Music Huskie Spotlight

Huskie Spotlight: Austyn Menk, ’23, Master of Music

Austyn Menk

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Years ago, I totally saw myself ending up as an astronaut, archeologist, or brain surgeon. I’m unfortunately far too out of shape to be an astronaut, and don’t own a fedora or a bull whip, so archaeology is also out of the question. Definitely have the finger independence and hand control to be a brain surgeon, though!

What is your major (and/or minor) and why did you decide on this course of study? I am a second-year graduate student pursuing a master’s in Jazz Studies! The study of jazz has proven to be the perfect compliment to my earlier studies of music—whereas I was primarily focused on structure, technique, and musical literacy for the first 18 years of my life, jazz has allowed me to create and explore without bound. Through this uniquely American genre, whose history is deep, dark, and rich, I have felt welcomed with open arms into a community of fellow explorers of the final frontier—Coltrane changes.

What is your favorite thing about studying and/or playing music at NIU? My peers push me musically each and every opportunity we have to play together. This year’s iteration of the NIU Jazztet is going to be equal parts exciting and humbling due to the high level of musicianship the other six members bring to the table! I’ve learned so much already—and there’s much left to learn.

How have you connected with other students at NIU? Most of my life at NIU has taken place in the music building—and I am lucky to have met folks from an extremely diverse set of musical backgrounds! Long after I leave this place, I will have contacts and peers within the industry whose backgrounds range from jazz, to conducting, to choral education, to Gamelan, to found-sound composition.

These are beautiful people—and all it took to make the connection was, “Hey, we haven’t met—what’s your story?”

Are you involved in any student organizations or extra-curricular activities? While I’m not currently involved in an extra-curricular activities, I just swung by the on-campus board game store Affinity For Gaming and am strongly considering taking part in their Friday Night Magic events in lieu of Friday Night Gigs!

Who has been one of your favorite instructors/professors and why? Fall semester 2021, I took Prof. Brian Hart’s course, Music History from 1900-1945. This course was one of the most fruitful, well-organized courses I’ve had the pleasure of taking in my post-secondary career thus far. The lectures for this course were engaging and informative, the projects ideal in scope and clear in objective, and the exams among the best-formatted I’ve taken.

Prof. Hart himself is a true expert in music history—need to know what happened at the premier of so-and-so’s such-and-such in [insert any year throughout music history]? Don’t bother wasting your time typing it in a Google search because Prof. Hart already knows and will be sure to let you know! He is a true tome of wisdom, and I appreciated his instruction very much.

Another exemplary scholar on faculty at NIU is Prof. Elinor Olin, whose Seminar in Music Research course I’ve only been in for about a week—a course that is proving to be another absolute banger!

Why did you choose NIU to study music? Professor Reginald Thomas, head of the jazz department and jazz piano instructor. My sophomore year of undergrad at Gustavus Adolphus College, Prof came to campus to do a masterclass and performance with the Gustavus Jazz Ensemble. At the evening performance, Prof. Thomas was playing ideas I couldn’t even begin to comprehend—before that night, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to hear musician of Prof’s caliber live.

At this point in my undergraduate degree, I was still heavily attuned to the realm of classical organ—at the end of my sophomore year, I would give my first full organ recital, and would go on to give a second full recital at the end of my junior year. However, throughout this deep dive into the likes of J.S. Bach and Thierry Escaich, I kept the thought of studying with Prof. Thomas in the back of my mind.

The rest is history! Each and every day I remind myself how very fortunate I am to be here at NIU studying with a world-class musician such as Prof. Thomas. Not only is Prof one of the finest players and people I’ve had the privilege of meeting, but he is among the very best in his field pedagogically. If a student is in the same room as Prof. Thomas, they are guaranteed to learn something—and he doesn’t even have to speak!

Whether during a weekly lesson, in a Jazz Orchestra rehearsal, or simply listening to Prof play his instrument, students will walk away from the encounter feeling inspired, motivated, and most certainly humbled and ready to hit the shed.

Thank you, Prof. Thomas—I owe you a great deal, and could not be happier to have met you all those years ago.

Where is your favorite spot on campus or in the community? Thai Pavilion. I’ve only ever gotten the medium chicken pad thai, but it’s really freakin’ good and lasts for like three days’ worth of meals.

What advice would you give to a student who is applying to colleges?  Trust your instinct—you will know which institution is the right fit for you. Whether or not you get this feeling while speaking with an advisor, having a preliminary lesson with a potential instructor, or simply walking around campus, allow your intuition to be your guide.

What do you do to relax or recharge? In my humble opinion, it’s important for folks to set aside time each day to do something unrelated to their degree or career that they enjoy doing. Personally, I’ve always found a great deal of enjoyment in the Pokémon franchise—been on a huge Pokémon Trading Card Game Online kick late in the evenings recently! The reason why strategy games within this franchise are consistently my go-to for hobbies is because they each allow for a growth mindset to be applied.

While practicing my instrument, I ask myself questions such as, “Was that scale perfectly even in tone quality?” “How can I play this tune using only modes of the melodic minor scale?” and “What can this harmonic progression be reduced to?” While playing Pokémon, I ask the same kind of questions—”My primary Dynamax target fainted; who’s the next best option?” in a VS Battle in Pokémon Sword & Shield; “How can I lane more effectively as Lucario?” in Pokémon UNITE; or “What line of play guarantees I can take my final prize card and win the match next turn?” in Pokémon TCG Online.

In practicing mindfulness and growth mindset inside and outside of the practice room, even hobbies can inform and contribute to one’s improvement in anything they do!

Coming to college, what is something that you have had to learn to do differently? Time management. As organized as I’ve known myself to be throughout my life, the intensity of graduate school manages to expose even the slightest of logistical missteps. Oh, you wanted DiLusso Cracked Pepper Turkey for lunches this week? Well, that sucks, because the Hy-vee deli closes at 7pm and you didn’t go during the half hour you had to do so on Monday (if this sounds personal—it is).

It’s easy for one to take in everything they have to do all at once and grow overwhelmed. It’s important to plan ahead—Google Calendar is my best friend—but once it’s in the calendar, I’ll get to it when I have to, and everything that needs to happen will happen.

For big events coming up, my mother has an excellent method that she introduced me to years ago. As a church musician, each Christmas, she’s booked solid for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. So, the evening of December 23rd, she tells herself, “This time two days from now, I’ll never have to worry about these services again.”

The 25th comes and goes, the heart is still beating, and the halls are still decked with boughs of holly. Wow!

Hi mom!

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