"I love teaching all of my courses," Ake says. "For the non-majors, they’re often freshmen, and sometimes, at 9 a.m. on Monday on the last week in August, it’s often their first class in college – which is fun.  I tell them on that first day, ‘A lot of you folks are chemistry majors, education majors, business majors, whatever. And maybe you don’t want to be here.’"

Then Ake grins conspiratorially.

"And I don’t tell them this, but I’m thinking, ‘You’re the ones … I’m going to get you … by the end of the semester, you’re going to be on board,’" he says, smiling.

That Ake can have such a strong influence on his students shouldn’t be surprising. The 47-year-old has had a lifelong love of music, which reaches far back into his life, beyond his time as a musicology scholar, beyond the period when he was living as an expatriate pianist in Germany, even beyond his days as a budding high school rock ‘n’ roll musician outside of Chicago.

Ake, who grew up playing classical piano with the encouragement of his parents, Theodore and Beatrice, can trace his love of music back to his earliest days.

"My mom still plays piano … she takes lessons every 10 years or so, and she’s going to be 81 soon," Ake said. "She always encouraged me. I’d go to her lessons and sit under the piano.  Listening. I was probably three or four years old.  Eventually, I crawled up and started to bang around on the instrument myself."

It wasn’t until Ake discovered jazz piano great Keith Jarrett, however, that everything crystallized. It was Ake’s senior year of high school, 1978, and he was immersed in playing gigs with a local rock ‘n’ roll band.

"It was one of those moments of epiphany," Ake remembered. He recalled how he was sitting in an orange bean bag chair in his bedroom, submerged in Jarrett’s rapturous, physical style of playing, where outbursts of tension were followed by moments of pure melody, all seeming to crash into the listener’s ear with the intensity of an ocean’s wave. "It was one of those moments where the clouds open up and a voice says to you, ‘This is what you shall do.’ It really was. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard anything like it."

When a person feels so deeply and cares so thoroughly about something, it seems inevitable that, if they decide to share this passion with others, the result will be something worth remembering.

So it has been during Ake’s time at Nevada. He has tried in classes – sometimes with success, other times with varying degrees of success and sometimes with utter failure, he says – to give music life, to remind his students that it’s not just notes and rhythms but something much more fundamental.

That, as Ake has always believed, music is about people and people’s reactions to what they have heard or felt when music is played.

"I’m very lucky to have a job that allows me to play music, write music, write about music, and teach music," he said. "Each of these aspects informs the other. I’m lucky to be in that situation."

Lucky, too, to know that even for one of the country’s top jazz scholars and in 2009 recognized as the campus’ finest teacher, that it’s OK to be at a loss for words when you win a major award.

Once the Tibbitts Award party left his classroom, Ake said it was still difficult to gather his thoughts for the remainder of class.

Eventually, though, experience took over. As his emotions calmed, as his class continued to listen and the right words returned, Ake knew why he was there.

Why a classroom has always been the right place for him.

"Let’s," he said with a dramatic clap of his hands, launching into his presentation for the day, ever the teacher with something meaningful – and meaningfully said – to share with his students, "let’s get back into this."


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