Senior Spotlight: Austyn Menk

Posted on April 21st, 2020 by

The “Senior Spotlight” series honors graduating fine arts majors for their contributions to the Gustavus community.

Austyn Menk is a music (honors composition) major from Le Center, Minn. This fall he will be attending Northern Illinois University for a master’s degree in jazz studies. Adjunct Assistant Professor of Organ Chad Winterfeldt says that Austyn’s versatility as a musician makes him stand out. “His musical interests are eclectic and wide ranging, and he engages in so many different types of repertoire with equal passion, be it a grand Bach prelude and fugue or a nimble jazz improvisation,” he says.

We asked Austyn to give us a little insight into his time at Gustavus and how he’s “staying musical” while living at home.

What will you miss most about music at Gustavus?
AM: At some point during the last few weeks being away, the realization hit me that I’d likely never play in a wind ensemble again. The Gustavus Wind Orchestra has been an amazing medium to express music and stories during my time at Gustavus, and I’ll always cherish being a part of something so impactful and excellent. JPM (James Patrick Miller) does truly incredible work with this ensemble, and is among the finest in conducting—I’ll miss having him as a mentor and director.
What’s a favorite memory you have from your time in music here?
AM: For my piano audition first year, I was greeted by Esther Wang and Yumiko-Oshima Ryan in Björling. After playing Rhapsody in Blue for them, they said, “You should go chat with the jazz guys in 103.” I’m fairly positive I tried making up excuses as to why that wasn’t the best idea—things like, ‘I’ve never improvised,’ ‘I don’t want Cole Nelson to think I’m bad,’ and ‘why is there a triangle in that chord symbol?’ Turns out, jazz is super cool! I couldn’t imagine my life without it, and after a period of adjustment, it turned out to be what I wanted to pursue as a career. Yumiko and Esther have both been an incredible positive force throughout my college career, and I appreciate their support—especially considering they kinda helped me determine my career.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to high school students considering Gustavus?
AM: You’re going to meet a lot of amazing people—students and professors alike will become your lifelong friends and colleagues. A mutual characteristic between all of them will be that they’ll push you in many ways: academically, musically, analytically, creatively, and others. Be prepared to put some time in yourself, though—while the faculty are supportive, it’s ultimately you that decides whether or not you do well!

How are you continuing your music in your new surroundings?
AM: “Look For the Silver Lining,” wrote Jerome Kern—quarantine has provided me and others with more of the practice time we’d been hoping for someday! It’s been inspiring to see how musicians are responding to the virus—every night, you can find live recitals performed by the likes of Cory Henry, Chick Corea, Peter Martin, and Jacob Collier.
What has it been like for you to “be musical” at home?
AM: At home, I’ve been trying to fill as much time as I can with music—listening, transcribing, shedding, reading, writing, composing, recording. For the first two weeks, I was finally able to spend all of my waking moments transcribing jazz solos from some of my heroes! My parents, sisters and I have also stayed busy trying to maintain a nightly concert series, and have recorded several church services’ worth of music. That being said, I miss playing with my buds in the Jazztet—Jonathan, Matthew, Preston, Jakob, and Greg. As pianist Peter Martin’s been saying, though—we’ll all be better solo jazz pianists at the other end of this thing!What professor has made the biggest impact on you and why?
Ah geez, this is hard. I love ’em all, really—from theory and composition with Dr. Bryant, history and chapel services with Dr. Moore, asking John, Donnie, and Pete questions about the sax in the hallway, playing in GSO with Dr. Lin, and getting roasted by JC in combo…and many more. Not to entirely circumvent the question, but we just have an amazing faculty.I would like to thank three people in particular—Chad Winterfeldt, Dave Stamps, and Masa Ishikawa.

Before Gustavus, I hadn’t played classical organ literature—but I’d taken lessons with Chad years ago, and when given the opportunity to do so again, I jumped at the chance. Chad has been a huge influence on me for the last four years—his attention to detail; knowledge about everything regarding the instrument, from its history to its engineering; and his willingness for him to create opportunities for his students, whether they be a church service or local organ recital, has proven to yield fruitful results through two recitals and a smattering of chapel performances that he helped me prepare for. He’s also just a mind-blowing player himself. Also, I’ll never not know who Guido d’Arezzo is ever again. Thank you, Chad—I look forward to seeing your new place sometime, and can’t wait till the next jaunt to Perkin’s!

I met Dave once before attending Gustavus as a student, in the Gustavus Jazz Honor Band. Now, as you may recall, I didn’t play jazz—I had a solo on Thad Jones’ Big Dipper, but couldn’t yet improvise, so I brought in a transcription of Roland Hanna’s. Dave encouraged me to keep transcribing, and while the blunt of my focus before college was on classical piano, I managed to work out Cory Henry’s iconic solo on Lingus—not that I had any idea what to do with all of that data. Now, in college, Dave has been my advisor, mentor, lesson instructor, combo director, and big band director—and wow, has his impact on my life been substantial. It seems like whenever I’ve felt as though I’m in a rut, Dave has helped get me out, whether or not it’s my writing, my playing, or otherwise. An accomplished composer and arranger himself, composition lessons with Dave are always thought-provoking and productive. In his ensembles, both at Gustavus and in the greater music industry, Dave maintains high expectations for excellence, but keeps the atmosphere lively and ensures that everyone is having a great time. Dave does an amazing job heading the jazz department at Gustavus—and the two academic courses I’ve taken with him are the two in which I’ve taken away the most! Thank you for everything, Dave—I’m incredibly glad to have you as a contact in the industry, and hope that we end up playing together again sometime soon.

Masa took me in as a student during a time when I couldn’t have possibly imagined the idea of sight-reading a lead sheet. Cory Henry’s solo I’d mentioned? I had zero idea how any human could possibly conceive something like that in the moment (though I’m not convinced Cory Henry is human—he’s transcended, man). Masa’s pedagogical approach was absolutely flawless—he took each student where they were at and always had something new to show them. While I didn’t know that jazz was what I wanted to do until my junior year, the first two years of lessons with Masa were integral to my understanding of the fundamentals of what jazz is—he taught me about the players, the tunes, the theory. As I studied with him, he gave me what I believe to be a couple of the greatest gifts I’ve received—spontaneity, and the ability to perceive deeply. When I first heard Cory’s solo, I knew I was interested in doing that—I just didn’t know how. Every now and again, throughout my studies with Masa, I’d listen to that solo—and each time, would have an ‘aha’ moment, where something clicked that hadn’t previously. Today, I could tell you the intention behind every single note, motive and facial expression during that solo, thanks to the immersion with which Masa provided me. As an individual, Masa is an exemplar of self-discipline and diligence, and is simply one of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve met.



  1. Esther Wang says:

    We’re so proud of you, Austyn. Keep making music. We’ll keep Anya busy.
    Congratulations, graduate!!!

  2. Alan Fitterer says:

    Austyn – So proud of you and all of your success! As one Gustie to another (Class of 1989) … you ROCK! Congratulations my friend & best of luck at grad school. Your old HS principal loves success stories :^)

  3. Keith Tyson says:

    congrats Austyn!! Have heard some of your music, nice
    your participation in “nightly Covid music series in very fine!!

  4. Mr and Mrs Charles Menk says:

    Eight years ago you polished Beethoven’s Sonata 14 (Moonlight) 3rd Movement with a Presto agitato, against the wishes of your instructor, being to difficult, for our anniversary. Tomorrow you will challenge life’s music with equal Preso agitato returning God’s gift to all of us. Congratulations Gram and Gramps