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Indiana University’s ‘Doctor Rock’ retires after 38 years

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Glenn Gass thinks it’s time to step aside.

There was a point, long ago, when he had to prove teaching a class about rock ‘n’ roll was worthwhile. Some of the old guard at what was then just the Indiana University School of Music turned up their noses at the idea. Fortunately for Gass, the school’s administrators gave him the green light.

Over the next 38 years, more than 60,000 students signed up to take his courses. Gass became one of the university’s most popular professors, earning the nickname Doctor Rock. But something else happened.

Students used to say the guy teaching them about The Beatles and Bob Dylan reminded them of a big brother. Then it was their father. Then their grandfather.

Gass described the technology he used in classes leading up to his retirement this week as laughably out of date. He admitted it’s become difficult to remember what it’s like to be 20 years old.

“I can’t pretend to understand their world,” he said.

That may be true, but the overarching message of music appreciation he tried to convey to students is still relevant. In fact, it’s every bit as important today as it has been at any point in Gass’ life.

“Nothing gets you through hard times better than music,” he said. “Whether it’s Beethoven or George Jones, there’s nothing like drowning your sorrows in a beautiful song that seems to capture the way you feel.”

Retiring amid a global pandemic is a surreal feeling. Gass submitted his final grades Thursday, but he hasn’t taught a class in person since mid-March. That’s when IU moved to online instruction to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Gass joked that he couldn’t have picked a worse time to hang it up, considering the economic effects of the pandemic on retirement investments. But he was quick to acknowledge how fortunate he is.

“So many are suffering so much more,” he said.

In times of celebration and strife, music has been there for Gass. He called himself a Beatle baby, and recounted nights with his head between two speakers listening to Neil Young songs.

That early love led him to an undergraduate degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1977. It also led him to a maximum-security penitentiary.

A friend from the conservatory who was working at the University of Wisconsin at Baraboo helped Gass get a job teaching rock history and jazz at the prison. The university ran a program there.

The inmates appreciated Gass’ instruction. One, who was convicted of murder, said when he was in class, he wasn’t in prison. Listening to music set him free. The comment taught Gass something.

“The power of music can lift you out of any doldrums,” he said.

The penitentiary classes formed the foundation for Gass’ career at IU. He came to Bloomington as a graduate student in 1978. Two years later, John Lennon was shot and killed.

Gass showed up to a composer workshop wearing a black armband in honor of the Beatles co-founder. Some of his peers laughed. They were proud to have never listened to rock ‘n’ roll. To them, Lennon was a mere pop star who made kiddie music, Gass said, trying to explain before getting frustrated.

“I don’t know what they thought,” he said. “I wanted to hit them.”

Instead, he proposed a class on the Beatles for undergraduate students at Collins Living Learning Center. When he presented the idea, the syllabus and tapes he created for the penitentiary classes provided an air of legitimacy. Charles Webb, the school’s dean, and Henry Upper, associate dean, backed him.

“They could have squashed me like a bug at any time,” he said. “But they got behind this and let me try it.”

It turned out to be a hit. So many students signed up, Gass started teaching another course — the history of rock ‘n’ roll — in the spring. To his knowledge, it was the first time a music school had offered a rock ‘n’ roll history course.

The courses were so popular, a Music in General Studies program was created. Additional classes, on everything from the blues to Frank Zappa, were added.

Gass became known for his enthusiasm.

“At the very least, my job is to be as excited about music as I want my students to be,” he said.

That’s why he viewed his courses as music appreciation courses first and music history classes second. He didn’t care if students graduated without remembering the name of Buddy Holly’s drummer. He just wanted them to bring the music into their lives and feel something.

That’s what happened after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. All he did during that class was play music. Students cried, but it was a cathartic experience.

“No one skipped class,” he said. “They all wanted to be together and hear music.”

He was planning to play some of his favorite music for the last in-person meeting of his final class. But that milestone came and went unceremoniously.

To make up for it, department chairwoman Connie Cook Glen organized a parade of sorts. Friends and students drove by Gass’ home to celebrate the professor’s retirement.

The last in-person meeting of his Beatles class last December felt more like the end. His wife and sons came. His graduate assistant brought balloons. It was a real event, he said.

Now, Gass will take some time to reassess his life. Dreams of traveling have been put on hold because of the pandemic. Boxes in the basement with labels such as “Boston 1977” will get some attention instead.

Gass would like to continue teaching in some capacity. Lennon would have been 80 this year. Gass said he might put together a presentation in the fall about the man who helped launch his teaching career.

So much has changed since that first class. Now, everyone younger than 70 grew up with the Beatles, he said. He used to teach about punk rock as a new music genre. Today, it’s considered ancient, he said.

“It’s other people’s turn,” Gass said. “I’ve had my time.”

Source: The Herald-Times

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