Dustin Barr

Dustin Barr, associate professor and director of wind studies, has conducted for several years. (Dustin Barr)

On a hot Friday afternoon, the Clayes Performing Arts Center is still busy. Piano drifts through blue-tinted hallways of the second-floor as someone sings opera, while others rifle through sheet music or paint their faces with stage makeup. We bypass these doors to travel to a door lining one of the center’s outer hallways — Dustin Barr’s office, the director of wind studies and associate professor of music.

Diplomas cling to the far wall, a desk snug in the room’s middle. Books spill on the shelf to the side. On the left wall, a picture of his son, who is newly three and already fond of his own toy trumpet. 

The most prominent part of the Cal State Fullerton office is the man who stands in it. His words are polished and genuine, an audible echo of how he conducts. Like the students he teaches, he left CSUF with an undergraduate in trumpet performance and a masters of music in instrumental conducting.

In his fifth year at the university, Barr now leads within the same halls he walked as a student. All because of a risk.

The Risk

Fresh out of graduate school, 24-year-old Barr landed a teaching job at Mount San Antonio College, which turned into a full-time position. After four years, he was on the brink of tenureship, but something tugged at him that he wasn’t done with his personal growth. He said he was faced with a choice: to stay at a successful job he loved or pursue a doctorate.

Just as he was tenured, he resigned.

Barr left sunny Southern California for the midwest, planting new roots at the University of Michigan to pursue his doctorate of musical arts. He recalls how people called him crazy for leaving Mount San Antonio, but he has no regrets.

“There was a part of me that just still felt like I wasn't done,” Barr said. “I still felt like there was more for me to learn about my art. And though I could probably have spent my career there and been happy there, I don't know that I would have been as artistically fulfilled. So, I decided the risk was worth it. And again, was told I was crazy — and may have been.”

Barr said his risk paved the path for a teaching position at Michigan State’s College of Music just after Barr’s graduation, where he worked happily until returning to the more merciful winters of California. When he received the job at CSUF, he said returning was a wonderful homecoming.

“I couldn't be happier to have found my way back to Southern California, back to Cal State Fullerton, to this place I love and to be working here to teach a whole new generation of students who I very much see myself in,” Barr said. “Because I think my story, my background is very quite similar to many of the students that walk through these hallways.”

From a rural area in high desert California, Barr and his brother were the first in their family to pursue college. The reputation of CSUF’s School of Music caught his eye, and when he was awarded a presidential and music scholarships after his audition, he was hooked.

The Choice

Years before, one relative played a substantial part in spurring Barr’s future. Barr’s grandfather was untrained in music, but passionate all the same. 

Instruments were scattered around his home, and while he was not very accomplished at any of them, he loved them deeply anyway. When Barr visited as a child, there was always some sort of “very unstructured” music-making. What seemed like simple visits were planting the seeds of Barr’s appreciation for music.

When Barr was 10, he tried out the trumpet in his school’s music program. He had a knack for it, and as years progressed, so did his skills. By the time he hit high school, he played in various ensembles or another every night of the week.

“Music was my safe space,” Barr recalled. “And I think it was always a place that I found warmth and comfort and safety and fulfillment and challenge, and all of those things combined.”

His true passion may have been music, but Barr and those around him anticipated his future in engineering. But as college applications arrived, Barr wondered if he was only going down that path because it would provide a financially stable future. Just as he would a decade later, he had two paths, one riskier in the other.

When he came face to face with deciding his major, he knew. It had to be music.

The Outcome

Barr sits in his CSUF office — the payoff of such risks — accompanied by a staggering to-do list. Among these tasks, and perhaps the most important, is shaping students.

While early music often emphasizes correct and incorrect — like playing the right note in the right place — Barr said it goes beyond producing the right outcome. 

“I think my primary job as a music educator is to be able to unlock the potential to hear possibilities,” Barr said. “There's so much more to sound and art in music than that the depth of the note, the sonority of the note, the certain inflection of a note, all these things that actually can't be put on paper that can't be notated are incredibly important.”

He explains it as getting students not to just hear what is but to imagine the possibilities of what could be right. 

Barr said his most proud teaching moments are when he sees evidence of that happening, when students go beyond just the notion of music being sort of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, and instead, seek out the notion of best possible.

Such tactics seem to have been successful. Nationally ranked, CSUF’s wind symphony was one of eight groups across the United States and Canada invited to perform at the 2019 College Band Directors National Conference, which was a first in a 60-year history.

Their last concert, at the beginning of October, Barr said they performed a piece written by an alumnus — a musical reflection about the havoc of 2020, including the pandemic and political discourse. The concert’s bottom floor filled so tightly that it was standing-room only.

In his office, Barr remembers the risks he took and how they got him here.

“There's a certain element of the profession where you have to kind of go away in order to come back,” Barr said. “If not for taking that risk, I don't think I'd be here today.”

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