Ten years ago, the campus music department had six impaired pianos and no campus location of their own. Then came Gary Bonner.
President Ellis offered Bonner, commonly referred to as “Doc” by his students, the position of dean for the school of music in 2002. He accepted, but said he “had no idea what he was walking into.”
“The first few days were pretty hard,” Bonner said. “In fact, they were very discouraging, because I was used to the top of the mountain and it wasn’t.”
Before coming to California Baptist University, Bonner spent 23 years at Azusa Pacific University, similarly building their music program from the ground up. Following that, he spent nine years conducting seminars and choir workshops worldwide.
CBU acquired a seasoned professional.
But after ten years and many concerts later, Bonner announced his retirement, which will take effect May 20, 2012, shortly after the culmination of the annual spring concert tour.
For Bonner, this will not end his musical career. He still intends to participate in a 50-member group he created, called The Gary Bonner Singers.
“I don’t think I’m wired to go sit,” Bonner said.
Bonner’s passion for music began as a child. Even though he said his family was poor, all eight children took music lessons.
“I was not very good at playing instruments; although, I did finally get to first chair in the high school band,” Bonner said.
A dare by his sister is what brought about his choral career. After landing a spot in his high school’s top choral group, Bonner was given the opportunity to conduct.
“That was life changing for me,” Bonner said. “That seed was planted of working in front of people and in front of an audience and love was born for the experience.”
Bonner is known for his unique style of conducting. Rather than standing stiffly before a group of equally stoic singers and instrumentalists, he prefers movement.
The University Choir and Orchestra, one of the many campus choral groups and the one Bonner leads, sways right along with the music’s melody.
Bonner even jokes with the audience in between songs, but this he borrowed from Fred Waring, band leader of the Pennsylvanians.
“The way he worked in front of an audience fit what I would’ve like to do, so I stole some things from him,” Bonner said.
Besides conducting, Bonner said he has a “distinct philosophy” about working with people.
Bonner said, “I love to make music. I love to conduct. I love relationships with people.”
A lot of the school of music’s success, which now boasts over 400 students in its eight musical groups, can be contributed to Bonner’s skill for inspiring people. He also demands excellence.
One of Bonner’s students, Ashley Bray, senior, said “Dr. Bonner has made such a big impact in my life over the last four years here at CBU. His demand for excellence has taught me so much and has prepared me for ‘the real world.’”
Another senior, Briana Burca, said, “Being part of UCO has been one of the most touching journeys I have embarked upon. Dr. Bonner has been far more than a professor. He has been a mentor, an encourager and has pushed me to grow, to mature as a musician and as a person.”
Bonner also contributes the success to God and called God the special ingredient that makes the music so great.
“It was as if there was something every day to be accomplished and God provided — I’ve always said this—God provided the right kids and the right songs on the right day or the right week, and I believe that with all my heart,” Bonner said. “I’d say it’s pretty impressive. It’s overwhelming and I’m grateful I got to be a part of it.”