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Career excellence in music education: UW-Eau Claire alumna Carrie Lane Gruselle

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Carrie Lane Gruselle, center, performs with a group of her chamber ensemble students at Lawrence University community music school.

One thing that is consistent among graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is the tendency to exceed expectations. We see it every day, and we recently learned of a Blugold music educator who has been out there exceeding expectations (often her own) for decades. 

Carrie Lane Gruselle, a 1978 bachelor of music education graduate, began her career as a high school music teacher that same year in Glendale. Little did she know, she says, that her path would take some surprising turns and she would eventually wear many hats as a musician and teacher, including: 

  • European piano, fiddle, guitar and vocal performer with the USO tour, 1979-1981.
  • Private music instructor, 1982-1990.
  • Composer and arranger of instructional music for FJH Music, 1986-present.
  • Strings instructor, Appleton Area School District, 1989-2015.
  • Professional symphony performer with the Green Bay and Fox Valley symphonies, 1982-2000.
  • Orchestra conductor, 2004-06. 
  • Community strings project creator and ensemble instructor at Lawrence University, 1987-present.

"Unexpected turns would be the theme of my adult life," Gruselle says of her wide array of interesting and fulfilling experiences in the world of music, a world she now inhabits from officially outside of public school music education. Her work as a composer and arranger, however, continues to touch the lives and learning of young musicians across Wisconsin and the country. 

Fellow Blugold music education graduate Paul Ousley '81 says that it is hard to overstate Gruselle's impact on music education through her prolific work as a composer. 

"Carrie has made a significant name for herself as a composer of educational music," Ousley says. "I taught and conducted orchestras for over 40 years. While searching for music that fit my students’ abilities and was inspired, creative and meaningful, I could always count on her to deliver music that students and audiences would like, while achieving the educational goals. Orchestra directors around the country feel the same way — her name figures prominently in concerts and honor festivals nationwide." 

Over the holidays, Gruselle was kind enough to catch up with us on her latest and longtime success, and she paints a picture of yet another Blugold who seized every wonderful opportunity that came her way. 

Update us on your music career, what did your path look like? Have there been unexpected turns?

"While at UW-Eau Claire my goal was to be an orchestra teacher, which I credited to my engaging and inspiring teachers, as well as the like-minded friends along the way.

After graduating, I had a strong interest in music theory that I intended to pursue at a master's level. While trying to decide on a graduate school, I took a year to teach high school. That spring I was blindsided by an offer to join a 10-piece show band, to travel abroad for the USO, play keyboards and write the vocal arrangements. Thus, two “gap years.”

Settling in Green Bay, I played in the regional symphonies, taught private lessons and began my Suzuki teacher training, a path that would lead to my graduate work at UW-Stevens Point. 

Then came my first full-time school district job in Appleton. Finally, full circle for the orchestra teaching dream. I taught mostly grades 4-8, had many student teachers, and thus began 15 years with the American String Teachers Association “String Project,” an after-school teacher-training program taught by Lawrence University music majors and coached by myself. 

During these years in Appleton, I started to write and arrange for my students because of the limitations of school budgets. This blossomed into quite a hobby.

I continue to write or arrange several pieces per year, get occasional commission work, teach private lessons and present clinics at various states' conferences. I also spoil my six grandchildren, a standard poodle and two cats.

Describe the work of composing educational music — what differentiates this genre?

Great question! Composing educational music can be quite a challenge because of its many restrictions. Key, meter, range of individual instruments, the degree of independence of parts, etc., must all be considered. The composer needs to be aware of the pedagogical progression of each instrument at the level they are composing. Although composing only 2-3 minutes of music, in those few minutes a good composer should be presenting high-quality music, and not merely a piece that supports skill X, Y or Z. We should ask, does the piece have something unique to it? Do all voices have substance to their parts? When the concert is over, do you say to yourself: “We can finally put that one away” or do you say “I can’t wait to teach that again”? I believe that the last test is most enlightening.

Do you have a favorite piece that you have composed? Or what is maybe the most widely played of your pieces in schools across the country? 

Besides composing, I also arrange and transcribe music. Of the three, for me, composition is the greatest challenge. Transcriptions and arrangements are the most satisfying. I love adapting my favorite music for students of all grade levels. That said, the spiritual "Deep River" (an arrangement), Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (a transcription) and "Boogie-Man Blues" (a composition) are among favorites. Of course, I am thrilled and humbled to hear from students and teachers that they are enjoying my efforts.

How did your experiences at UW-Eau Claire impact the course of your life and career?            

There is no doubt at all that the teachers influenced me heavily. They imprinted on me a passion for each of their subjects to which they were so obviously dedicated. I hear their voices often, as memories help me through new or problematic experiences. Occasionally I find myself quoting a teacher or remembering an anecdote, especially when working with student teachers.

Who is a faculty member, staff or fellow graduate who you still keep in touch with? Talk a little about that relationship. 

I kept in touch with Dr. Rupert Hohmann for some time after graduation as his students always felt like a family. I brought my daughter, a fine cellist, to Eau Claire to meet Paul Kosower, who taught me how to practice and succeed. The theory and history teachers turned me into a total nerd, which has served me well with my writing and arranging.  

UWEC graduates are abundant in the Fox Valley. I have shared music rooms in a variety of schools with several, including Doug Dahm (middle school choral); general elementary music with Allison Grundy Thome (general elementary music); Julie Olson Brown (middle school band); and Carol Brown Slowinski (who passed away in 2012 — an exemplary elementary band director). Gary Wolfman taught at the high schools that were fed by my middle school students, and we often shared student teachers. 

Over the years I have run into many UWEC graduates at professional events, and were I competent in social media, I would keep in touch with many more.

What is something you have done or accomplished that your 20-year-old self wouldn’t have believed possible? 

I recall that during student teaching I fantasized about someday having a piece of my creation on the Wisconsin School Music Association festival lists, but dismissed it as folly. It eventually happened, and now, is not limited to Wisconsin’s lists. Again, I am humbled and grateful for the path I was able to take.

What advice would you give current and future Blugold music students? What do you wish you’d known at that age?

If you are in music education, embrace CMP (Comprehensive Musicianship Through Performance) sooner rather than later. This was the most significant shift in my classroom teaching and connecting with kids.