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Meet Kelsey Runion

Senior music performance major Kelsey Runion, one of three drum majors for the Marching Bucs, first came to ETSU as an exercise science major.  The Gray resident had received an academic performance scholarship to play trumpet in the ETSU Jazz Ensemble and soon changed her major when she realized music was the right fit for her.  In addition to performing with the Jazz Ensemble, Runion has been active in ETSU’s Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, Chamber Winds, the Buccaneer Brass pep band and a variety of brass ensembles.  Runion has been a member of the Marching Bucs since the program was brought back in 2015 in conjunction with football, and Buccaneer fans would remember her as the trumpet soloist who played the “Tennessee Waltz” at each home game for the first three years.  When she took the field and climbed the ladder to conduct the Marching Bucs for the halftime show at ETSU’s 2019 home opener on Sept. 7, fans never would have guessed that she had just overcome the obstacle of major knee surgery in the spring and a summer of intense physical therapy to be able to fulfill her role.

Runion appreciates the ETSU Department of Music faculty and how they have helped her to grow in her musicianship.  The department is like family to her and has provided opportunities for travel and study abroad in Austria, and allowed her to become friends and “play crazy good music with crazy good musicians” from throughout the U.S. and other countries.  Outside ETSU, Runion regularly performs with the Tri-Cities Jazz Orchestra and other jazz ensembles, has played with the Johnson City Symphony and at the Jonesborough Repertory Theater, and has developed valuable teaching skills by helping numerous regional high school bands.

Tell us about your early life and how you came to love music.

My grandfather always played guitar, and some of my earliest memories are of him putting me on his lap with the guitar in front of us.  He would give me a pick, and I would strum while he played the chords.  I also sang in church, and grew up listening to my mom, who played clarinet and was a drum major in high school, tell all these stories about marching band.  She also took me to DCI (Drum Corps International) shows and to marching band competitions in the Mini-Dome here at ETSU when I was little.  That was my first introduction to anything classical – even if it wasn’t actual classical music, it was portrayed as such with marching band.  That was my first-ever music other than bluegrass.

Are you also into bluegrass?

Yes.  Actually, my first instrument was a mandolin my papaw bought me when I was 5 or 6.  I started playing trumpet in 2005, and ever since, music and marching band have been everything to me.  That’s how I’ve met all my friends.  You have such a strong bond with people, because you can relate and talk about so much when you have this massive thing like music in common.  It’s an immediate connection you have with people, because who doesn’t like it?

What drew you to the trumpet?

I don’t know.  Mama didn’t want me to do it, because I was kind of bullied and made fun of in middle school because I had glasses and was one of the “weird kids.”  But when we had our very first day of band class, I snuck in and did it anyway because I wanted to!  They would fit students with instruments, saying “This is a clarinet,” and then disinfecting the mouthpiece and telling a student to try to get a sound out of it.  The trumpet was the only instrument that I immediately got a sound out of, and it just felt right.  It was weird – holding it felt right, and I immediately got a sound out of it without him having to tell me how to hold my embouchure.  It just clicked.

Now that I’m older, I don’t think I would have wanted to play any other instrument.  The trumpet is strong, and it’s really cool playing it as a girl, and I feel like I do a really good job playing it.  It’s not very common.  I play in a community jazz band called the Tri-Cities Jazz Orchestra, and we performed at a middle school one day.  I was the only girl in the band that day, and I was playing this strong instrument in the back that you hear loudly, and I played solos.  After the show, a little girl came up to me and said, “It’s super cool to see a girl doing this!  I’ve never seen a girl play like this before!”  People don’t normally associate that with being feminine, and I feel like I’m kind of breaking that down a bit with some kids coming up.  It’s the same with being a drum major, with being a female in such a leadership position.  It makes me feel like I’m doing something good.

You’ve been involved in the Marching Bucs since the program was reinstated in 2015 and have held leadership roles from the beginning, from trumpet section leader to drum major.  How have you grown as a leader through those experiences?

The leadership roles I take very seriously.  Some people show up to marching band and just want to play their instrument.  I’ve always been a person who wants to help a section grow, and that’s part of what a section leader was.  I would be teaching the trumpet section and come up with the warm-ups for them; I had to critique our body movements and watch how we tuned particular notes.  It was really teaching me how to teach people.

As a drum major, I’ve transitioned from helping one section to helping the entire band.  At first, it was overwhelming, because I never had a chance to be drum major in high school; they needed me on trumpet.  I’d conducted some stand cheers and little things before, but doing a whole field show – taking on the responsibility of watching people’s marching and forms, seeing if there’s anything I needed to bring up to the director – is incredible.  The only problem with it is that there are times when we three drum majors have to be the “bad guys.”  We’re the ones who have to tell people to be quiet when the band’s getting too loud or get on a section that isn’t doing its job.  That’s the tough part of it – sometimes people think we’re mean, when we’re really not.  We’re just doing our job.

What do you hope to do right after you graduate in May 2020, and what are your ultimate career goals?

Honestly, as long as I’m playing, I don’t care what I do.  I just want to be able to get what’s in my head out.  I have all this knowledge I’ve gathered from an incredible number of band directors about how to teach marching band, and I hope I can continue to share that.  But I don’t ever want to stop playing while I’m doing that.

Also, I would really love to start a community music school for adults.  There are so many people who say, “I really wish I had learned to play saxophone when I was in school,” or “I wish I had learned to play piano.”  A lot of people didn’t have that creative release, and I think it’s something that people are missing.  I think every person living wants to make music – you see it with babies.  What’s the first thing they do?  They hit and bang on stuff and sing.  So I think it would be a fun experience to have an adult music school where people can learn to play an instrument and not be judged.  And repair – I’d love to be able to repair instruments. 

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