Making sweet music


He grew up playing trumpet in a musical family, and also wanting to be a doctor. So suffice it to say Nick Kenny ’11 has always chosen not only the road less taken, but several roads less taken.

He is, for one thing, almost certainly the only executive director of a civic philharmonic orchestra who answers to the nickname “Concussion.”

In the postcard setting of Greeley, Colo., the 30-year-old Kenny is most known for his tireless, passionate advocacy of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, and the innovative ways he tries to make orchestral music accessible to a wider audience. He’s less known for one of his other passions.

That would be ice hockey.

For the last four years, Kenny has played in an adult hockey league -- a pursuit that might seem odd for the executive director of a philharmonic orchestra, but one perfectly in sync with his penchant for roaming far afield in search of new challenges.

It’s also where he acquired the nickname “Concussion.”

“Not because I inflict them,” the ever-genial Kenny laughs. “Because I get them.”

Concussions or no concussions, Kenny’s passion for hockey is a neat window into his eclectic nature, which informs his work as the GPO’s executive director and was nurtured by his time at Manchester University. MU’s deep commitment to helping students become their best selves, and to providing diverse academic opportunities, was exactly the fertile ground Kenny was looking for when he arrived as a first-year student from Fort Wayne.

“I credit Manchester for much of the success I’ve had outside of Manchester,” says Kenny, who describes himself as “a timid little freshman first-year” who eventually got involved in choir and theater and working in admissions as a campus tour guide.

“Giving those tours helped me become more comfortable as a public speaker, and that’s essentially my job now is getting in front of thousands of people and speaking about my passions, which are music and how important that is in our society and our culture,” says Kenny, who came to MU on a pre-med track with a minor in music performance.

By his junior year, however, his increasing immersion in honor bands changed his course. 
“My arm was being tugged in the music direction,” he says. ”My senior year I was in an intercollegiate honors band in Seattle (with) one of the best conductors I’d ever worked with. (He) just completely inspired me to completely immerse myself in music.

“If it weren’t the kind of risks I took at Manchester – studying abroad, accidentally auditioning for a choir, making lifelong friendships – well, I think I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Which, true to his nature, is taking several roads less traveled. In Greeley, the orchestra has done a Beatles tribute, invited a deaf singer to perform with them, and invited a second-grade cancer patient to conduct a Harry Potter suite.

 “(We’re) educating the community, showing how prevalent music is in our society, in our everyday lives, and how we’re not just a classical orchestra that plays centuries-old music but can play modern songs,” Kenny says. “We can push the limits of what our orchestra can perform with the same instrumentation as a Hayden symphony or a Mozart symphony … They can play Beatles music, they can play jazz, they can play a little funk. Whatever is called for, our musicians can do.”

It’s all about keeping things fresh, keeping them relevant, and learning to think creatively – skills Kenny developed at Manchester, where creativity and innovation have always been paramount.

“Every day’s a challenge in one way or another,” Kenny says. “I think one thing I bring to the job is my passion for music and really how important our place is in the community. And the more I interact with folks, the more my hopefully positive attitude is contagious enough that they’ll consider coming out to a concert, considering sponsoring a concert, consider taking out a program advertisement, or just getting involved with our orchestra.”

And the ice hockey?

After four years as a forward, Kenny decided to explore yet another road less taken. This season, he’s playing goalie.

 “A whole different beast,” he says. “I have never been so tired in my entire life after one game of hockey. Twenty seconds of facing shots is like 20 minutes of skating your butt off.”

You can almost hear him smile.

By Benjamin Smith