In Rhythm

Aug 21, 2006

Humboldt State University music professor Eugene Novotney's oldest memories involve music -- from beating out perfect music time as a toddler, to playing his first snare drum at 5 years old.

"My parents definitely recognized musical talent in me," he says.

That talent, sprinkled with an innate passion for music, has guided his career as a beloved HSU professor, Calypso Band founder and director, and a world-renowned composer.

But on May 16, he added a new accomplishment to his list: California State University Wang Family Excellence Award recipient. Novotney was one of five to receive the award for 2006 -- and the first ever from Humboldt State, the others being a versatile innovator in education, a brilliant volcanologist, a cutting-edge historian and analyst, and an internationally recognized scientist.

This being his 20-year anniversary as a professor at Humboldt State, Novotney said, "I'm really proud. It is nice to know someone has noticed -- not just one great thing, but many things over the course of my career."

"I'm actually glad we can't 'get there' quickly, because it feels so good now."

The Wang award was established in fall 1998 when then-Trustee Stanley T. Wang provided $1 million to reward outstanding faculty and administrators. The award is designed to celebrate CSU faculty and administrators who demonstrate extraordinary dedication and have made outstanding contributions and achievements in their areas of expertise.

Each year, four faculty and one administrator in the CSU system receive $20,000 awards. This is the eighth year the awards have been given.

Novotney was awarded, along with Education, and Professional and Applied Sciences recipient, Doreen Nelson of Cal Poly Pomona; Natural Sciences, Mathematical and Computer Sciences and Engineering recipient, Alan L. Smith of CSU, San Bernardino; Social and Behavioral Sciences and Public Service recipient, Paul K. Longmore of San Francisco State University; and San Jose State University administrator, Kenneth H. Coale.

Despite their varied areas of interest, he said, "The one thing we all had in common is we all faced a lot of early struggle. But none of us gave up."

Novotney completed his bachelor's from the University of Cincinnati and doctorate and master's degrees from the University of Illinois, Urbana. It wasn't until graduate school that he was exposed to steel pan calypso and world music.

"It wasnÂ’t that I excluded it. Until then it just wasn't available," he said. "I was deeply affected in graduate school with my involvement in the steel band. It was my entryway to the entire gamut."

Less than a year after beginning as a part-time professor at HSU, Novotney founded the Humboldt Calypso Band -- selling his 1974 Chevy Nova to purchase the group's first steel pan drum. Due to a limited budget, the band originated, not as a class, but simply as a no-credit subset of the percussion ensemble.

"It didn't matter where I went. I knew a steel band was the first alternative project I would take on as a professor," said Novotney. "I didn't see it as a risk -- more an opportunity."

His so-called alternative project was wildly successful. In its 20 years of existence, the Humboldt Calypso Band has become a model for steel band programs both statewide and nationally. Former members have gone on to form and lead steel bands and initiate world music programs at every academic level, and across the country.

Novotney's own reputation, however, as spanned the world. He has studied music abroad in Ghana and various other countries. But perhaps his real claim to fame -- and what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment --is music composition.

He has numerous published works used worldwide. The most famous, a snare drum solo called "A Minute of News," was used as a test piece for international percussion competitions in Belgium, Paris, and Valencia, Spain, and logged more than 1,000 performances around the globe.

But whether he is entertaining, enriching students with exposure to world music, or writing works appreciated worldwide, for Novotney it is still all about the music.

"Being able to touch so many people -- some I've never even met -- it is all very humbling."