Barry McNamara  |  Published January 16, 2023

New Faculty Profile

Justin Swearinger goes from conducting science experiments to conducting music.

JUSTIN SWEARINGER: New music professor is director of Monmouth's Wind Ensemble. JUSTIN SWEARINGER: New music professor is director of Monmouth's Wind Ensemble.MONMOUTH, Ill. – So far in his first year of teaching at Monmouth College, music professor Justin Swearinger has had conversations with math professor Mike Sostarecz about 3D printing; chemistry professor Brad Sturgeon about virtual reality; physics professor Mike Solontoi about the physics of music; classics professor Bob Holschuh Simmons about the overlaps between classics and music; and educational studies professor Michelle Holschuh Simmons about music teacher education.

And that’s just the other Monmouth faculty members whose last names also start with “S.”

“All those conversations have really enriched me as someone who is just starting out as a scholar,” said Swearinger, who successfully defended his dissertation last fall and now holds a doctorate in wind conducting from the University of Southern Mississippi. “It wasn’t really a surprise, but it’s certainly been true that those conversations and collaborations have been a very important part of my experience here.”

Heading to Rocket City

Swearinger, who serves as the College’s director of instrumental activities, can certainly hold his own when talking science, as that was his first academic pursuit coming out of Marion (Iowa) High School.

“All those conversations have really enriched me as someone who is just starting out as a scholar. It wasn’t really a surprise, but it’s certainly been true that those conversations and collaborations have been a very important part of my experience here.” Justin Swearinger

“I was convinced that I wanted to work for NASA,” said Swearinger, who also has family ties to the Quad Cities and to some of its surrounding Illinois communities, including Geneseo, Sherrard and Preemption. “My mom found this school, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, which is where NASA was founded.”

During the Apollo program, Huntsville was home to Wernher von Braun, the former Marshall Space Flight Center director famed as the father of the Saturn V moon rocket.

“You name any major engineering company, and they’ve got a building there,” said Swearinger of Huntsville, which proudly refers to itself as “Rocket City USA.”

His mentor, and his mentor’s mentor

Swearinger enrolled at Alabama-Huntsville, and his freshman science classes were going well. But he also found himself participating in 11 music ensembles.

“I began to think, ‘Maybe I should just focus on that,’” he said of music, ultimately majoring in percussion performance. “The other reason I changed was because of a professor I encountered there.”

That professor was C. David Ragsdale, a former student of noted conductor Gary Green.

LEADER OF THE BAND: Justin Swearinger conducts the Wind Ensemble at its Oct. 30 concert in the Ka... LEADER OF THE BAND: Justin Swearinger conducts the Wind Ensemble at its Oct. 30 concert in the Kasch Performance Hall of Dahl Chapel and Auditorium. “At the time, I didn’t expect him to shape so much of the course of my life,” said Swearinger, whose first performance was playing the timpani as Ragsdale conducted “Symphony No. 4” by David Maslanka. “I had never made music like that – so deep and so moving. That’s when my transition from science to music really happened. From there, I knew I wanted to be a college band director.”

The connection was so strong that, several years later, Swearinger’s dissertation focused on Maslanka.

“It’s amazing how that thread has run all the way through,” he said.

As “a broke college student,” Swearinger began taking conducting lessons and, after graduating from Huntsville and taking a year off, fully committed to his pursuit. A friend to this day, Ragsdale’s influence continued as Swearinger selected graduate schools where two other disciples of Green taught – Florida International University, where he earned his master’s degree, and Southern Mississippi.

Coming home

From there, Swearinger and his wife, Monmouth enrollment operations coordinator LeAnna Whitaker, bounced around, which included stints in Georgia and New Mexico, while he got experience as a high school and middle school music teacher. As work on his Ph.D. neared completion and it became time to begin looking for college teaching jobs, the couple was open to moving anywhere in the United States. But they were especially hopeful that Swearinger would find work in a belt of the country between Alabama – where his wife is from – and the Quad Cities.

“I thought, ‘It sure would be nice to be closer to home,’” said Swearinger. “When the Monmouth job was posted, I was very excited. I’ve seen my parents more in the past few months that I did the entire decade before that.”

But working at Monmouth means more to Swearinger than just being close to his roots. He’s also thrilled to be at a residential liberal arts college, an experience that his best friend, Max Lafontant, had at Luther College, which, like Monmouth, is a member of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.

“A friend of mine had (a 3D printer), and I was fascinated by it for a long time. So I finally bought one.” Justin Swearinger

Swearinger commissioned Lafontant to compose a new work, and he plans to conduct its world premiere on Scholars Day in April, followed closely by another performance of the piece at the Wind Ensemble’s spring concert. Days before, he’ll complete yet another interdisciplinary collaboration, conducting the pit orchestra for the April 20-23 production of The Little Mermaid, directed by theatre professor Vanessa Campagna.

Swearinger may not be following through on his original dream of plotting trips to Mars or tracking the next asteroid to pass close to Earth, but he still stays active in science. He has a 3-D printer in his office, which he uses to make replacement parts for instruments, as well as to create “silly little gifts.”

“A friend of mine had one, and I was fascinated by it for a long time,” he said. “So I finally bought one.”

For the very cheap price of two bucks – rather than its typical lofty cost of several hundred dollars – Swearinger even printed his own version of a shawm, a medieval oboe.

That alone might qualify him as a “Renaissance man,” and, if not, he figures to keep getting closer to that status the more of his colleagues he meets. We hear the “M’s” are a good group to know next.

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