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Director of Bands reflects on living out dream career at alma mater

Dr. Stephen Kerr directing the Wind Symphony last spring

As his June 30 retirement date draws near, Liberty University Professor of Music and Director of Bands Dr. Stephen Kerr (’82) said his 32-year career at Liberty has been full of rich relationships and warm memories.

“I am deeply contemplative and thankful for the opportunities to build a life of music at Liberty University and serve as director of bands,” Kerr said. “I believe music is the most efficacious of all the arts, and for me, the medium of band performance is truly a life-long endeavor and a personal calling at Liberty University. The fabric of our lives and students’ lives are fashioned by God with such beauty that it would be impossible to foster on our own.”

Directing the Liberty University Wind Symphony at Commencement marked Kerr’s final public performance as director. He was formally recognized for his years of service during the School of Music’s degree presentation ceremony.

Kerr arrived at Liberty as a student in 1977. After graduating with a music education degree, he ventured to Florida where he taught music at a Christian school in Miami and also worked with the marching band. It was during this time that he met his wife, Martha.

Soon after marrying, the couple moved to Lynchburg, where Kerr had been offered the band director position at Liberty Christian Academy (LCA). In 1990, he took over the role of assistant band director and brass instructor at Liberty before being asked to be the director of bands in 2000, where he has overseen both the Spirit of the Mountain Marching Band and the Wind Symphony, a highly acclaimed and advanced instrumental ensemble open to all students in any major.

“That was a dream come true,” he said about becoming the director of bands. “At the same time, the program was not where it should be but I had the room to make the program my own, to do some things that I thought were needed.”

Kerr embraced the challenge, which was special to him because, as a student, he had been a member of the first marching band in 1977. He remembers when they started with only 48 band members, no uniforms, and a telephone pole in the middle of their practice space (the Thomas Road Baptist Church parking lot).

During the School of Music’s Commencement ceremony, School of Music Dean Dr. Stephen Müller awarded Kerr with a plaque in honor of his years of service to the university.

Slowly and intentionally, Kerr built the band into what it is today, an exciting company of brass, woodwind, and percussion instrumentalists, accented and accompanied by a full color guard.

“Many of the things we do are really entertaining,” he said, “whether it’s in the visual set or the amplified instrumentation that we do.”

The band caps its number at 250 each year. It has performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, at the New York Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands for 80,000 spectators, and at colleges and universities throughout the eastern United States. In recent years, the Spirit of the Mountain traveled to the Flames first-ever bowl game appearance in Orlando, Fla for the 2019 Cure Bowl and to this past season’s LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, Ala. (Pandemic protocols kept the band from traveling to the 2020 Cure Bowl in Orlando).

“Those are great experiences for our kids,” he said. “Just to travel together and to do fun stuff together.”

Kerr has also started some special traditions with the band, such as gathering behind the Hancock Welcome Center before every home football game to set their minds on Christ.

“The marching band sings ‘Be Thou My Vision’ and then we pray together,” he said. “It’s very, very meaningful.”

On recent trips with the Wind Symphony, members have been able to share their testimonies in public school environments after performances.

“What an amazing testimony for our kids to be able to do that,” he said.

Kerr directing the Spirit of the Mountain Marching Band during a practice in 2004

When Kerr first took the reins as director, his desire was to build a relationship with each student.

“I felt it was my responsibility to not just recruit, but to retain,” he said.

Kerr and his wife have become a pillar of support and encouragement. Throughout the school year, they often host social gatherings around Lynchburg and at their own home.

“Martha loves having the students over,” he said, noting that the students affectionately call her “Momma Kerr.” “She says, ‘Send me all the names because I’m going to memorize everybody’s names. And she really does. She’s really good with everybody’s names, and the kids love her.”

When Kerr announced his retirement earlier in the spring, many of his former students thanked him on social media for the impact he has made on their lives.

“Many thanks for your years of labor at Liberty,” Stan Barringer (’08) said. “You were dedicated to your students and served them with extraordinary patience. You also provided discipline and guidance that many of us needed. … You were my greatest mentor at Liberty, and I’m thankful for all you’ve done.”

“You know that teacher in your life that made a life-changing impact? This is the one,” said Luke Braswell (’11), who noted that Kerr played trumpet at his wedding while his fiancée Ashley walked down the aisle and was among the first to meet their daughter, Amelia, while vacationing with his family in Myrtle Beach. “He had no idea that Ashley and I were going through a crazy time when he offered me a job as low brass tech. He helped me grow as a leader, musician, and man of Christ.”

School of Music Dean Dr. Stephen Müller said he has appreciated Kerr’s commitment to excellence in all aspects of his job.

“The Spirit of the Mountain and Wind Symphony have been fueled by the passion, skill, and dedication of Dr. Stephen Kerr,” he said.

For Kerr, it’s a chance to thank God for His blessings.

“The Lord knew which doors to open and close on me. I’m just very, very appreciative to Him, and I am so thankful for Liberty and what my time here has meant to me and my family.”

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