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FAU icon Ken Keaton shows how diversifying talents can translate into success

Ken Keaton, a professor of classical guitar at Florida Atlantic University, has always honed in on his many talents.

Born in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 13, 1953, Keaton spent his early days playing in a garage rock band.

“I didn’t start out in classical guitar,” Keaton said. “My days in Nashville were not spent playing country music, as one might have suspected, but in a bad rock ’n’ roll garage band called The Point Five.”

In an attempt to step outside the realms of rock ‘n’ roll, Keaton left for the University of Miami to study jazz in 1970.

“I was in dire need of change, because the garage band rock wasn’t the sort of thing that would occupy me beyond adolescence,” he said.

He soon discovered that the university didn’t have a jazz guitar instructor, which prompted him to broaden his area of study to include the classical guitar.

“I fell in love with it completely, demonstrated some talent and switched my major to classical guitar performance about my sophomore year,” Keaton said. “I really didn’t play classical guitar before I got to college, and 10 years later, I had finished a doctorate in performance — and had to find honest work.”

After Keaton graduated in 1981, he was offered a visiting instructor position at Palm Beach Community College.

“At the community colleges, they give out tenure like social promotion. If you’re there for three years, you’re essentially there forever,” he said.

Keaton had almost reached that “forever” point when a faculty member in the finance department decided that there were too many humanities professors.

“Since I was the only one without tenure, the dean of students called me into his office and told me I was the best new faculty he had seen in years, and then he proceeded to fire me,” he recalled.

Keaton continued to teach part-time at several colleges, including Palm Beach Community College and Broward Community College. Then a full-time position finally became available at Florida Atlantic University in 1990.

“All I really wanted was to have a single home that I could put all of my efforts into,” Keaton said of regarding his on-the-go lifestyle.

Keaton found his home at FAU, and progressed quickly up the professional ladder from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure to professor.

“Now I’m in an enviable position where I am doing something I would do for free if I were independently wealthy … and I can’t be promoted or fired,” he said.

After three years at FAU, Keaton was promoted to associate dean in charge of student services. He retained that position for 15 years.

“I didn’t get into administration because I wasn’t any good as a musician, but that was just another way to influence the community of people I was working with,” Keaton said. “I had something of a gift for curriculum development and organization, and that was just another talent.”

Someone once told Keaton that if you plan to become a guitarist, you must be able to play every style that exists. Keaton said he never wanted to play a note that he didn’t love. While disagreeing with the notion of investing all of his energy on solely the guitar, he had developed a different approach.

“I noticed that what I had done wasn’t master a dozen styles of guitar, but diversify what I could do,” he said. “And for me, that took the form of being a performing musician, being a researching historical musicologist and being in academic administration.”

He added: “If you diversify and explore as many of your talents as you have the time to develop, you are more likely to find a successful career by that diversity, but each individual will find different things that he or she will diversify.”

Ultimately, Keaton has enjoyed the positive impact he has had on the faculty, as well as the student community.

“All of the music faculty are really glad to work with Dr. Keaton,” said Laura Joella, director of orchestral studies. “He does great work with the music history students, and is a very fine guitarist.”

And since being reassigned to the faculty in 2009 (because of budget cuts stemming from a struggling economy), Keaton has made the best out of the situation. He now interacts with fewer students, but on a much more intense and extensive basis.



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