After over three decades at UNM, clarinet and saxophone player and music professor Keith Lemmons celebrated his teaching career with a farewell performance last night.
A quintet started 33 years ago by Lemmons called the New Mexico Winds played a composition of flute, oboe, bassoon and horn, with Lemmons on clarinet. The Winds’ performance was a culmination of everything Lemmons has learned teaching clarinet and saxophone at UNM.
“I came [to UNM] in the fall of 1984, 33 years ago,” Lemmons said. “I grew up in the Midwest, in Iowa and Kansas. I went to a small school in Kansas, Pittsburg University, a regional school with around 8,500 kids.”
Lemmons attended Michigan State on a full ride scholarship, which he said helped jumpstart his career.
“Then I went to Michigan State and trained with one of the greatest clarinet players of all time, Elsa Verdehr,” he said.
After schooling at Michigan State, Lemmons decided he wanted to pursue teaching music.
“I started applying for college jobs and taught at Alma College and Albion College before I left Michigan to move to Minnesota,” he said.
Lemmons said these years at college were his greatest influences musically.
“The influences for me were always my teachers,” Lemmons said. “My undergrad professor at Pitts and graduate professor at Michigan influenced my career immeasurably. My undergrad professor had a great lifestyle being at a university and I decided I want to live that lifestyle, so I did everything he told me to make that happen.”
Lemmons went on teach flute, clarinet, saxophone and symphony band at Minnesota State in Moorhead. He said he was doing a lot of teaching and hard work, all in the bitter Midwest cold.
Lemmons said he had a variety of reasons for moving to the Duke City to teach music at UNM.
“A position opened at UNM, and my ex-wife didn’t want to live where it was cold anymore. I interviewed and then got offered a position here at UNM when I was 26,” Lemmons said. “I came as the clarinet/sax professor. And ever since I got tenure I teach clarinet. I teach one student at a time, very specialized — it’s only possible at a large institution.”
Arriving at UNM when the music department was still largely developing, Lemmons was instrumental in evolving the clarinet and saxophone program.
“When I came to the University the clarinet and saxophone studios were very, very small,” he said. “When I came here there were four clarinet majors and by the second year I had 18 clarinet majors. The clarinet and sax studio grew and grew and has now become one of the largest studios in the music department. The enrollment in clarinet has stayed quite large ever since.”
The clarinet virtuoso said the biggest help in keeping his career fresh has been the lively and youthful students at UNM.
“I learn new stuff every day from the students, and then I intertwine this new knowledge into the curriculum I’ve taught my whole career and it keeps it fresh and personal,” Lemmons said.
After a long teaching career, Lemmons cited family and music opportunities as his biggest reasons for retirement.
“I am retiring because I have a new granddaughter and I’m ready for the next phase of my live,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time and I’m fortunate that I’m able to retire and play more in Santa Fe and Taos. I’ll actually be coming back to teach as a (working retiree) and I’ll have seven grad students that I’ll be teaching.”
Lemmons decided that before he retired, he’d go out with a bang with his group, the New Mexico Winds.
“I formed the group when I came here 33 years ago, and it has different members as faculty have come and gone,” he said. “I’m the last original member.”
For his farewell performance, the retiring professor chose pieces that were both sentimental and challenging.
“We play a transcription of the Mother Goose Suite by Ravel and a 20th century quintet by Harbison. It’s very contemporary and considered one of the hardest quintets in woodwind musical literature,” Lemmons said. “It’s several pieces I’ve enjoyed the most in our performances over the years.”
Both Lemmon’s children go to UNM, one pursuing a degree in Education and the other a degree in Biology.
He expressed his love and appreciation for all the opportunities UNM has provided him and his family.
“I’ve had a big career because of UNM. I’ve worked hard and it’s paid off because of the many opportunities UNM has given me and I’m forever grateful for that,” Lemmons said.
After his retirement, Lemmons said he hopes to play more chamber music with groups in Santa Fe and Taos.
Troy Amato is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.