The Music Department is sad to note the passing of Professor Emeritus John Russell. He was beloved by his colleagues and students.
A dedicated teacher and meticulous musician, his commitment to the music he taught, composed and performed inspired four decades of students. In 1996, he was awarded the Cal Poly Distinguished Teaching Award. Russell chaired department committees and served as Music Department chair from 1996-99 with typical care and integrity.
Russell joined the Cal Poly music faculty in 1968, teaching music theory, piano and voice. He formed the College Singers, a chamber chorus that supplemented the men’s and women’s glee clubs and provided students the opportunity to perform works for mixed chorus. Then when Cal Poly was designated a university, the ensemble became known as the University Singers. An ensemble of the highest musical quality, the culmination of each year was a tour of California Missions, alternating north and south from year to year.
Russell loved to compose. His original works for choral ensembles are published by Associated Music, G. Schirmer, E.B. Marks, the Gregorian Institute of America, and Walton Music. A student of Adolph Baller, he was an excellent pianist and piano teacher.
A co-founder of the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival in 1971, Russell conducted the Mozart Festival Chorus until 1980. Students from the University Singers along with professionals and community members were deeply affected by their musical experiences under his direction. Many stayed in touch with Russell and his wife, Carol, for decades.
Former students residing locally have continued their involvement in music performance as members of the Vocal Arts Ensemble — founded by former student, Gary Lamprecht — Canzona Women's Ensemble and San Luis Obispo Master Chorale. John had such a profound influence on the choral scene in San Luis Obispo that he could well be called the father of choral music in San Luis Obispo.
Russell was a gentle, caring soul, devoted to his wife, Carol — a vocalist in many of his groups — and his two children, Kelly Trost and Bryan Russell. As was noted in the 2005 issue of Soundboard, the year of his retirement: “He is a complete person, as well as a complete professor. It’s rare that one balances those two categories — work and home — as well as John has. He is always there for the people he loves. And that is one of the many reasons we all love him so dearly.”
A great teacher, musician, colleague, husband and father, and friend, he is missed.
Thank you to Carol Russell and Clifton Swanson for contributing to this article.
"I am so grateful to John for giving me the language to talk about the patterns I was hearing in music. And for his music: I’m playing 'Gnomes' today, and remembering John’s sense of humor."
—Melissa Parkhurst (MU, '97) Russell composed "Gnomes" for Parkhurst in 1995.
"I recently had been remembering some of John's music theory rules for some reason: 'Every major-minor 7th chord is a dominant 7th chord, and every dominant 7th chord is the dominant 7th chord of something.' It is a testament to his teaching that I still remember that!"
— Russ Cummings (MU, '99)
Donations can be made to the new endowment established in Russell's memory.