Don McKinney was ready to give up music for good. He had been playing the clarinet for three years but began to resent the instrument in the seventh grade.
“I wanted to quit band,” said McKinney. “I was the only boy playing clarinet at the time and I felt like an outsider.”
Fortunately, the band director in his rural Pennsylvania middle school wouldn’t let him give up so easily. As most good mentors do, he saw McKinney’s potential and pushed him to try the saxophone.
McKinney was hooked. The saxophone led him to conducting and eventually producing.
The road to the Grammys
Nearly three decades later, McKinney—now director of bands in CU Boulder’s College of Music—found himself more than 2,000 miles away struggling to stay awake in the backseat of a ride-sharing car headed for Los Angeles International Airport.
It was 3 a.m. on a Monday and he needed to be back on campus for an important meeting later that morning. McKinney, however, still had other things on his mind.
He was in LA as a 2019 Grammy Award nominee for producing John Williams at the Movies with the Dallas Wind Symphony.
Just hours earlier he and his husband were posing for photos on the Grammys red carpet before filing into the Staples Center with stars such as Lady Gaga and Post Malone.
“It’s a whole different world of music that I had never been exposed to,” said McKinney, who was nominated for Best Classical Compendium.
After hours of festivities at the Microsoft Theater, the nominees walked across the street to Staples Center for the nationally televised ceremony.
While he didn’t win, McKinney remembers the night, including the afterparty, as a pretty great way to spend a Sunday night.
“Just imagine the largest ballroom you’ve ever seen in your entire life filled to the hilt with people and food and circus acts,” he said. “Every food station had acrobatic dancers in these wonderful 18th century powdered wigs.”
Finding a passion
Looking back now, McKinney was never sure he’d be able to make a career in music, much less earn a Grammy nomination. He had other dreams anyway.
“I would’ve been a veterinarian in a heartbeat, because I love animals,” he said.
McKinney still lights up at the thought of that earliest career aspiration, but he changed paths in high school after realizing veterinary school meant more math and science. It was around that time that he really leaned into his love of music.
McKinney credits his own music mentors—particularly the middle school band director—for shaping his career and leadership style.
“I think it was one of those things as a teacher, he saw potential in me,” said McKinney. “As a teacher I see this happen too. When you see potential in a student, you really encourage them.”
As an undergraduate student, McKinney briefly crossed paths with another unlikely mentor, Jerry Junkin, a highly regarded conductor, at a conducting workshop.
Junkin eventually recruited McKinney as a producer for the Dallas Wind Symphony.
“It’s definitely an extension of everything I’ve done as a conductor,” said McKinney. “It just felt like a natural fit for me.”
The Grammy-nominated “John Williams at the Movies” recording was the fifth project McKinney produced with Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony.
In addition to this role as producer and position as director of bands at CU Boulder, McKinney also conducts the CU Wind Symphony.
“It’s become my career now,” he said. “It never really feels to me like I go to work because I’ve found my life’s passion. For me, it’s just about coming to do something I really love.”
Now settled back into the rhythm of life on campus, McKinney hopes to draw from his past experiences to motivate young musicians.
“As a teacher, years later, I try to look out for my own students at that moment where they’re getting frustrated or they’re doubting themselves,” said McKinney. “It’s moments like that when teachers like us have to say, ‘Yes this can work out for you and this is how and this is why, because it has happened to me too.’”