When she’s not overseeing Shepherd University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, you might find Dr. Laura Renninger instructing a music class or performing in a Salon Series concert.
Renninger, who grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, has played music just about as long as she can remember. She started taking piano lessons when she was six.
“I just really enjoyed it,” Renninger said. “I had a wonderful teacher. She was very patient. I still joke with my mom that the lessons were $2.50 for an hour back in the day. I guess music was one thing that really came naturally to me. I just loved it. I would play piano and I would write songs and I liked to sing.”
Renninger played clarinet in high school. She also started competing in music competitions at the regional and state levels and eventually played with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra on piano, performing numerous times as a soloist. Renninger also played the organ and found she was able to make money as an accompanist, chamber musician, and church organist.
“In college and in grad school I actually was able to play with some bands,” she said. “One was what we called alternative. We played lots of shows and that was fun.”
When she was in graduate school, Renninger auditioned to play keyboard for a country group called The Amy White Band.
“I wasn’t really into country music, but it was fun and we ended up playing shows every weekend,” Renninger said. “It’s amazing—you get paid pretty well at some of these gigs.”
Renninger toured with The Amy White band all over Illinois and Indiana. The band even made a trip to Taiwan to perform.
“So for a while I thought well maybe this is what I’m going to do, maybe we’ll go to Nashville,” Renninger said. “We started writing songs and we were on the radio. It was really fun.”
But Renninger said the excitement of performing in the band didn’t detour her completely from her original goal—to become a teacher. After earning her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1999 she accepted a job at Shepherd, which effectively ended her career with The Amy White Band.
“It was hard to say goodbye when I got this job,” she said. “I even flew back to Illinois the weekend after I moved to West Virginia to play at one more fair with the group.”
Groundbreaking music research
Renninger came to Shepherd as an assistant professor in the music department. She taught full time and was able to continue the research in the field of music cognition that she had started in graduate school. Renninger worked in a neuroscience lab with a psychologist looking at brain waves while people listened to music scale patterns.
“I studied people who had an ability called absolute pitch. They are able to either name pitches that they hear or just produce a pitch,” Renninger said. “So you could say sing a C and they can sing a C, or whatever the pitch happens to be. It’s fairly rare and it’s distinctly an auditory ability, so we wanted to look at their brain wave patterns when they listened to music and compare them to musicians who didn’t have absolute pitch.”
Renninger said the research showed very different brain wave patterns between those who have absolute pitch and those who don’t.
“We know music affects us, but being able to see into peoples’ brains and see covertly what’s actually happening and realizing that people listen very differently is intriguing. It’s sort of like a secret window into how people are thinking.”
“Musicians without absolute pitch have to work a lot harder,” she said. “It was really exciting to work with these musicians that had this gift of absolute pitch, which is pretty amazing.”
Renninger said the research, which received international recognition and is included in the 1999 book Music, Mind and Science, edited by Suk Won Yi, sheds light on how people process what they hear.
“We know music affects us, but being able to see into peoples’ brains and see covertly what’s actually happening and realizing that people listen very differently is intriguing,” Renninger said. “It’s sort of like a secret window into how people are thinking.”
Transitioning to dean
When she came to Shepherd, Renninger never imagined she’d eventually become a dean overseeing student programs and support services.
“It was my first time as a full-time tenure track teacher so I attended a lot of workshops on how to be a better teacher,” she said. “That’s how I came in contact with Dr. Patricia Dwyer, who had this position before I did.”
Dwyer left about six years later, and in 2006 Renninger applied for the job. Renninger spent half her time teaching music and the other half in the Center for Teaching and Learning, which at the time was a single office she shared with her program coordinator, Shannon Holliday. Over time the program evolved into something much bigger, so Renninger now only teaches one music course per semester.
The Center for Teaching and Learning is now located on the lower level of the Scarborough Library. It offers a hub for several programs and services, including the Common Reading program, the First-Year Experience Program, Instructional Technology, Academic Support, TRiO Student Support Services, Advising Assistance Center, and Audio Visual/Media Services.
“I think we provide a home or a family for students and a home in a sense for faculty,” Renninger said. “I think if they need to seek advice outside their department they feel comfortable here, and likewise students have counselors here that they can go to.”
Renninger is proud of the help the center offers to students, faculty, and staff. It includes training in the technology used on campus, advising and tutoring for students, training for new professors, and audio/visual services for the classroom and special events.
The federally funded TRiO Student Support Services, which helps students who have a financial need, are first-generation college attendees, or have a disability. The program’s goals are to help these students stay in school, make good grades, and graduate.
“We’ve seen wonderful things happen with TRiO,” Renninger said. “Students who are financially strapped are now getting wonderful jobs, they’re graduating, and they’re doing well in their classes. It’s really amazing to hear their stories. I often think if we could have that kind of support and attention all over campus our retention rate would skyrocket.”
Renninger’s other full-time job is being mom to her three young children.
“They keep me hopping and laughing and are the best part of my life for sure,” Renninger said.
Renninger is well aware that she is infinitely fortunate to have a great family and career here in Shepherdstown, but it took a lot of work to get to this place.
“In the blink of an eye it could all be gone so never take anything for granted,” she said. “Live each day as though it was your last—sometimes much easier said than done but certainly a goal worth striving for.”
Listen to Laura Renninger’s interview HERE.