There is a new conductor at the helm of Red Deer College’s Symphonic Winds concert band.
“We are very pleased to have Karen Gustafson take on the conductor role, following Steve Sherman’s retirement,” said Jason Frizzell, dean, School of Creative Arts. “Dr. Gustafson has taught at universities throughout Canada and the United States, and she has extensive performance experience, so she brings a wealth of experience to lead the Symphonic Winds and to teach in our school.”
For Gustafson, a passion for music came early. “I grew up in Saskatoon, and I started playing in band when I was in Grade 6,” she recalls. “I loved it – and I’ve always loved music. So playing in the band just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Her instrument of choice? The trumpet. “I’ve now been a professional trumpet player for over 40 years,” she said. “It’s always a challenge – every day is a new day,” she said of the instrument’s uniqueness. “It’s like you have to build a new house everyday.”
Looking back, when it came time to choose an area of study for post-secondary, she opted for computer science and mathematics.
“I realized after about my second year that that wasn’t really my calling,” she added with a laugh. “So then, I went into music.”
From then on, her focus was squarely on honing her skills and delving further into the world of music, and of learning to increasingly express herself via music as well. “The love of music won out.”
So she transferred from the University of Saskatchewan to the University of Victoria to earn her bachelors degree in trumpet performance. Then it was off to Toronto.
“I then got a position at the Royal Conservatory in the Royal Conservatory Orchestra where I did an orchestral training program,” she said. “It was a paid program through the Canadian government, which was terrific.”
Another wonderful event that came about during that time was that she met current Red Deer Symphony Orchestra music director Claude Lapalme there as well. “He was the assistant conductor of the orchestra there,” she said, adding that when she landed her new position at RDC this past summer, he was one of the first people she called with the good news.
But back to those earlier days. Gustafson went on to join the Niagara Symphony Orchestra.
“I then decided to go and do my master’s degree.” She headed down to Chicago’s Northwestern University for further studies, and then returned to Toronto where she taught and continued to play for many years.
It was also during this season in her life that she found that she truly loved to teach in the post-secondary setting as well.
She earned her doctorate at the University of Minnesota so that she would be able to see that dream realized. “I completed a double degree in trumpet and in conducting.”
That led to a full-time teaching gig in Oklahoma. But the north was calling, and she headed up to Alaska – where she also met her husband.
“He’s actually the one who hired me,” she added. “He’s a trombone player – and he was a professor of the trombone and a conductor. So when I got there, I thought maybe I’d stay for one year, but I ended up staying for 12 years. Her husband, James Bicigo, had called Alaska home for 18 years and Gustafson had stayed for 12. And then it was time for a change.
“When I got this position in Red Deer, we felt we had been in Alaska long enough and I had wanted to come back to Canada,” she said. “This position was offered to me, and it was right up my alley.”
The couple just settled in Red Deer this past August.
Gustafson and her husband also belong to a group called the Borealis Brass.
“We have toured all over the world – Australia, Japan, Porto Rico, Italy and Germany. We also do residencies at a university in Malaysia,” she said. “We’ve performed concert tours all over, and we love it. It’s also just something in me, I love traveling, I love exploring and I love being adventurous.”
Meanwhile, the Symphonic Winds is made up of students, community members and RDC staff and faculty.
Gustafson is thrilled to be settling into her new role, and has an exciting vision for the Winds as they move forward.
“I’ve always believed that it’s so important for musicians to be versed in many different genres. For the students, in particular, learning these skills is a big part of their growth and development,” she said, adding that this diversity and the opportunities for collaboration were some of the reasons she was drawn to RDC.
“The school format here allows the different avenues of arts to work together, and this is important for students to learn now, as they’ll be able to apply this to their future careers.”
Gustafson is also looking forward to connecting with the larger community.
“Central Alberta really is ‘band central’ in Canada,” she said. “There are so many bands in schools and in the community. As the new conductor for Symphonic Winds, I certainly feel there is a lot of support, and I look forward to giving back through community collaboration.” That includes touching base with local schools, too. “Or having the schools come to us so we could do some educational concerts.
“I think this group has a lot of potential to make it big in Central Alberta.”
Looking to the future, Gustafson is excited about taking on her new role as conductor, trumpet instructor and instructor for a variety of music courses.
“I’ve always said to my students and my friends that music is a way to express myself in a way that I can’t possibly do through words,” she explained. “I can say things that are meaningful, and that hopefully mean things to people through my playing or conducting to make it a heartfelt experience.”