When he was growing up in North Carolina, Michael Haithcock had one dream: to replace his high school band teacher when he retired.
However, after a few years in college, Haithcock’s career plan changed. After spending two years at Baylor University for his master’s degree, he was hired as the Baylor director of bands. He stayed at Baylor for 23 years before he got a call from U-M.
“I was the victim of good teaching,” he jokes. “My teachers at East Carolina University and Baylor did not limit what they taught me, or their expectations for me, based on the limits I placed on myself,” he says.
As director of bands and professor of conducting at U-M, Haithcock teaches graduate students in conducting, oversees the university’s 11 major bands on the administrative level, and personally conducts the University of Michigan Symphony Band.
“That model of terrific teaching has been the impetus for what I’ve tried to do in my own career, which is to look at individual student needs and look at them as learners, not performers. No matter how well someone does something at the moment, they can still learn and grow,” he says.
The nationally renowned Symphony Band performs about five concerts each semester, primarily in Hill Auditorium. One of the highlights of Haithcock’s 13 years as director was conducting the Symphony Band in Carnegie Hall in February of 2005.
In 2011, Haithcock and the Symphony Band took a month-long tour of China as representatives of U-M and American musical life. Months of preparation, language and cultural education classes led up to the departure. “To be with the students day in and day out was truly moving, seeing the way they performed, cared for each other, bonded with each other and sacrificed individuality for the sake of the whole. The phrase ‘leaders and best’ comes to mind,” Haithcock says.
One of the most striking moments of the tour occurred when the symphony visited an office of the Chinese government. Haithcock recalls, “One of their ministers talked to us in English, which is rare — a real courtesy. The minister told the students, ‘No matter what our governments do or say, we are still people.’ I grew up hearing about China from broadcast news reports during the Cultural Revolution and Cold War period. To hear those words so many years later in English and from a Chinese government official, was an extremely moving experience.”
In 2012, Haithcock was awarded an Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship, the university’s highest award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Haithcock’s motivation comes from his own years in school, where he “learned the need to be a perpetual student,” he says.
And U-M provides many opportunities for learning: “There is a creative milieu created by people from diverse and interesting backgrounds; there is this cultural immersion in each other that I find extremely stimulating,” he says.
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
Any concert in Hill Auditorium, because it is a culmination of our work together in our rehearsal and learning laboratory. We are sharing our work with the public on one of the grandest stages in America.
What can’t you live without?
My wife of 38 years, our two children and two grandchildren.
What is your favorite spot on campus?
In addition to Hill Auditorium, walking out of the tunnel into Michigan Stadium is a pretty spectacular experience. This juncture of coming out of the tunnel into the Big House is a metaphor to me of what students accomplish while at UM — they progress through this tunnel of learning into the “big house” that is the world around them.
What inspires you?
There’s a famous quote that says: “The experiences of our past are the architects of our present and the blueprint of our future dreams.” My family (wife, parents, grandparents) have been profoundly inspirational to me in making this quote a reality in my life. Learning is ongoing and limitless as long as one is willing to grow and challenge one’s self. Being a better student tomorrow than I am teacher today motivates me.
What are you currently reading?
“New York” by Edward Rutherford.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
The single biggest influence was James Houlik, my undergraduate saxophone teacher. He showed me a path to my potential in spite of the limits I had previously placed on myself.