Whether it be hiking alongside the Great Wall of China with his students, judging and conducting ensembles all over the world or co-writing a book about his most-loved composer and conductor, Cameron LaBarr lives his life with intentionality and a strong desire to empower others.
LaBarr, the director of Choral Studies at Missouri State University, was recently chosen for the Springfield Business Journal’s annual 40 Under 40.
The reception and awards ceremony to celebrate this year’s 40 Under 40 class was held on March 21 at the Oasis Hotel & Convention Center.
Christine Temple, features editor at SBJ, said professionals within the community are nominated, then given a questionnaire to complete which is assessed by a panel of judges along with a resume and letter of recommendation. Nominees are then scored individually based on professional accomplishments, leadership, influence and civic engagement. Scores are then tallied to establish the top 40.
An MSU alumnus, LaBarr said he knew during his freshman year he aspired to become a university choral director. Following his time at MSU, LaBarr received his master’s degree and doctorate degree from the University of North Texas.
It was at UNT where LaBarr met his teacher and mentor, Jerry McCoy, whose influence left a lasting impact on LaBarr to this day.
“He gave us all the skills and tools we needed and sent us forth into the world,” LaBarr said. “I feel like I learned a lot then, but I learn something he taught me every day still — which is an amazing thing — and hopefully I can have a little bit of that influence on my students as well.”
After his time at UNT, LaBarr taught at Lee University in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains for three years, which he summed up as a “tremendous experience.”
But soon after, it was time for his next step. He applied to jobs in San Diego, Chicago and Montreal, but he decided the opportunity awaiting him in Springfield was the optimal choice.
LaBarr and his wife Susan, also a professional musician, welcomed their now 4-year-old son Elliot into the world not long before their transition to Springfield.
Second to his family, LaBarr said building relationships and bringing out the best in other people through empowerment are his core values. These values are especially emphasized in LaBarr’s role as a teacher.
“One of my core philosophies is to create a sense of curiosity and to create some specific curiosities,” LaBarr said. “I really want them to have that ultimate interest in their passion and to seek that with reckless abandon.”
LaBarr has a passion for traveling that he is able to experience through his involvement in the professional choral world by guest judging and conducting.
He also travels with the Tennessee Chamber Chorus — a professional choral ensemble he founded based in Eastern Tennessee.
He also frequently travels with his students through MSU Chorale to places such as Iceland, Norway, Demark, Sweden and China. The most memorable trip for the group was their journey to South Africa in 2016, which LaBaar described as a life-changing experience for everyone.
With South Africa being a diverse nation, LaBarr said the choirs there are distinctly intercultural and ignited a sense of unity among people when they sang, despite everyone’s differences.
Witnessing his students experience a new culture for the first time and feeling the world open up to them are some of his favorite moments, he said.
Since his arrival at MSU in 2014, LaBarr has made a lasting impact in the Choral Studies Department. The university choir, the Chorale, performed at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
“He managed a very difficult situation with amazing sensitivity,” University President Clif Smart said in a recommendation letter. “As many voices were urging the Chorale to withdraw, he turned the performance into a call for unity by having a new song commissioned which emphasized that message.”
This performance led to additional opportunities including the China International Choral Festival, in which they were the only American choir invited.
The Chorale also performs with high school and middle school choirs across the region to heighten students’ interest and curiosity in choral music, including working with the choir at Reed Middle School.
Currently, LaBarr and others in the choral department are working toward raising a $4 million endowment for the choral program and have accumulated somewhere between $150,000 to $160,000 so far.
LaBarr can also be credited for implementing three new choirs — a men’s chorus, a women’s chorus and a diversity ensemble — in order to provide more opportunities for students to find a choir that best represents their interests, ultimately doubling the number of students taking part.
LaBarr’s ambition and humanity serves as an inspiration and support for both his past and present students.
Jared Swope, an MSU alumnus, former student of LaBarr and a professional singer, said he owes a great deal to LaBarr. He would not have had as many opportunities, Swope said, if it wasn’t for Labarr’s guidance and assurance that he had the ability to stretch his limits beyond his goals.
“Dr. LaBarr is unique in that he constantly searches for ways to improve, even in the smallest aspects of life,” Swope said. “This mantra allows him to seek positive change for his students, either through direct interactions with him, or what he inspires in others to do for themselves.”
Michaela Lovig, a junior vocal music education major, said LaBarr has managed to cultivate a comfortable rehearsal environment while preserving an authoritative stance.
“Perfection is not something he strives for, but rather to learn from mistakes that we have made and to convey honesty in every song,” Lovig said. “He continually encourages students to be their best self in both rehearsal preparedness and daily attitude.”
LaBarr recently released a book titled “The Melodic Voice” with his colleague, John Wykoff, about his favorite conductor and composer Alice Parker, who LaBarr considers a pioneer for “seeking the core essence of song.”
LaBarr said the book reads like a conversation and includes information about her life, philosophy, core teaching ideologies, advice for the future of song, music education students, first-year teachers as well as her thoughts on what the music world should look like in the next 50 years.
Bryan Gibson, an MSU alumnus and LaBarr’s former student, copy edited the book.
“His professional style strikes a perfect balance between the intensity required for the pursuit of excellence and the emotional sensitivity and humanity that must accompany all musical endeavors,” Gibson said.
Gibson also considers LaBarr’s bold taste in bow ties noteworthy — in professional photos and often at rehearsals, LaBarr is rarely seen without one.
Moving forward, LaBarr said he is eager to continue learning from his students, colleagues and every experience he has.
“I think every day we can either learn something or we can put up a wall against that,” LaBarr said. “If you’ve you got this open mind and open spirit about yourself, the sky’s the limit.”