Music professor to be honored with WMEA service award

Professor Robert Baca explains his personal music journey and the importance connecting with students plays in his classroom

Jenna Erickson

More stories from Jenna Erickson

Eau Claire eats
April 2, 2020

Photo by Alee Erickson

Robert Baca, a professor of music and the director of jazz studies, said connecting with students is the most important part of teaching.

“Teaching becomes a lot more than delivering content in the course of 50 minutes,” Robert Baca said, “It’s about developing a relationship with each student and having those conversations where that particular subject that they’re studying can be applied to their regular life.”

As he embarks on his 33rd year of teaching Blugolds and bringing music to the next level on and off campus, this man with a career of dedication and inspiration defines the standard of excellence at UW-Eau Claire, according to the UW-Eau Claire website.

Baca is the professor of trumpet and director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire. The website said he is also the conductor of Jazz Ensembles I &II, received the Down Beat Award for Large Jazz Ensemble six times and was twice nominated for a Grammy Award.

The name Bob Baca has become synonymous with jazz music performance in the nation and instruction at UW-Eau Claire, according to the UW-Eau Claire website.

“I started here in the fall of 1986,” Baca said.

Baca has stuck around for so long here at UW-Eau Claire because he said he believes that the students in the upper midwest are in a category that does not exist around the rest of the nation because of their “values, their work ethic and their sense of family structure.”

Baca said that is not an opinion held just by himself, but it is a common opinion from other professors and teachers about students in this area.

“Many years ago, I was in Chicago in the northern suburbs,” Baca said. “I was asked by a director from the upper midwest what makes our music programs in the midwest still as strong as they are. I didn’t understand what he was saying but then I came back from that trip and those words echoed with me every single day. They will work until four in the morning to do something they are passionate about.”

He said each student has a particular dream that they want to reach in their life and as a professor, it’s his job to be able to give them the best path to reach those goals.

“I want not one or two or three but I want every student that’s in my classes to reach every dream that they want,” Baca said. “Those dreams in every class are the subject matter, so in my case it’s music. But to be successful in the subject matter, you have to be successful in life too.”

Mikayla Rolling, a fifth-year musical liberal arts student, has had Baca as a trumpet professor for four-and-a-half years. She has been involved in Jazz 1 and 2 for almost three years, she said.

“Mr. Baca is a totally selfless man and teacher,” Rolling said. “He always sees the best in people, and I think that is what allows him to always bring out the best sides of people. He gives everything he has to his students including his time, his resources and his knowledge. He would do anything to help any of us.”

Even more than his teachings about music, Baca teaches all his students so many life skills, Rolling said. In both jazz band and trumpet lessons, she said Baca teaches her how to be successful at anything she does, how to be a great person and is always pushing her to be better.

“He allows us to dream big and he never holds us back from going towards something we want,” Rolling said. “He always says, don’t sell yourself short, and he’s certainly not only talking about the music world.”

As well as being a professor on campus, Baca performs as a trumpet soloist and freelance performer in the Twin Cities, he said.

He has toured with Frank Sinatra; Buddy Rich; Tony Bennett; Mel Torme; Blood, Sweat and Tears and numerous others. He has performed over fifty Broadway shows and done hundreds of recording sessions in Minneapolis and Indianapolis, according to the UW-Eau Claire website.

“I’ve been employed by the Hennepin Theatre District so when different broadway shows and acts come to the Orpheum Theatre, State Theatre or the Pantages Theatre, I usually play those,” he said.

However, Baca is not from the Twin Cities. He’s from Rockport, Illinois, a small town forty miles south from Chicago, he said. Growing up, he said his family was very poor.

“In a family like that, we had a very strong work ethic,” Baca said. “All of my brothers and sisters played an instrument, mostly accordion, because we were a good Czechoslovakian family.”

Baca’s family did not influence him to play music. Rather it was Adolph Herseth, a trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he said. His high school band director took the band to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert.

“We were in the really cheap seats in the back of the auditorium,” Baca said. “When Mr. Herseth played something by himself, his sound was so big.”

Baca said where he was sitting, even though it was close to a block away, it sounded like he was sitting about ten feet away.

“I wanted to sound like that and so I went down and introduced myself to (Herseth),” Baca said. “We struck up a relationship and the more I was around him the more I wanted to be like him.”

After falling in love with music and wanting to pursue a career in trumpet, he went to Joliet Junior College in Illinois for two years, saved up a lot of money, and then went to Indiana University after, said Baca.

Aside from spending his time playing and teaching music, Baca said his family is equally as important to him. His family is very close and does a lot of different things together because his kids are now grown up and his wife just retired, he said.

“We are all into living off of the land in the woods so we go on excursions regularly where we go deep into the woods and are around just the animals,” Baca said. “We really love that.”

According to the UW-Eau Claire website, on Oct. 24, Baca will receive an award from the Wisconsin Music Educators Association that further solidifies his place among the top educators in the state and the country.

“The WMEA Michael G. George Distinguished Service Award is given annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to music and music education over a sustained period of time,” according to the UW-Eau Claire website.

The website also said the presentation of this award will be held during the Wisconsin State Music Conference on Oct. 24 at Monona Terrace in Madison, during the President’s Welcome.

As Baca continues to teach at UW-Eau Claire, he said he wants to keep fostering these relationships with students and impacting their lives.

“It’s much more about developing relationships with students than delivering knowledge.” said Baca.

Erickson can be reached at [email protected].