Cliff Colnot, A Personal Remembrance

I first met Cliff Colnot at DePaul University in the mid-1990s. Not long before, I had left an orchestral career behind, moved to Chicago, and joined a string quartet in residence at DePaul. The university hired Cliff as Orchestra Director a short time later, and we almost immediately began to work to build the strongest possible orchestral program through coordination with the quartet. Cliff and I easily found a common cause in aligning student requirements, but for various reasons, my colleagues were less open. I had only limited success mitigating tensions that arose, but I did manage to keep a positive working relationship with Cliff over the next few years. 

A Fresh Start

Then, in 2000, I left the quartet and became the head of the string department at DePaul. This change allowed Cliff and me to work as collaborative partners, sculpting our programs to optimize their effectiveness. Cliff was leading a transformation at DePaul that would see the school reach an incredible new level of excellence. The process was exhilarating and dynamic. As DePaul began to flourish, our professional bond strengthened, and we began to develop a deeper friendship. 

A Life-Changing Gift

By this time, my son, Alex, was seven years old. Cliff and I sometimes spoke of the usual parenting issues that would arise, and Cliff’s counsel was clear and firm even though he was childless. Initially mysterious to me, the source of this clarity began to become clearer. One day, Cliff scheduled a meeting with me. I arrived and found him unusually quiet and contemplative. After a few moments, he seemed to come to a decision. Cliff’s hand shook as he handed me a book entitled Teaching/Discipline: A Positive Approach for Educational Development by Clifford K. Madsen. I took the book from Cliff, wondering why he had given it to me and why the handoff seemed freighted with so much intensity.

Clifford K. Madsen

Clifford K. Madsen, the book’s author, began his career as a band director and became an applied music instructor at Florida State University in 1960. He served FSU as the Coordinator of Music Education / Music Therapy/Contemporary Studies and the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the College of Music until his retirement in 2018. Cliff Madsen has authored or co-authored nine books and over 200 articles, which have been widely read and have had a historic impact in the field of music education, particularly in North America. 

Cliff Colnot had been an undergraduate student of Dr. Madsen at Florida State University. Dr. Madsen would go on to play a major role in shaping Cliff into the master teacher he would become. It was a lucky circumstance for Cliff, the many students who would eventually work with him, and me and Alex. Cliff’s deep relationship with Dr. Madsen and the powerful but challenging principles in Teaching/Discipline remained deeply personal to Cliff throughout his life. Any external rejection, dismissiveness, or inattentiveness to those principles by someone with whom he shared them would place a serious limit on friendships, hence the reluctance on Cliff’s part to start down that road with anyone.

A New Philosophy

That night, as I began to thumb through Teaching/Discipline, it struck me as a somewhat dry textbook full of concepts that seemed mostly simple and intuitive. Later, I would learn and understand the power and benefit of those simple, intuitive concepts and also come to understand the extraordinary challenge of putting them into practice. But at that time, I didn’t yet understand that for Cliff, giving me a copy of Teaching/Discipline was risky and undertaken only out of affection for me and especially for my son.

With Cliff’s guidance, I approached Teaching/Discipline with an open mind and eventually with as much seriousness as I ever studied anything. The concepts had a profoundly positive impact on me, transforming my teaching, my self-discipline, and, most importantly, my parenting. My growing understanding of the principles in Teaching/Discipline eventually brought my values and teaching techniques into line with Cliff’s, making it possible for us to co-teach ensemble rehearsals with seamless integration. Where the application of Teaching/Discipline methodology could be misunderstood as “rigid” or “unbending,” Cliff and I embraced the methods of constructing a meaningful teaching and learning environment as illuminated by Dr. Madsen. This shared understanding was at the heart of a powerful bond between us. Eventually, I developed my own relationship with Dr. Madsen, making trips to Florida State with Cliff to teach as a guest in his program and hosting him here in Chicago for an incredible week of teacher training with local music educators.

A Change of Venue

When, after eight years at DePaul, I left to become Director of the string program at Roosevelt University, the bond with Cliff remained strong. At Roosevelt, I began to apply the same principles I had learned from Cliff at DePaul. During those years, Cliff would sometimes teach in my program at Roosevelt, and I would sometimes teach sectionals in his program at DePaul, much to the chagrin of administrators and faculty who presumed we would be poaching one another’s students. No such “poaching” ever occurred, but the internal objections became tiresome over the years, eventually being no longer worth the fight. Cliff and I retreated to the lanes of our respective programs. Still, our bond from our shared love of music, dedication to teaching, and understanding of Teaching/Discipline remained intact. 

Dwindling Contact

In recent years, as our professional lives led us on different paths, our relationship evolved again. Our professional interactions were limited to occasional recording sessions and just a few concerts where I served as concertmaster, with Cliff conducting. For many years, we spoke on the phone most days and often had dinner together. We frequently reached out to one another for advice about various things, both professional and personal. But Cliff’s resistance to technological change made the 2020 pandemic particularly hard on him. Despite attempts to keep him engaged, Cliff became increasingly isolated and withdrawn. Even after the worst of the pandemic was behind us, Cliff and I only managed to eat together a couple of times. He seemed increasingly withdrawn, but he was not open about his declining health.

Saying Goodbye

Later, when he no longer wanted to speak on the phone, we communicated almost entirely by text and email. By last November, his illness made even that no longer possible, and eventually, he had to be hospitalized. The weeks that followed were painful. Initial hopes that Cliff might recover somewhat and return home were ultimately dashed as his condition deteriorated. I visited him often in those final days, and to the extent he could communicate, he was still very much himself. But this man with an extraordinary gift for language, a true dedication to students, and an unimpeachable work ethic could no longer flex any of those muscles. Cliff passed away on February 12, 2024.

The Final Cadence

Because Cliff wasn’t prone to gratuitous socialization, spoke his mind, never made approval errors, and wasn’t a “warm and fuzzy” person, he was easily misunderstood. But countless people can attest to Cliff’s boundless generosity, deeply admirable values, incredible musical skills, extraordinary work ethic, and unfailing dedication to his students. Cliff has had his final cadence, but the reverberations of his legacy continue through the many skillful arrangements and pedagogical treatises he authored, as well as the countless people who have benefitted from their interaction with him. I feel incredibly lucky to count myself among them.

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