Teaching & Learning

USU's Michael Christiansen is Utah’s 2012 Carnegie Professor of the Year

Those who can, teach. Those who can’t teach have to settle for something less.

That is the mantra of Michael Christiansen, professor of guitar at Utah State University and Utah’s 2012 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Utah Professor of the Year.  The award program recognizes higher education professionals across the United States and is administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education or CASE.

“From the get-go I knew that I wanted to be a musician and a teacher,” Christiansen said. “When I was young, I performed at a family event and an uncle gave me a tip — some cash — for performing and I thought, ‘Gee, this is a lot easier than mowing the lawn.’ It was a pleasant surprise that I could make money doing this, and I’ve loved it.”

One of 300 professors nominated from across the nation for the prestigious honor, Christiansen and his fellow honorees were recognized Nov. 15 at an award ceremony and reception in Washington, D.C.  This year, a state Professor of the Year was recognized in 30 states and the District of Columbia and Christiansen is Utah’s honoree.

The award salutes the most outstanding undergraduate educators in the country — those who excel in teaching and positively influence the lives and careers of students. The award program is the only national program that recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Throughout his career, Christiansen has combined a passion for teaching and performing. He is a noted guitarist and has performed in solo situations and with entertainment and industry giants.

And in true form, Christiansen, when invited to the Professor of the Year award ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., he offered to provide background music prior to the ceremony, an offer that was quickly accepted, it should be noted. Most likely, this is the first time that a professor of the year has provided the entertainment.

For those who know professor Christiansen, it is impossible to think of him without a guitar and, like many masters, he began playing at an early age.

“I began playing guitar at age 7 and I started with an older teacher who was really brilliant, although I didn’t know that until much later when I began my own teaching,” Christiansen said. “I studied with Mrs. Herger in her Provo studio and eventually, when I was in high school, I taught in that same studio. Mrs. Herger was amazing and ahead of her time.”

After that beginning in Provo, Utah, Christiansen had other mentors — both in and out of the classroom — when he began his student career at Utah State University, where he arrived, scholarship in hand, thanks to Richard Watkins in the Student Entertainment Bureau. Throughout the years, Christiansen said he has had many private instructors who have influenced his playing as well as his love for teaching.

And, during his years as an undergraduate student at USU, Christiansen built and developed his teaching skills while offering private guitar lessons in the back room of Cal’s Music Box, a small music store in downtown Logan. For the sum of $2.50 a week, he provided a private lesson to a difficult-to-imagine teaching load of 90 students.

Christiansen earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah State and joined the music department faculty in 1977. When he began, USU’s guitar program did not exist. He began teaching individual students in the department and that one-on-one teaching soon developed into two group guitar classes. Fingerboard theory classes were soon added to the mix, and about that time Christiansen developed a pioneering video, “Guitar Basics,” that took off and today, 30 years later, is still used and is selling briskly.

“As the classes grew, so did enrollment and a guitar styles class was added — blues, bluegrass, classical, jazz and more,” Christiansen said. “I believe the ‘complete’ guitarist needs to be versed in multiple styles and that’s a hallmark of our program at Utah State.”

With the ever increasing enrollment, a guitar pedagogy class was added.

“I had to teach the guitar players how to teach,” he said, and that’s when Christiansen thinks back to an early mentor. “Max Dalby taught me to be a teacher; he taught me how to educate.”

Guitar ensembles were added to improve students’ music reading abilities — another hallmark of USU’s program. And finally, guitar history and literature were added.  Today, the guitar program at USU is led by a tenured faculty member — not an adjunct position — and is part of the fabric of the entire Department of Music.

And, without exception, the entire guitar program at Utah State University was developed and built by Christiansen. Students can earn a bachelor’s degree in guitar performance but also in guitar education — among the first such program in the nation and today still among only a handful. That is why Christiansen’s students are sought and, in this still difficult economic environment, extremely employable.

Christiansen calls his teaching style hands-on.  He wants students to know what they are doing and he wants to hear it come out of the instruments, he said.

“I want them to be versatile and I want them to able to sight read music well,” he said. “And, I want them to be a nice person; to get along with who they work with. I want them to have a love of music and I want my students to play better than I do. I want my students to be not only a good guitar player but a good musician.”

As Utah’s top professor, Christiansen joins an impressive roster of Utah State University faculty who previously captured the award. He becomes the 12th Utah State professor to receive the award since Frances Titchener was named the university’s first recipient in 1995. The national award program was established in 1981. At USU, the nomination and award program is coordinated in the office of the Provost and Executive Vice President.

At USU, Christiansen represents the first faculty member from the arts to win this honor and, like others in the arts disciplines, he believes that the arts have a place in the educational setting and in our lives.

“Without the arts, our lives would be black and white,” he said. “Arts and arts education add the color, the spice, the pleasantness to our lives. Some use the arts as an escape and some use the arts for acceptance — not everyone is an athlete, not everyone is a scientist. We all find our own place to fit in, but the arts have a profound effect on our lives. If we go to a film and the score — the music — is removed, the experience at the film is not complete. The emotional reaction would not be the same. The arts provide the soundtrack for our lives.”

At this point in his career, Christiansen has done all he could imagine. He teaches. He performs. He’s written top-selling books and he writes and arranges music. It’s a well-rounded career but rest assured, Christiansen isn’t ready to wrap up the gig.

“This teaching award is an honor, but awards and recognitions are a product of what people have helped us with, have contributed to us,” Christiansen said. “The support, the insights and associations of students and colleagues all earn a piece of this honor. We are all a product of our influences, and I’ve had some great ones.

“I come to school and I have a beautiful office and a department head who supports me and my program. I cannot see a time ever that I won’t want to teach.”

Past USU Carnegie Professors of the Year are: Jim Cangelosi, mathematics and statistics (2011);  Laurie McNeill, civil and environmental engineering (2010); David Peak, physics (2009); Lyle McNeal, animal science (2007); Bonnie Glass-Coffin, anthropology (2004); Jan Sojka, physics (2002); David Lancy, anthropology (2001); Mark Damen, history (1998); Sonia Manuel-Dupont, English (1997); Ted Alsop, geography and earth resources(1996); and Frances Titchener, history (1995).

Christiansen offered thanks to his colleagues who supported him in the nomination process and review for the Carnegie award, including David Peak, 2009’s recipient.

What Christiansen’s students and colleagues say (select comments from the numerous nomination letters):

“For four years I never missed one of his classes; they were all fascinating and engaging. Mike teaches all of his courses with a guitar either in his hand or nearby on a stand, for demonstrations and/or a hands-on answer to a question. … As much fun as the academic guitar classes were, nothing compared to private lessons with Mike. His love and knowledge of the guitar — all styles — is unmatched, whether it be jazz, classical, bluegrass, rock & roll, or anything else. I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad lesson from Mike. … He has a complete command of the instrument and an unerring ability to observe a student of any level and know exactly what needs to happen for that student to advance.” Bill Gabriel, non-traditional student, 2010.

“I am writing this letter to openly credit Professor Mike Christiansen for being the most pivotal and important instructor during my undergraduate experience. … He inspired me as a student and helped shape my professional career down a path I never expected or thought possible when I first started taking classes from him in 2006. … He was my greatest mentor and patiently encouraged me as a guitarist. While working with him I caught his fire and love for teaching. … He helped me become an accomplished musician as well as teaching me to become an effective educator.” Colleen Darley-Croft, Summit Academy music instructor (junior/senior high school), 2011.

“His excellence as a teacher begins with the fact that he himself is an outstanding guitarist with an international reputation who excels in performing virtually all styles of music. … His 40-plus books that he has published with Mel Bay Publications (world’s largest guitar publication house) are a reflection of the quality of the original materials he has developed for his own classroom and private lesson use. … Professor Christiansen established the nation’s first Music Education degree with a guitar emphasis. Graduates from this program have been sought after by public school districts, as they have been successful in engaging large numbers of secondary school students in innovative new music courses that have provided an alternative to traditional band and choir offerings.” Bruce M. Saperston, Ph.D., associate professor emeritus, former department head, USU Department of Music.

“As a colleague in performance, I have spent countless hours with Mike in recording sessions, working on compositions and arrangements, travelling to and from performances, promoting performances and in the actual presentation of concerts. We have presented more than 2,800 public performance together as members of the Lightwood Duo, as well as the jazz/rock bands Phase 2 and Mirage. During these hours together, it has become obvious that, for Mike, performing and teaching are one and the same. … He has, in his 35 years at Utah State University, built the program into the preeminent guitar program in the country.” Eric Nelson, clarinetist, Lighwood Duo; band, guitar, choir instructor, Spring Creek Middle School, Providence, Utah.

“Mike’s similar caring for his students has made him one of Utah State University’s most beloved faculty members. At the same time, his rigorous command of his art and his innovative approaches to learning, have also made him one of our most effective teachers. In 1994, Mike’s devotion to his students and skill in the classroom were recognized with the university’s highest award for teaching excellence. … Mike is one of the most highly respected music educators in America (He is one of only five full professors nationwide in the discipline of guitar.) … Mike has literally ‘written the book on guitar instruction.’” Stan L. Albrecht, president, Utah State University.

“I chose to study at USU specifically because of Mike Christiansen and his guitar program. His unparalleled reputation as a guitar educator, author and performer left no doubt in my mind where and with who I wanted to study guitar. … He can teach a student to be a performing musician in any musical style because he continues to perform regularly in every music style. He can also teach a student to be a teacher because he has a lifetime of teaching experience. Mike has honed and perfected his teaching techniques over the past 40 years and has developed truly groundbreaking curriculum and teaching methods. … A lot of people play the game guitar hero, but Mike Christiansen is a REAL GUITAR HERO! He’s a hero to me and to hundreds of other students like me.” Cade Valcarce, B.A., music education — guitar emphasis, 2008.

Related links:

Writer: Patrick Williams, (435) 797-1354, patrick.williams@usu.edu

Contact: Michael Christiansen, (435) 797-3011, michael.christiansen@usu.edu

USU professor Michael Christiansen, 2012 Utah Carnegie Professor of the Year

Utah State University professor Michael Christiansen is the 2012 Utah Carnegie Professor of the Year. He was honored in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15, and is the university's 12th faculty member to receive the prestigious educational honor.


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