Professor Joan Griffing (second from left) talks to well-wishers during a reception Monday at Eastern Mennonite University. After 22 years of teaching and leadership, both at the university and in the community, Griffing will move to Wichita, Kansas, to lead the fine arts division at Friends University. Griffing has played prominent roles in the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival as concertmaster and with several local youth music programs. (Photos by Macson McGuigan)

Music professor Joan Griffing leaves her indelible mark on EMU and area youth programs

Joan Griffing became department chair of the Eastern Mennonite University music department not long after she joined the faculty. Twenty-two years later, she has left an indelible mark on the campus, the local and regional arts community, and many, many students.

In August, she’ll begin as Tim and Gail Buchanan Endowed Chair of the Fine Arts Division at Friends University — “an incredible opportunity,” she says, to do similar collaborative work in the far larger and more varied arts community of Wichita, Kansas.

Professor Joan Griffing listens to tributes from colleagues and fellow community music enthusiasts during a reception in Lehman Auditorium.

At a reception this week in her honor, Professor James Richardson praised Griffing’s mentorship, her abilities as an “exceptional musician,” and “her compassion for the whole person, whether that be a colleague or a student.”

“She brings to everything she does a concern for the soul and the whole student,” he said. “When I think of Joan, I will always think of what I have heard her say many times, and I’m sure many of you have heard her say it as well: ‘At the end of the day, it’s all about the student.”

Professor Emeritus Kenneth J. Nafziger, longtime colleague in the EMU music department, commented that he had “seen many musicians come to EMU with significant gaps in their learning and grow as accomplished performers under her careful guidance, experience both solo and ensemble work and play in a variety of settings, all of which are exactly what music is supposed to do.”

Nafziger and Griffing have also spent many years working together with the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival. The conductor thanked the concertmaster for expanding his own understanding of strings instruments and string players to the benefit of all. “She has been able to translate my musical wishes into sounds I had hoped for and I am most thankful.”

Also in attendance were Bach Festival President Michael Allain and board member Ming Ivory, both of whom shared anecdotes and wished Griffing well on her new endeavors.

The reception was attended by several former students, four of whom now work for EMU (two as violin instructors), but also representatives of community arts organization that Griffing has supported and promoted, including the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir.

Making music more accessible to area youth

When asked to identify her own accomplishments, Griffing lists two more programs for youth.

Professor Joan Griffing, here playing the violin in 2011, has been concertmaster of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival for many years. (EMU file photo)

“Both Sharon Miller and I started to play violin in public schools programs,” she said. “That was something that was missing here that she and I wanted to start, and I’d have to say that’s something I am proud of.”

The Harrisonburg City Schools Strings program, a program of EMU’s Preparatory Music program directed by Miller, began 11 years ago and is now offered at all six elementary schools and both middle schools.

Griffing also helped start the Any Given Child Initiative, a partnership of Harrisonburg City Schools with the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to provide equal access to arts for students in K-8th grade.

“That’s been fun to work with dancers and visual artists, to get to know artists of different stripes and think about ways we can bring them together,” she said.

An advocate for music at EMU

At EMU, Griffing championed the interdisciplinary major, an inventive redesign of the music curriculum to broaden accessibility and encourage students to combine a music major with a second major in a different field.

Hearkening back to her own roots, the outreach string quartet class remains a favorite offering, as “a way for students to learn to take their music out to marginalized communities,” she said, such as the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and Gemeinschaft Home for ex-offenders.

Reluctant to single out one or two of her many students over the years for individual accolades, Griffing says she’s most proud of her performance majors. “To a one, they have each accomplished more than they thought they could achieve in their four years,” she said. “All of them won our semi-annual concerto/aria competition. To eventually play a concerto with the orchestra takes guts and preparation and hard work, and to get to the performance level they do is really quite an achievement.”

Two members of a string quartet practice under the tutelage of Professor Joan Griffing in 2017. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Of her administrative work, which included fundraising, planning, mentoring, scheduling and more, Griffing says that choice of involvement enabled her “to help more than just my violin students.”

“I enjoy helping my colleagues do their jobs,” she said. “To me, that’s servant leadership: supporting my colleagues so they enjoy coming to work every day. Ultimately that helps the students, too.”

(To this, she adds that she is also doesn’t mind getting into “the nitty-gritty, which arts people sometimes don’t much care for, understandably so, because they’d rather do their arts.”)

A widely-traveled professional

All this while, Griffing has led an active professional career, performing as first violinist with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Eastern Music Festival, and concertmaster with the AIMS Festival Orchestra in Austria and Italy, as well as with the Coronado, Grand Teton, Norfolk and Spoleto festivals. She’s performed in Taiwan, Brazil and Australia, and spent a sabbatical at the University of Otago, New Zealand, studying the role of music in peace and conflict issues.

Joan Griffing (right) with members of Musica Harmonia. (Courtesy photo)

As founding member of the chamber music group Musica Harmonia, she regularly tours to promote peace and cultural understanding through musical collaboration. The group has recorded two CDs.

Griffing says she intends to keep many connections alive from her new home in Kansas. She and her husband, clarinetist Leslie Nicholas, will return to Harrisonburg every June to play with the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.

And she’s looking forward to making new connections, too.

“I have always had a strong interest in the bigger picture of all the arts, how they connect and the possibilities of collaboration. The arts can and do change people’s lives for the better,” she said. “By overseeing all the arts at Friends and embedding them across campus, I’ll be able to have a broader impact than I am able to have here. That’s very exciting to me. Without the many years of experience at EMU, this new opportunity would not be possible.”

Discussion on “Music professor Joan Griffing leaves her indelible mark on EMU and area youth programs

  1. Joan, it is so heartening to read about all your accomplishments during your years at EMU. I truly enjoyed being one of your colleagues in the arts and humanities. I admire the way you persistently championed the musical arts, opportunities for non-music majors to make music, and the whole liberal arts approach to education. Huge congratulations on all your contributions. Wishing you great blessings as you go, but with hopes it won’t mean a lot less performances by Musica Harmonia in Harrisonburg; after all, Diane is still here!

  2. Joan was a great professor and role model. She did so much to advance “strings” at EMU including representing the institution in national venues. Disappointing to lose her from EMU due to cut-backs, but another college in Kansas will become richer with her presence. Blessings to you Joan as you venture forth.

    1. Thank you very much for your good wishes, Roman. I fondly remember teaching your daughter violin and you, viola! It was wonderful to have you read Robert Morgan’s poetry as part of my last orchestra concert at EMU. That was a treat for us all!

  3. Congratulations, Joan.
    I am sure you remember that another EMF violinist teaches and performs in Wichita, Nancy Luttrell.
    My brother and his wife have enjoyed your performances in the Shenandoah Bach Festival.
    Best regards,
    Val Gross

    1. So good to hear from you, Val! I have been intending on getting in touch with Nancy when we move to Wichita. Please have your brother introduce himself to me at this summer’s Bach Festival concerts. I’d love to meet him and his wife. I hope our paths will cross again soon!

  4. Meeting with Professor Joan G at the Honors Weekend in February 2017 was a significant factor in my confidence as a parent to send our son Jonathan to EMU. Her bubbly personality and warm reception at the Academic open house encouraged Jonathan to continue to use his musical talent at EMU even though he is not a music major. Thank you Joan for caring first about the student.

    God’s blessings upon you as you start a new chapter in your musical career. You will bless the students and the community!
    Dawnelise Nielsen

    1. Thank you very much for your kind comment and good wishes, Dawnelise. Your son will be well taken care of by other EMU music faculty. It’s a wonderful community!

  5. What a blessing Joan was to me during my college years! I think back now to how much patience she showed me, even when I was NOT the model student!
    EMU will not be the same without you, Joan. I will be praying for you as you begin your new journey.

    1. Thank you so much, Bebhinn! It was great having you come back and perform at EMU with me and other faculty a few years ago. Blessings to you and your family!

  6. Thanks so much for your kind remarks, Mike. It has been my pleasure to serve at EMU and in the Bach Festival! I hope to see you this June at some concerts!

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