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Faculty in focus: meet professor David Castro

Of the 18 students who have reviewed Professor of Music David Castro on, not one of them has given him a rating below the full 5.0 out of 5.0 points. Some of the comments read: “Castro is the best prof I have ever had at St. Olaf … I look forward to class everyday, and I can already feel how much I am improving as a musician;” “He is completely dedicated to his students’ success, a dedication manifested in the way he runs his classes;” and “I love this man. I love this man. I love this man.”

Castro has taught at St. Olaf for about eight years, but his love of music goes back much farther. He grew up in a family with strong connections to the evangelical church and was involved in choir at a young age.

“Church was everything in my family, and the way that I participated in church was by making music,” Castro said.

He entered Pacific Union College with the intention of becoming a band director, but he soon found a new passion when he got the opportunity to step into the classroom as a substitute for a professor.

“I’m not sure why, but I got a real bang of it,” Castro said. “At the end of it, I [asked] him, how do I get your job?”

While Castro currently focuses primarily on teaching and research, he still finds ways to incorporate his love of directing.

“Sometimes I think of [directing and teaching] as kind of the same thing, because when I’m in front of a classroom, I’m kind of directing the ensemble of people to think in a certain direction,” he said.

Castro’s professor advised him to pursue a graduate degree, so he went on to earn his master of music in music theory from the University of Arizona before completing a doctorate program at the University of Oregon in 2005. He taught for three years in Austin, Texas, where he worked with a St. Olaf alumnus who encouraged him to apply to a position at St. Olaf.

The small, Midwestern liberal arts school brought significant changes from Castro’s experience in large public schools, but he feels that he has found a great fit here, from the liberal arts approach to the connection of spirituality and music to the students themselves.

“I would say the nice thing about this place is that students are sincere and genuinely curious,” Castro said. “They want to learn stuff. They get excited about something as simple as an idea. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, it doesn’t have to do anything. I meet a lot of people here who are curious, and they like to learn … I’m just privileged to work with that.”

Castro’s courses typically center on music theory – specifically aural skills, a topic on which he has co-authored a textbook along with Associate Professor of Music Justin Merritt. He compares the skills-based practice to playing an instrument or sport, and he enjoys witnessing the progress students make throughout the semester outside of class between check-ins.

“I get to see that – I call it slow burn. Keep your head low, keep working, be determined, be disciplined and it can happen.”

Castro has also started teaching in the American Conversation program, which allows him to incorporate his music background into broader historical and cultural contexts. He cited the example of using class time to analyze the meaning of funk music to African American communities in the 1970s.

“I’m able to focus, ironically, a lot more in the AmCon class, because I’m learning. I’m exploring new ideas, I’m getting to talk about things I don’t ordinarily get to talk about. And so for me, it’s just a really exciting experience because I’m just one of the people who likes new ideas and exploring things.”

Students in Castro’s classes appreciate his genuine passion and interest in them as individuals, but he seems to enjoy the classroom experience just as much as the students do.

“[My favorite part of teaching] is when I see a student start to nod, or their eyes get big, and there’s that ‘ah-ha’ moment and they make a connection,” Castro said. “That is a really exciting moment for me. So I kind of watch for it, and then when it happens, I kind of get a cheap thrill out of it.”

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