When the pandemic first began, Zach Cheever had no idea how it would affect his doctoral studies.
A 2016 graduate of Trevecca and a current doctoral student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Cheever had a plan for his dissertation and the ensembles he was leading. Then, COVID-19 caused him to reevaluate.
“Pre-pandemic, my dissertation looked really different than it does right now,” Cheever said. “I think the social justice that came out of that time really pushed me to reevaluate what I was doing. I totally changed gears and now the common theme of my dissertation is social justice, equity and diversity.”
While dissertations are often thought of as long research papers, Cheever’s is a series of projects held together by a common theme. He’ll present that theme through lecture recitals, a transcription project where he’ll take work created for another medium and recreate it for a wind band and more, such as a Reformation history project.
“A problem we have in music is that we lose a lot of composers’ [voices] that get washed over in history books,” Cheever said. “Unfortunately, a lot of those composers are women and people of color. My goal is to find these composers and tell their stories.”
At Trevecca, Cheever was one of the first students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition. He played a key role in composing the score for Requiem for the Living: An Opera, an opera conceived, written, composed and staged entirely by Trevecca students during the 2015-2016 academic year as part of an interdisciplinary Faculty-Led Academic Research Experience (FLARE) project led by Dr. Eric Wilson.
“Zach was a significant contributor to all aspects of the first FLARE opera project,” Wilson said. “He was a skilled composer, even as an undergraduate, and an all-around leader in the department. I am proud that he was the first to graduate with the Bachelor of Music in theory and composition degree, which came into being because of the skill sets and ambition of Zach and some of his classmates.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Cheever left Trevecca for Austin Peay University to pursue a master’s degree in instrumental conducting. But he wasn’t gone long. By fall 2016, Cheever was back on the Hill, this time as a junior faculty member, serving as the University’s band director.
“I literally graduated three months ago, and now I’m on the faculty,” Cheever recalled. “Not many master’s students get that experience to really apply what they’re learning. I thank David Diehl and Eric Wilson for taking that chance on me.”
According to Dr. David Diehl, dean of Trevecca’s School of Music and Worship Arts, Cheever’s example as a student at Trevecca and beyond made Cheever a sure bet.
“Zach was the ideal Trevecca student. He demonstrated excellence in his academic classes, performing classes, research, and leadership,” Diehl said. “He was also a great ambassador for the school through his relationships at Vanderbilt, where he was the field commander for two years, and at Austin Peay, where he pursued his master’s studies. In addition, Zach was and is a fine Christian gentleman who examines his faith and attempts to live that out on a daily basis.”
Now in the second year of his doctoral program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Cheever is still getting the opportunity to invest in students. While he’s currently studying for his comprehensive exams, Cheever is also teaching and leading several ensembles, even though the global pandemic means rehearsals look a little differently.
“CU is really lucky,” Cheever said. “We have one of the leading aerosol researches here on campus, so she, along with our department and other organizations here on campus, commissioned a research project to study how aerosols really work. So now we have all these protocols and know that if you do X, Y, or Z, you are less susceptible to COVID-19 spreading in the classroom.”
Those protocols include wearing slitted masks (regular medical masks with a slit so musicians can wear them while performing), sitting eight feet apart and using absorbent pads to soak up the condensation that builds in brass instruments.
“I have cut more masks and puppy pads than I ever thought I would in my entire life,” Cheever said with a laugh. “I’m watching Netflix and cutting puppy pads to make sure we have enough for the ensembles for the week. It doesn’t go on the resume, but I don’t know where it goes!”
Despite it all, Cheever is still committed to his end goal: to teach music to students with the drive to learn. And even that looks a little different when students are juggling the pressures and protocols the pandemic has created.
“Students are bogged down,” he said. “They’re not at home; they don’t have the support system they really have. The concept of what we do—at least right now—has shifted. I’m not as concerned with making the most incredible music performance. I just want to give students the chance to make music.”
Learn more about Trevecca’s School of Music and Worship Arts.