Dusenbergs, Faith, and Family―An Interview with Dr. Randolph Johnson


Jahanna Bolding

Dr. Randolph Johnson is the Dean of Arts and Sciences and Associate Professor of Music at Southern Wesleyan University. Before his career at SWU, Dr. Johnson taught at Oklahoma Baptist University, Ohio Wesleyan University, and The Ohio State University. Dr. Johnson has performed individually at the International Trombone Festival in New Orleans as a finalist in the Donald Yaxley bass trombone solo competition, and collectively with Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Canton Symphony Orchestra, and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.

ME: Okay, so, thank you for meeting with me and taking the time to do this.

JOHNSON: Yeah, my pleasure.

ME: So, just to start off, where did you grow up?

JOHNSON: I grew up in the northeastern corner of Indiana. A small town called Auburn, Indiana. Despite the smallness it’s famous as being the classic car capital of the world.

ME: [laughs] I did not know that!

JOHNSON: So, if you’ve seen old movies, movies depicting the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, with the hot rod roadsters, the Duesenberg – the really fancy Cruella De Vil car. You know what I’m talking about? That’s a Duesenberg, I believe. Those were manufactured in northern Indiana, and Auburn was a hub for all the design of those cars and so a lot of the head honchos lived there. It’s not in production right now, so it’s a somewhat small, unimportant town, but there’s a great museum and some mansions there. You can see the wealth that was once there in car manufacturing. Over the years, a lot of automobile makers have consolidated and we now have General Motors, which used to be lots of different companies. There are different museums; South Bend has a Studebaker museum. So it’s a good part of the country to grow up and there’s a lot of car history. I never was able to get into it in terms of memorizing as much as some of my extended family members. So I always go to the car auction on Labor Day each year, and I make sure I’m with a family member who knows all the cars. It’s an interesting childhood. A pretty rural county, and a town about 25,000 people. Just really nice place to grow up.

ME: Nice! Okay, so tell me about your childhood. Did you have any siblings? What were your parents like? What was it like growing up in your family dynamic in that specific area?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I grew up in a family of 4. I had an older brother – he’s 6 years older. And he is, I guess, partly responsible for my existence. I think my parents were bent on just having one child, but once my brother was old enough, he seemed to express a longing for some sort of sibling. [laughs]

ME: Funny how that works! [laughs]

JOHNSON: Yeah, he just said – I think he made one comment one day – “You know, Mom, Dad, will I ever have a little brother or a little sister?” I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how it transpired, but apparently he did say something like that and maybe give my parents a final nudge.

So I grew up in a family of 4 and my mom and dad were small business owners. My dad is an optometrist and he purchased an optometry practice years ago in the late 1970s; chose this small town because there was a vacancy – an optometrist retiring and wanted to sell his practice. And this is back in the day when it made a lot more sense to buy practices as an individual. So I grew up seeing my parents working all the time to sustain the business. My mom didn’t get paid officially, but she did all the bookkeeping, having to generate payroll. For me it was just normal.

You know, looking back on it, it was impressive how they had a home office base and were able to pay a whole staff of people and keep all the books straight and purchase very expensive equipment. I sometimes helped my mom sort out receipts and stuff. So as I grew they’d freely share, “Yeah, we’re thinking about buying a $200,000 lens cutting machine just so we can be faster than all the other optical places in the area and really compete against them.” So, I grew up with that and I’m sure it was very stressful. My parents didn’t let on that it was as stressful as it was. They were just very loving parents.

They’ve been Christian as long as I can remember. They grew up in the church and they raised my brother and I in the church up the street on the corner. We had that wonderful family there – the church family – that we actually still stay in touch with. A lot of the kids that were my age now have grown up, and we actually still send cards back and forth. I really appreciate growing up in a small town with the close-knit family and a church family, looking back on it. My parents actually moved away from that town this past year, after about 38 years of living in the same house. My dad sold his optometry practice back in 2005 or so, just before the economic downturn. He got really lucky. He didn’t know it was coming, I don’t think anyone did, but it was just time for it. He wanted to scale back and not own the whole business. He’s been joking recently, “It’s sort of nice to get a paycheck rather than having to pay all of my employees first and then [get] whatever’s left over maybe.” And he can also take a vacation now, so he’s quasi-retired. He’s really still working full time, but he thinks he’s quasi-retired because he can take vacations now and have the flexibility to visit family. And they’ve moved to Indianapolis to be real close to my brother, sister-in-law, and their three children. So, that’s a little bit about my family background. Anything else? Any intriguing details you want me to fill in?

ME: Oh, intriguing details. Well, how about – tell me about music in your childhood. Or even if you didn’t really develop a love of music until you were older, tell me about that process.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that was interesting. I grew up in a family of musicians. We would generally make music at Christmas or Easter, important holiday times when brass players come into the church. I felt like, for a lot of my childhood, that was compartmentalized in many ways because day-to-day time at home, especially when I was younger, and my mom was taking care of me, she would just have the radio on in the background – just any old station. So you can imagine the mix of pop music, news, talk radio, and so forth. According to my Mom, I was an extremely fussy kid, just really grumpy all the time. Even as I got slightly older I remember the radio playing and being annoyed by it. And somehow, when I was old enough to articulate myself, I must have said something that prompted my mom to think, “Well maybe if I try different styles of music he’ll be happier.” So, she went out and bought a few cds of some classical music. So I can remember – I think the first one she got was Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” She put that on and it immediately calmed me down. It engaged my attention span better than the short 5-minute songs and sound bite advertisement, news story, another song. Somehow that was disruptive to me as a child, and then putting on a music cd that would run for an hour was something that calmed me down.

It just grew over time to the point that if I was trying to think of a Christmas gift or birthday gift for my parents I would buy them another cd to add to their collection. So they gradually built up their collection and I reinforced that when I got older just by saying, “Hey I like this music.” And then as a teenager I just started researching if you’re building a record collection or cd collection, what would you need to have. So those penguin guides to 1,000 greatest recordings ever or gramophone guides. I just became excited, enthralled about music, primarily through classical music. That’s because I grew up in a small town and we had a community band and things like that and I joined once I was old enough.

So the journey of music started with listening. There was not a lot of live music in my small town. We had to commute to Fort Wayne to do things like go to a symphony concert or to see a musical. So I can remember really some peak experiences as a child seeing classical music played live, seeing great musicals: “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Sound of Music.” All that. I just felt like there was something special about music that was longer than just 5 minutes per song and then on to the next thing. As I got older I just started discovering other music that I love, gradually. I discovered jazz once I finally went to college. I did an undergraduate degree in music, so I always made sure I was in some kind of jazz ensemble and then some kind of classical ensemble. Even though I only had to do one, I just loved both of them so much.

As far as choosing trombone, that was growing up with brass players around me. Before I could hold one in my hands I would make little alphorns out of discarded wrapping paper tubes. So I would tape those together, and I learned how to make a good sound on a cardboard wrapping paper tube. I knew I wanted to play some kind of brass instrument. My dad played trumpet, my brother played trombone. I just sort of gravitated towards the lower, less shrill sound. It was more pleasing to my ears. So I chose trombone. Then, when I was in high school, I couldn’t decide what to do with the rest of my life. I thought about, “Well, I should do engineering, or pre-med, or music, or something.” Then I had the brilliant idea of, “Well, why don’t I do both?!” I had a cousin who did a pre-med but [also] a music degree in three years. So I thought, “Well, if my cousin could do it, I should be able to double-up and do something like that.” She’s super special to be able to do that. I visited schools and visited places – I looked for conservatories that were attached to good universities with engineering programs. Being an Indiana resident, I’m like, “Well, if I go to Indiana University they’ve got a good music program, but no engineering program because they’re intentional, they split it up and then Purdue University has all the engineering, no music major. They’ve got a good band, but no music major.” So I felt like, “Oh, if I stay in state I can’t do what I’m planning.” So all this factors, you know, tuition dollars, in state rates, and I ultimately decided, “Well, I’m young. I’ll just go for gold in music. If it doesn’t work out I can do something different in graduate studies.” I’m glad I did, because while doing music school I did see a fair number of graduate students above me (they were much older) and they already had careers in computer science, for example, and they just got burnt out. They’re coming back to music school saying, “I really meant to do this all along.” So those things were reinforcing early on, “Okay I think I’m in the right place. I don’t see any realistic way that I could make a living as a musician, but I think I’m in the right place and I’ll make it happen.” So that’s a little bit about my music journey.

ME: Awesome! So, you’ve done research on “Christian faith integration with music.” Tell me a little bit about this research, because I don’t know much about it. What does it mean to your philosophy of teaching, administrating, or performing?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s crucial to thinking about how Christian faith interacts with music. It’s beautiful because it interacts in many ways that are not obvious. We typically think of music, rightfully so, as “Yes, music does glorify God as a genuine way that we worship.” We sing his praises and there are different expressions of what’s happening when you’re worshiping God. Is it lifting that music up to glorify God as an offering? Other churches now it seems to be a shift of a trend of we are making this music, we’re singing, to experience God. Why are there those differences and that tension there between denominations? Maybe it’s intentionally there for God to give us a picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelations. It’s the picture of heaven coming down, earth coming up. So maybe it’s a two-way motion.

When you have a classroom of music students, and especially my doctorate is in music theory, so I teach musicianship courses, is a way to encapsulate it. So how to read music, how to sing it by sight, how to compose music, little tidbits of music history hopefully mixed in. And then music history courses are taken later on, usually as separate courses. So if you think about music theory compared to English, you can think about it as like the grammar, rhetoric, structure, language. Or some people might crassly say, “Music theory is like the science of music.” Sort of, but it’s still art.

So I’ve been really, in the past 7 years, on a journey to really figure out how to integrate faith in the classroom. My previous job was at a Christian university. High expectation to integrate faith in teaching. We would have the general faculty development workshops; great guest speakers would come in and teach us how to do this, and so there’s so many ways that faith is integrated. We left on point to the very things like the ethical components – just the code of ethics of being a teacher – working with students and colleagues and being Christ-like. That’s super important. And just the rhythms of class, you know, maybe praying to begin a class, or having some sort of benedictions as students are leaving. There’s many ways that the rhythm of class could be Christian. Early on at my former institution, I had conversations with older colleagues, and said, “Okay, how do I do this in the music theory classroom?” I was really trying to generalize, transfer the faculty development knowledge to my classroom. I always felt that there was such a time crunch in music theory courses. We have to cover a lot of material, because people don’t take music theory in high school. So they’re often starting at a beginning level in college, so the curriculum is really compressed. If you talk with music professors, they often have the most elusive and creative definitions of what a credit hour is… it’s like, “Yeah, 1 credit hour? That means you’re here 5 days a week, you’re practicing 3 hours outside of class!” and then 3 credit hours, that’s just, “Your life is owned by this course.” So there’s always that tension to get in the things required to train a competent musician.

So we feel that pressure, and my argument is that we don’t often integrate the Christian faith in the classroom enough, or in an intentional way. It’s fresh on my mind; I gave a presentation last week at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s a presentation entitled, “With the Box: Integration of Christian Faith in the Classroom.” It’s sort of an analogy I’ve been exploring recently: because we often talk about outside of the box thinking. There’s like standard ways of doing it, and then, “Get outside the box!” Often that’s associated with a relativistic sort of worldview, like, “Well there is no truth, so hop on out, do some things.” I was thinking about this analogy of the box, or our discipline. So, music for instance. I can bring Christ and Christian teachings into my music classroom. That’s great, there’s value to that. Bring a prayer in. There are some beautiful prayers from people like Aquinas and so forth. You can find some in there that talk about music or some other subject area. It can set really wonderful tone for the class. Or, there could be a direct scriptural reference to music. There’s plenty of those in the Psalms. So it was some of my early attempts to bring the Christian faith into the classroom. That was somewhat successful, I enjoyed doing it. I still do that.

One colleague of mine, he wrote a book called, “Music Meets Faith: Reflecting on Musical Terms for a Deeper Faith.” That got me thinking, I was like, “Wow, that’s sort of out of the box thinking, it’s like, let’s take music, let’s take a concept in music, like melody, and let’s apply that to the scriptures. And you can take various musical terms – melody, harmony, rubato – anything, and you can meditate on the Bible and get new richness and meaning from Christian principles. So, “Oh, that’s cool too, you can take music out, and get something.” I’m exploring recently something that I call “with the box” so it’s really seeing that I want to take that box, music, and just sort of essentially flatten it out, sort of crush it, so there’s no dualism between, “Well there’s music and then there’s Christ.” Because he’s the ultimate artist, ultimate creator. He’s given us the ability to be created creators. So he’s created us, but he’s also given us capacity to write things, to make things, to play things, to draw things. So he’s done something there.

I’m challenging myself every day, in the classroom currently and by doing presentations like this, to actually teach in such a way that the actual pedagogies in my class, the musical content, it’s all just directly in line with Christ. That’s sort of hard to do, but if you know that you can do it, just knowing by faith that God created music, and he’s given us a capacity to create our own musical pieces, like we literally did that. He’s given us capacity to create this wonderful art form. Some examples are if we think about what’s required to make music, one example is the breath. So, breathing is needed to sing or play lots of instruments, even instruments like striking keys, if you’re just playing the piano, you still need to breathe very well, and the best piano players (I’ve sat on master’s classes with top professionals and they’ll actually talk about breathing because it’s related to phrasing or punctuation of the music. So everyone needs to breathe and I feel like a lot of Christians are missing out on an opportunity to minister to others in training proper breathing habits.

We’re sort of missing out – if you read Genesis, it’s like, “How did God create us?” It’s like there’s water, dirt, and then there’s His breath of life. There’s regular reference if you look at different translations, that breath of life will be often synonymous with ‘spirit.’ So, you look in Job and it talks about his broken spirit, and one translation is talking about his breath is flawed, or his breath is somehow not working. I can’t remember off the top of my head. I was struck by that. I want part of my classroom to address the breath and the health of my students. So it’s not like a major topic, but just starting the day off doing some breathing, making some vocalizations with your sound – I call it taking the vocal pill – just good vocal habits and so forth. Reminding students, if you’re in a Christian university, put that scripture up there and it’s like a reminder, your breath is something quite important. It’s not just a fuel for making sound, it’s something that’s God-given and, done properly, done in a way that’s God-honoring and reflecting His patterns, we’re actually going to have better phrasing and expression through music.

Good music making reflects patterns of the creator. A lot of that is in the expression of how to make music. Music theory classes have a tendency to look at the ‘what’ so much. We look at the notation, the dots and the squiggles on the page, and that’s only about 20% of the information we need to create a competent musical performance. So all the ‘how to’ making music? It’s just sort of out there, it’s oral tradition. You learn it by listening from a master teacher. I don’t know of any better illustration of the Corinthians passage, ‘faith in the unseen.’ So much about music that’s like, “Wow.” Our perceptions are biased, we’ve got to have faith and certain elements of truth out there we can’t see. We have to learn music by accessing the unseen and digging in to places. That’s been an area of interest of mine. So musical expression is invisible – hard to pin down elements that don’t tend to get studied by music theorists ‘cause you don’t have the notation to show it.

So a lot of my research techniques I’ve had to do things like record audio samples and then create charts of time points in it – tracking tempo and so forth. My specialty is in empirical musicology, so it’s using numbers and statistical techniques. That’s not to dumb down music and make it more mechanical, it’s to try to get to these harder to talk about elements of music, and so many of those are related to the Christian patterns of making music in a musical way that prompts people to want to listen more. So those are a couple examples of what I’ve been working on and I’ll give assignments to my students like, “here’s a devotion that I wrote on Psalm 119 and what it has to do with music making. Read it, have a class discussion, then write a response.” I try to bring in writing to my course so students aren’t just filling out music worksheets all the time.

I’m more encouraged today than I was about 7 years ago when I had some more senior colleagues say, “You just got to get through the music stuff and faith integration, we do it as a campus as a whole, but you can’t really do it in a music classroom.” So it’s been trying to buck that trend, somewhat successfully. That’s not easy, and the thing I’ve found is that as a teacher, expecting some great reaction from your students – ‘cause from you it’s totally different from the way I’ve taught before. Every year is so much better than the previous. And students respond the same way, but that’s encouraging because there’s here at SWU, and they’re saying something like, “yes, this integrated approach should be the normal.” So that’s some advice I gave my colleagues, like “Try a couple of these techniques, it’s gratifying, but don’t expect all of your students just to come up and hug you every day. They might thank you a couple months down the road, or a couple years. Just take satisfaction that you’re doing this for God and doing it in a way that mirrors his creativity.

ME: That’s fascinating.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and I’ve got a couple example blogs on my website. So if you go to my SWU directory thing, click on that. I just updated it over the weekend with the Psalm 119 one. That’s new.

ME: Awesome. I’ll look that up and link it, for sure. So, you’re fairly new to SWU and have taught at different universities in the past, as you’ve said. What is unique, challenging, or uplifting about teaching here that you’ve found so far?

JOHNSON: That’s a great question. I’ve really been impressed how this university is so friendly to a wide diversity of people. Most people think, “Well, a university, that’s like a traditional undergraduate institution.” From day one here, I sensed that SWU is a place that really cares so much about transfer students, or so much about students who are in their fifties coming back to school to do something. Just having that online platform – that is pretty cool to have opportunities to people from across the state to do that. That’s what impressed me right from the start: it’s not just a mission statement of, “We’re here to serve the 18-22 year old populations.” Our academic records staff actually call meetings to engage our leadership, like “We need to make sure we’re helping our veteran students and following policy because this federal law changed and we need to be on the ball here.” That’s impressive. It’s that recognition that it’s a wide diversity of people here, and that creates some complexity in organizational structure, curriculum, enrollments and all that. But I’ve sensed a real love for all those people, and a willingness on everyone’s part to deal with the complexity, to serve a lot of students.

I’ve also been blown away by the chapel services here. Something amazing is happening on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to put in words because my former institution’s chapel was great too. I certainly didn’t see as many people getting baptized and saved as I do here. We had, out at the Steeple Chase, that baptism last semester. There were about 14 or so people that got baptized, and then there was a preview day where there were prospective students visiting here and I think 8-10 prospective students were saved. So they may not have come here at all, but at least they had plenty to talk about on the way home and a new direction for their whole life. I can’t explain it because it seems like SWU is doing the normal things a Christian university would do: they have chapel or preview days and so forth. There seems to me that God’s hand is at work in a pretty key way here.

Some of those chapel services, I know the intended audience is students, but I get so much out of that. We need those daily reminders. Some of the highlights this semester: where Rev. Dill with the Styrofoam ball and the sand and everything and Matthew 6:33. I took that right in the music classroom. I feel the time crunch to fit everything in here but I’ve got to put God number one and then all these things will be added. And then a couple chapels ago, “What’s the one thing to do if you knew God was behind you and you could not fail, one thing to do with your life, what would it be? Write it down.” He gave everyone a long time. Like, 2-3 minutes. The chapel services are very meaningful overall. It seems like a lot of people in the area are willing to travel here who spend a lot of time getting ready for that. The chapel band and the musicians, it’s all so thoughtfully done here, and not in a pompous way, it’s just very heartfelt worship. There’s always going to be students on their smartphones or trying to do homework, but I guess there’s enough people in that room worshipping God that he’s present. I mean, it only takes 2 or 3. So that’s been a huge blessing about being here and I really appreciate the diversity of black, white, Hispanic, male, female students and administrators. There’s people that are learning here and teaching here from all around the world. That’s been especially enjoyable.

ME: Awesome. Okay, last question and I’ll let you go. This is a little bit indulgent. You have a wonderful family; you’re married and you have two children. Tell me about them.

JOHNSON: I have a lovely wife, Lia, which means “grace don” in Irish. So, she spells it L-I-A, not the biblical spelling. She was born and raised in Ireland, mostly. Her parents were missionaries there for many years in southern Ireland, near Waterford. So obviously that means for us with my Christian background and my wife’s Christian background, our faith is really important. Lia and I both had genuine conversion experiences to Christ in our teenage years. So our faith is really important. Being a part of a church community. We are very thankful to be a part of Clemson Presbyterian here, it’s just a great community. So, even before we got married, we really envisioned what life would look like as a family, and we wanted to make sure that Christ was always the center of what we do. We didn’t really date at all, as we felt that there’s a lot of serial dating that goes on nowadays that trains people to eventually get divorced. There’s so many Christians that are getting divorced and it’s not a good witness at all, so we were just good friends for about 5 years before I worked up the nerve [laughs] to actually declare myself and say, “I really like you, I think there’s something there along a marriage track.” We had that conversation which was really awkward to get started, but it turned out well because we were both in agreement that we didn’t want to just date to try something out, because that would wreck our friendship. But we had enough indicators that we wanted to court, and if all the blessings of the family fell into place, then get married.

So we were just friends and when that changed to courting, we were on track to get married. So that’s been sort of the undertone of everything from the beginning. Family’s important, divorce is not an option. Really committing to one another and making sure that our commitment to Christ was anchored first. We did some helpful premarital counseling and tried to envision our family. I remember that first conversation where we talked about having children- yes, no, how many? We were both in agreement that yes, children are important, 3 children. We currently have 2 children right now. Perhaps we underestimated the toll that takes, first of all, on a woman’s body to give birth, and also the challenges – good challenges. It’s a lot of work. So it’s still up in the air. We feel completely satisfied with 2 children.

Orla is our oldest child, our daughter, 5 years old. Rafe is 2 years old, our son. You know them well from your dedication to the children’s ministry at our church. They are wonderful, high energy. 2 different personalities. That’s what I’ve heard from older parents mentoring me, that sometimes you’re surprised with your children. It’s almost like, “where did these personality traits come from?”

Orla has her own personality. She’s nothing like any one of us. Passionate, enthusiastic about everything. Always thinking, asking questions, discerning. Very curious. Curious Orla. She happens to like the Curious George books as well. Rafe is in many ways much more placid. He likes to get up and dance around, but he’ll be happy to just sit down and listen to music and do things calmly. We’ve been, as parents, going through long-term planning of what a school will look like for our kids. Really thinking about how we can surround them with a Christian worldview. So we’ve been really strongly leaning towards a classical Christian education, and are excited to be in this area because there are places in Anderson, Oconee county, Greenville. There’s some great schools around here. They’re like little sponges. They’ll learn everything.

So last night, Orla was disturbed because she was seeing lights around the room even though it was completely dark in her room. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and then I remembered my childhood of always being disturbed when you’re in a dark room and you close your eyes and you can sort of see your retina, the blood vessels, everything moving around. So I said, “Orla, that’s just your eye working.” She was comforted by that, but today she was waking up, “Can I look in a science book and learn how the retina works?” So she’s just ready to learn and its surprised me as a parent that that readiness to learn comes in so soon. Even at ages 2-4 and up to 5. So I’m glad I’m an educator, because as soon as I get home, I’m an educator. [laughs] It’s an important calling. So, anything else you want to hear about my family?

ME: That was mostly it; I just wanted to hear you talk about them. I love your family. I know your children better than I know your wife, but they’re precious.

JOHNSON: Also, Lia and I have been married 10 years. Just celebrated our 10th anniversary.

ME: Congratulations!

JOHNSON: Thank you.

ME: Well, thank you so much for your time!

JOHNSON: You’re welcome.

For additional information:

Dr. Johnson’s SWU Bio

Dr. Johnson’s personal website