DECATUR — Growing up on Long Island, the product of New York public schools in the 1950s, Michael Luxner recalls a time of great prosperity and opportunity when it came to picking up an instrument for the first time.
Today a professor of music and the influential conductor of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra since 1996, Luxner is thankful for those initial opportunities that first placed a trumpet in his hands. It was these grade school experiences that started him down a path in music that would become far and away his life’s great passion.
“The public school music programs were flush with instruments, uniforms and great teachers back then,” he said fondly, recalling the whim with which a child selects his first instrument. “I took to it naturally and learned to read music. Now, it’s been so long that I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read music. I can’t imagine or recall looking at a piece of music and not being able to hear it in my head.”
That’s the kind of role music has occupied in Luxner’s life for decades now, but the calling wasn’t always clear. He stuck with trumpet all the way through high school and college, but even in his early university days says he was studying music “almost by default.” It wasn’t until he began to study musical theory and the principles of conducting that he was able to perceive a wider view of music as a whole, not just as an artist but a scholar and teacher.
“Taking classes in music theory for a musician is a little like taking calculus for someone who wants to be a physicist,” he said. “You’re not just hearing it or enjoying it as a sensual experience; you’re learning how it truly works. And then, once I discovered scores, I really wanted to engage myself with the entirety of music, not just the trumpet. I found that I was suited to an encompassing relationship with music.”
And so, Luxner set off on a path meant to eventually lead him toward a conductorship. He attained his doctorate in musical theory from Eastman School of Music and took a teaching job at Oberlin College & Conservatory in Ohio. He followed that with his first assistant conducting work at Georgia’s Savannah Symphony before moving up to music director at the symphony in Owensboro, Ky., where he stayed for 10 years.
The end result was a 45-year-old Michael Luxner, looking for something fresh, hoping for a change. That’s when he heard about the newly formed position at Millikin University, at what he described as “exactly the right time.” He arrived in 1996 with full expectation that he would be altering a program that was already unusual into one that was unique.
“Dr. Wesley Tower was the dean of the School of Music and he was also conducting, the orchestra on more of a college community model,” Luxner said. “He spoke very eloquently in his belief that a community should make its own music, and he rehearsed all year with a college model, which is many more rehearsals than a professional symphony would do. Part of my job was improving the standards of the orchestra, moving from a community to professional model, so the student experience in the orchestra becomes learning what a professional experience is like. You don’t learn your music in rehearsal, you learn it beforehand and come prepared.”
To do this, Luxner needed to simultaneously balance the concerns of students, faculty and freelance professionals to construct an organization that could simultaneously teach a sophomore wind ensemble member and satisfy the demands of a high-caliber, professional musician. In the eyes of trombonist and Youth Symphony conductor Gary Shaw, accomplishing this feat has been one of Luxner’s great successes at Millikin.
“He melds this strange orchestra together very well,” Shaw said. “Every day he’s dealing with students, community members, faculty and professionals, and he knows precisely what to demand of all those people for the sake of the music. The overall quality of the performance means a lot to him, and I know that I’ve become extremely motivated in my own musicianship by playing in the MDSO.”
None of this could have been accomplished without the Symphony Orchestra Guild of Decatur, the organization established in 1974 to throw its support behind Millikin’s orchestral program and thus fuel the growth of the MDSO as a modern orchestra combining the best of collegiate and professional elements. The self-sustaining, nonprofit organization makes possible an arrangement that Luxner says he’s yet to ever see replicated elsewhere.
“They do a lot of work to raise funds and then simply give that money to Millikin for use here,” he said. “It’s a very altruistic arrangement that requires a lot of trust both ways, and it’s a virtually unique model. Since first hearing about it, I’ve delivered presentations about our structure to three national organizations, and no one anywhere has heard of anything quite like this.”
Flutist Georgia Hornbacker has been with the MDSO since she arrived at the university in 2000 and described Luxner as unlike any other conductor she has known in terms of tact and his relationships with orchestra members. She wishes she could have had a comparable experience as an undergraduate student.
“Dr. Luxner is humble, and he thinks about the music first rather than his own ego, which is kind of unusual with a conductor,” she said. “The students have incredible respect for him, and his real love for music is always clear. I can’t think of many people these days who still love music as sincerely as he does.”
Indeed, during any quiet moment, Luxner’s thoughts drift to music. With an ongoing fascination in cognition, he spends his days still pondering the mysteries and science behind why music affects people the way it does. He ruminates on why a symphony might cause someone to cry and pores over articles in science and medical journals about the affect of music on the brain. For him, music is less a job and more a lifestyle. Now approaching retirement age, he acknowledges that his professional career will one day end but insists he will never stop learning.
“I’m over 60, and one can’t help but imagine that retirement is on the horizon, but there’s no set date,” he said. “It’s been a challenge and pleasure to take this unique situation and make it the best I can possibly make it. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do, but there’s still a few things I wouldn’t mind doing again.”