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Professor's classes put the "popular" in music

January 25, 2010

When Mike Shellans graduated from the University of Arizona in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in jazz and contemporary media, his goal was to "make it big" as a jazz trombonist in Los Angeles.

Instead, he found himself driving a forklift for Braun Construction, the company that was building a new Budweiser plant in Sepulveda, Calif., and playing an isolated gig here and there. He found Los Angeles to be a tough and expensive market to break into.

After a few years of discouragement, he decided to come to ASU to study for a graduate degree in trombone performance. While pursuing his graduate studies, he served as a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes about jazz in America.

"Then George Umberson, the director of the School of Music, asked if I would like to teach a class myself," Shellans said.

It turned out to be a big challenge in more ways than one, he said.

"It was a class of 500 students, held in the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre."

Teaching even a small class can be overwhelming for newcomers, but facing an auditorium of young faces promised to be a heart-in-the-throat experience for Shellans.

So he looked to the pros for guidance before the class was to begin.

"Mark Sunkett helped me tremendously, sharing his syllabus and referring me to specific texts and articles,” Shellans said. “He allowed me to attend his class and take notes while observing his teaching techniques and student interactions."

Then, Shellans was asked to teach a class on pop and rock music.

"That was the first class I taught on my own," he said. "I hit the books to learn about the subject."

Soon, Shellans was asked to develop yet another popular music class – this time on the Beatles.

That class really took off, and Shellans, now a senior lecturer in the Herberger School of Music, never has to worry about whether the class will be a “go.”

"Sometimes we're even full during pre-registration," he said.

In 2005, he started offering a hybrid class on the Beatles, with live lectures and online exams. Now, he teaches completely online. Last semester he had students as far away as Norway and Kenya, and even one on a U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast of Bahrain, registered for his Beatles class.

His newest class, “Beatles After the Beatles,” also is a hit with students, and he continually draws both music majors and non-majors for his “Elvis Presley” and “Survey of American Music” classes.

Why do the Beatles still resonate today?

“The Beatles built on the legacy of Elvis Presley, continuing to make people feel comfortable with many genres of music,” Shellans said. “The Beatles were so much of their era that they defined that era. They started in 1962, came to the United States in 1964, and in six years they were done.”

Shellans said the Beatles were successful because of their growth and humor.

“They constantly practiced their craft. Their musical recordings are gems. They were all extremely talented musicians. Their humor, and their ability to have fun, got them through their hard times. Humor is how you get through life,” Shellans said.

“Plus, the Beatles had charisma and talent. And they gave funny interviews.”

Besides teaching at ASU, Shellans has an active career as a jazz musician, arranger, composer and consultant. He performs on piano and keyboards, and recently has been adding mandolin, tenor guitar and electric bass to his repertoire.

And his dream of being a professional jazz musician has come true, albeit in Arizona. He has played on piano or trombone with Bob Hope, The Moody Blues, Henry Mancini, Sammy Davis Jr., George Burns, The Temptations, Wayne Newton, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and The O'Jays, and in pit orchestras for musicals such as “Annie,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Chorus Line” among others.

As if all this weren’t enough, Shellans also is an author. He co-wrote the book “Here To Stay: Rock and Roll Through the 70s,” which is now in its third edition, and he is the co-author of “Who is the Greatest: Elvis or the Beatles?”.

And then there are the CDs. They include “Pearls of Wisdom,” a collection of nine of Shellans' original compositions of varied, eclectic modern jazz, from swing to fusion, and “POP Goes the Professor,” which features Shellans’s best rock compositions.

Though Shellans already knew a lot about jazz when he began teaching at ASU, he said doing the research for his classes expanded his musical horizons.

“As we get older, we learn to appreciate other styles,” he said. “I was a jazz snob. Teaching these courses really got me out of my little world. When I taught Elvis, I had to learn about him. He won three Grammys for gospel music. I’ve gotten more into black and white gospel.”

Shellans has taught more than 47,000 students during his ASU career, which has included classes in concert jazz band, arranging, improvisation and jazz piano, as well as the jazz, Beatles and other survey courses.

Though most of his students never meet him in person, he regularly receives “fan e-mails” from them.

“They now tell me they know more about this music than their parents,” he said.

Anyone who talks to Shellans about his classes and his music immediately realizes that he is a true music aficionado, but how does he convey his excitement about his subject online?

Ever so modestly, he explains.

“Hopefully my enthusiasm is conveyed through my scintillating pre-recorded online audio lecture materials, which are the meat of each course.”