When Kay Hawley was a senior at the University of Minnesota in 1972, one of her music education professors advised her against becoming a high school band director.
It wasn’t a personal criticism of Hawley, then a star trumpet player who had toured the former Soviet Union with the University of Minnesota band. Rather, it was recognition of the fact that — at that time — most band directors in high schools were men.
That actually proved fortuitous for thousands of middle-school and elementary students in the Hopkins district, where Hawley has spent more than three decades teaching, producing many professional musicians along the way and picking up honors such as Minnesota Music Educator of the Year.
When she retires at the end of this school year, Minnesota will lose a trailblazing champion for the arts in education, colleagues say.
“Kay is a real pioneer in music education,” said Bill Webb, an Edina band director and longtime friend of Hawley. “I can’t think of anyone who’s more highly thought of, more respected.”
Hawley marvels at how much has changed since she began teaching music 43 years ago. Sadly, there are about one-third fewer music teachers in Minnesota than there were 10 years ago, she said. And many of the students she teaches come from families who are unable to buy instruments or invest in private lessons.
But, she says, she’s gotten to witness incredible advances in technology that have made teaching music much more efficient and beneficial to students. And she’s gratified by the fact there are many more female band directors today than when she started teaching.
Still, despite the pull from students and parents at Alice Smith and Glen Lake Elementary Schools where she now teaches, it’s time for her to finally put down her conductor’s baton, she says.
“I am fortunate that I’ve been in a district that’s supportive of the arts,” Hawley said. “That’s not true everywhere. [In] some districts, there is no fifth-grade band. We have a fifth-grade band. We have a sixth-grade band. I think that keeps people in our school district, because our community values the arts. It’s been a wonderful place to teach.”
‘Everyone just loves her’
Growing up near Northfield, Hawley inherited a love of music from her mother. Her first instrument was the violin, followed by the drums and then the trumpet. At the University of Minnesota, she was one of few female trumpet players and the only freshman invited to tour the former Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program.
Her teaching career started in Golden Valley in 1972, just a few years before the school district merged with Hopkins. Among her students that year was Brett Smith.
“It was a time in my life where there was a lot of stress at home and I was not feeling very good about myself,” Smith said. “But at band rehearsal, I felt safe. I could take out some of my frustrations on the drums, and I ended up getting very positive feedback from Kay. And I thought to myself, ‘If she believes in me, maybe others will, too.’ ”
Hawley served as a mentor to Smith, who went on to become an accomplished percussionist and an elementary music teacher for Mahtomedi Public Schools. In 1999, Smith was Minnesota Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
Doug Bakkum, an Andover High School music teacher, said Hawley has been a mentor to many Minnesota band directors. She is one of the founding members of the Minnesota Band Directors Association, serves in several national music education groups, and is frequent lecturer at the American Band College in Ashland, Ore.
“As a colleague, I’ve always been inspired by how much Kay gives back to her profession,” he said. “Everyone just loves her.”
Danielle Boor, a music teacher at West Junior High, said Hawley has had an equally significant impact on her students.
“I firmly believe that music teachers often have special relationships with kids because we have them two, maybe six years even, where most classroom teachers have them one year,” she said. “Kay’s focus has always been her students and exposing them to a lifetime of music.”
A powerful language
Of Hawley’s 43 years of teaching, 26 were spent at West. There, she established a long-standing tradition of taking Hopkins freshmen to Chicago to perform.
The idea, she explained, was to create an experience for students to bond over their love of music in hopes they would continue in band through high school.
“Music is a powerful language, an international language,” she said. “It bonds people for life.”
Recently, about 170 musicians — Hawley’s current and former students as well as fellow musicians in the local Medalist Concert Band — played a tribute concert for Hawley, who admits she was at first reluctant to participate. But when organizers agreed to put the focus on promoting the value arts play in education, she relented.
Hawley plans to spend her retirement traveling with her husband, David, who is also a musician. She also will do more fishing, a sport she picked up just a few years ago when she joined an all-male fishing club. She’s been named that club’s “Rookie of the Year” and has won several prizes at tournaments, including a boat and motor and a trip to a Canadian resort.
“I think she raised a couple of eyebrows the first time she showed up,” joked Webb, also a fishing buddy. “But she’s not one to give in to preconceived notions. She’s a real Renaissance lady.”
Music will also continue to be major part of Hawley’s life. She plans to keep performing in the Medalist Band, a 70-person band she’s played in for almost 27 years.
“Music is about so much more than playing an instrument,” Hawley said. “It’s about relationships. And I can’t imagine giving those up.”