|Staying Busy and Staying Competitive: A Q&A with Dan Brenner '02
Dan Brenner ’02 seems to like being busy. At the Valley, he pursued two degrees—he graduated with bachelor’s degrees in music, with a percussion and jazz concentration, and music education—while performing in his own band on the weekends. “It was hectic,” he laughs. “There were a couple semesters where I know I took 22.5 credits.”
Since then, he’s mostly been teaching music in the Spring Grove School District in York County. Today, he heads the school district’s music department, teaches general music classes at the high school and middle school, and leads four school jazz bands, the marching band, and the drum line—not to mention the ninth-grade mentoring program and the high school Hacky Sack Club. “I have quite a bit on my plate,” Brenner admits. There’s more: He’s also assistant coach of the high school swim team.
In his free time, Brenner performs regionally solo and with a band, and has produced two albums of his work. Last year was big one for Brenner: Not only did he earn his master’s degree in education from Wilkes University, but he also was nominated for the inaugural GRAMMY Music Educator Award. The award, sponsored by the National Association for Music Educators, recognizes music educators who have made a positive impact on music education and demonstrate a commitment to maintaining music education in schools. “Out of the 33,000 nominations they received, I ended up being in the top 215 in the nation,” he says. “They narrowed that down to 25 and that’s where I missed the cut.” Fortunately, Brenner has been too busy to spend much time thinking about that.
How did you acquire your competitive spirit?
I think a lot of it is from an internal drive. Maybe it was the way I was raised. There was never an option for doing anything other than trying my best. I tried to be as good as I could possibly be at everything I attempted.
What motivates you?
I don’t like sitting down at the end of the day and thinking about “What if?” What if I had not gone all out or put my best foot forward? I don’t like to live that question, so whatever I do, I put my mind to it 100 percent.
What activities, people, or courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
I had professors who leveled with me and told me what to expect in the professional world. Dr. Mark Mecham, [chair and Clark and Edna Carmean Distinguished Professor of Music] and Tom Strohman [professor of music] were always willing to give advice if I was struggling. I could go in and talk to them about what I wanted to do, and they’d give really good advice about how to get there.
How has global competition changed your field?
In education, there’s a big push to keep up with what’s going on in the Asian countries. Those students are doing well so standardized testing has become an important part of the U.S. education system.
In music, since I graduated from Lebanon Valley, the one thing that’s really changed is that we now have music at the touch of our fingertips—there was no YouTube when I was in school. Now you just look something up on YouTube and there it is. As a musician there are just so many more avenues for getting your music out there.
What’s most important to remain competitive in your field?
In general, it’s just to keep learning. The older I’ve gotten the better I’ve become at seeking information when I have questions and figuring things out on my own. Knowledge is power. The other thing is to never be satisfied—I constantly want to improve and push to be better.
How do you prepare physically and mentally for competition?
I don’t get stage fright. I had the pleasure of performing at a Baltimore Ravens game against the Pittsburgh Steelers a couple of years ago—and if you’re ever going to have stage fright, it’ll be then—but it didn’t bother me at all. Going out on stage and performing, I feel a bit of a freedom with that.
As far as teaching, I’m fortunate enough to have a prep period the first period of my day. I grab a cup of coffee and check my lesson plans. I have a bit of a routine and it works for me. If they changed my prep period I’d definitely be off my game for a little bit.
Who is your favorite competitive role model?
As a performing musician, I have so many. Part of the beauty of art is that you’re influenced by everybody and take a piece of this and that and make it your own. As an educator, my role model is my original drum teacher when I was a kid—he’s now 93 years old and still teaching.
Do you have a guiding philosophy about competition?
Honestly, I feel as if I’m competing against myself more than anybody else. When I’m performing, I don’t tend to compete against everyone else—as an artist it’s more about cooperation. As an educator, I want to keep up with educators in our area, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m competing with them. More often it’s about myself—can I do that better than I did last time?
Which leaders inspire you? Why?
I tend to be inspired by people I work with who come from amazing circumstances. I’m inspired by everyday people doing extraordinary things.
What makes LVC competitive?
I chose LVC because of Professor Tom Strohman. I performed at a district jazz band festival, and he talked to my parents and asked them to check the school out. That meant so much to me.
When you see LVC’s campus compared to other schools the same size, you don’t want to go anywhere else—it’s just beautiful. From the start, when I was looking at the school, you could tell that they wanted you to go there. The people in the admissions office had their act together, the tours were set up well. They do some great things by offering fantastic scholarships to students who take their studies seriously. Since I’ve been at Spring Grove, I’ve probably sent a dozen students to Lebanon Valley.
What advice would you give to current LVC students?
I would say use their time wisely there, make sure they’re picking the brains of the people in their fields. Call up former students and ask them questions. The College does a great job of creating opportunities for students to touch base with alumni, and any time I talk with a current LVC student I’m always willing to discuss whatever I can about my field with them. Think of your learning process as a sponge and use your four years to soak up as much as you can from the people in the fields you want to be in.