A Spotlight on Dr. Donald J. McKinney

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



Donald J. McKinney, from Valencia, Pennsylvania is an internationally recognized educator, conductor, and writer. He is currently the Director of Bands and Associate Professor of Conducting at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is responsible for conducting the CU Wind Symphony and coordinating both the graduate wind-conducting program and the university band program. In 2009, he was a finalist for the Thelma A. Robinson Award by the Conductors Guild, was nominated for an LSU Alumni Association Faculty Excellence Award in 2012, and became an honorary member of Kappa Kappa Psi in 2012.

Dr. McKinney first entered into the field of music in the fourth grade when his mother encouraged him to try beginning band classes. He admits to always having been “fascinated by musical sounds and the interworking of ensembles” and has managed to turn his childhood “hobby” into a “career and passion.” Dr. McKinney shares that, although he did not necessarily intend to become an educator from the very beginning, he simply “wanted to make music with people” and has found great joy in teaching. Personally, Dr. McKinney has had the opportunity to study under several musical giants including Michael Haithcock, Dr. Jack Stamp, Dr. Robert Cameron, H. Robert Reynolds, and Frank Battisti. In 1999, he earned a degree in music education from Duquesne University. Five years later, he completed a Master’s in conducting at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. From 2009-2011, he served as an instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy located in Michigan. In 2010, Professor McKinney earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan and became the Director of Wind Ensembles at Louisiana State University (LSU). Under his leadership, the LSU wind ensemble performed at the 2012 South Central Regional Music Conference and the 2013 College Band Directors National Association annual convention.

One of the most wonderful facets of a life in music is having the opportunity to travel the world. According to Dr. McKinney, one of the most profound experiences of his musical career was a five-week trip across Europe with the Duquesne University choir during his time as an undergrad. While he enjoyed the places themselves, he also developed a great appreciation for his fellow vocalists’ ability to study a text. He shared that, unlike wind players who tend to focus more on “immediacy” and correctness, vocal students are taught “a sensitivity to sound that is more intimate” with a focus on “phrasing and nuance.” As a conductor, Dr. McKinney has made a conscious effort to transfer these lessons over to his work with instrumentalists. He has had the opportunity to perform with the Dallas Wind Symphony, Concordia Santa Fe, Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Greater Boulder Youth Orchestra, and various honor ensembles in Canada, Costa Rica, Washington, Missouri, Texas, and New York. Professor McKinney is also credited with several recording projects with the Dallas Wind Symphony, University of Michigan Symphony Band, University of Texas Wind Ensemble, University of Northbound Texas Wind Symphony, Keystone Wind Ensemble, North Texas Wind Symphony, and the Duquesne University Wind Symphony.

When it comes to the score study process, Dr. McKinney believes that it is the responsibility of the director to “know as much about the piece as possible, regardless of the technical level.” He personally prefers to begin with determining the form and structure of the piece and work from there. When taking a work to rehearsals, Dr. McKinney reminds educators not to forget how much “music-making can change lives in positive ways” and allot a portion of educational time to “making music that is committed and convincing.” To aspiring conductors, he advises fostering musicianship through regular music making. “Practice your primary instrument,” he says, “like you want to win an audition […] and allow your conducting to be an outgrowth of that musicianship.” He urges young maestros to pay particular attention to “musical nuance” when developing their “critical ear” and avoid focusing on the development of physical technique alone.

One of many critical functions of instructors is advocating for student needs in order to foster the growth of an educated society. Dr. McKinney refers to the public-school system in the U.S. as “an asset that we should treasure and nurture to the fullest extent.” He believes “that all educators (regardless of level) should be activists for [their] students” in order to encourage general society to continue improving. Personally, Dr. McKinney attributes his professional success to the encouragement and efforts of his teachers saying, “it is because of their hard work and dedication to me that I am able to enjoy a more impactful life.” He is a proud first-generation college graduate who firmly believes in the ability of educators to shape society by helping “students reach their full potential, regardless of socio-economic background.”

In addition to the conducting and teaching elements of his career, Dr. McKinney has also been published several times in Teaching Music Through Performance in Band (Held Still in Quick of Grace in 2004, Renacscence in 2007, Symphony for William in 2009, Snake Alley in 2011), and contributed chapters to both the books Women of Influence in Contemporary Music (Jennifer Higdon, 2010) and to The Conductor’s Companion (Creative Programming, Collaborating, and Creating an Audience, 2017). He has also co-presented research with the choral faculty of the University of Colorado Boulder at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic and at the Colorado Music Educators Association Conference. He is excited to continue pushing himself and his students professionally and reminds directors to allot time for reflection and self-evaluation. “All of us have a choice,” Dr. McKinney stated; “teach the same way for about thirty years, or teach differently thirty times” every year.


Follow Dr. McKinney at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Music


Suggestions from Dr. McKinney:

“Calypso” David Sedaris 

“The Culture Code” Daniel Coyle

“This American Life” Podcast

“Fresh Air” Podcast

“Music for the Royal Fireworks” Handel/Aradia Ensemble

Joyce DiDonato



Interview on July 9, 2018.


University of Colorado Boulder. College of Music. “Donald J. McKinney.” Music Faculty Biography.

Web. 1 June, 2018. <https://www.colorado.edu/music/donald-j-mckinney>


Regents of the University of Colorado Boulder. CU Experts. “McKinney, Donald J.” Web. 10 June,

2018. <https://experts.colorado.edu/display/fisid_152974#publications>