Ryan Chartrand

Cal Poly professor Craig H. Russell is being honored for his work as a music teacher, composer and music historian with the prestigious California State University Wang Family Excellence Award.

Each year, five members of California State Universities’ faculty and administrators are honored with this award. Russell and his fellow winners will each receive a $20,000 award and general recognition at the Trustee’s meeting in May.

The California State University Wang Family Excellence Award was established in 1998 to celebrate faculty and administrators who made extraordinary contributions to their academic disciplines.

“I honestly don’t know how I got this,” Russell said. “I am just driven to be the best me I can be and Cal Poly has given me the academic freedom to find out who that is.”

Russell teaches a variety of music classes at Cal Poly from music appreciation to a special class he created on the music of the 1960s. He said he tries to bring all his energy and enthusiasm to each class, and is constantly learning just as much as he teaches students.

“It’s fun and exciting to see people come in here young and enthusiastic; there’s a constant stream of talent,” Russell said.

In his Music 229 class, Music of the 60s: War and Peace, Russell said he is able to show his students the relationship between an era’s social change and the music being played.

“My view is – music is an audible photo of what we value and see in our world,” Russell said.

Outside of the classroom, Russell is heavily involved in researching the music of California and Mexico during the 18th century. During this time in history, Russell said, there was a huge movement of sophisticated and beautiful music that was lost until recently.

Russell travels to missions throughout California and Mexico, digging through old music to find and piece together entire compositions, which sometimes have been scattered over hundreds of miles.

“I try to patch it together in such a way that someone couldn’t tell where the hole was,” Russell said.

Sometimes, this even involves composing a section or part that is completely absent. The true skill, he said, is creating something that sounds authentic and fits the rest of the piece.

Russell received training in classical guitar from the University of New Mexico, and his doctorate in musicology from the University of North Carolina. He has also spent years of work researching in the field.

“He is one of the leading scholars in the world on the music of the missions,” said music department chair William T. Spiller. “He finds these musical gems people didn’t know existed.”

Spiller said that Russell is an asset to the music department, and that his passion for music and for teaching make a huge impact.

“The music department is thrilled he’s been recognized,” he said. “We love and admire him and are delighted the world will recognize all his hard work.”

Spiller said that the award is particularly deserved because Russell is accomplished on so many levels.

“He is a rare triple threat: an outstanding teacher, stellar researcher, and a wonderful composer,” he said, adding that many people are satisfied to succeed in only one of these areas, yet Russell has pushed himself to do all of these things to the best of his ability.

Russell said he is unsure yet what he will do with the generous award, but hopes to put it to positive use.

“I hope not to squander this opportunity to make a difference in a substantial way,” he said.

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