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Dr. Brant Karrick

Professor and composer Brant Karrick uses the power of music to cope with life's toughest challenges. 

When Dr. Brant Karrick enters the band room, voices become quiet. He approaches the front row, opens the first page and stands quietly in front of his class. As he raises his hands, students adjust their instruments. Together, they create a unified sound.

For more than 30 years, the director of bands at Northern Kentucky University has dedicated his career to this magical moment. He wasn’t going to let a cancer diagnosis or a bone marrow transplant stop him.

A THIRST FOR MUSIC

Karrick grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky in a home constantly filled with music. His mother, a piano teacher and church musician, and his father, a high school band director. His father gave him a trumpet on his ninth birthday, and by 1972, at age 12, he was taking private lessons and practicing several hours a day.

“I had all of the same interests as other kids—I wanted to be a baseball player and other stuff,” Karrick says. “But I discovered through honor band and music camps that playing music was probably something I could excel at. I was practicing four or five hours a day in high school. Any musician, to succeed, has to practice. That’s the bottom line. Students in college who will eventually make it to anorchestra are probably doing six or seven hours of practice a day.”

Karrick’s dedication to and love for music followed him to the University of Louisville, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in music education. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1982 and jumped right into a master’s degree in education at Western Kentucky University, which he completed in 1984.

“I knew teaching was a good path for me,” he says. “The music education degree is the best one to get. It’s really comprehensive musically. You have to know all of the instruments and learn how to teach them. You learn to be able to teach, but you’re also learning them for other reasons. If you want to compose and write music, you know to know what those instruments are capable of—how low and how high they can play.”

Karrick’s teaching career began at Fort Mitchell’s Beechwood Independent School District in 1984. When he returned to his alma mater, Bowling Green High School, in 1986 as the director of instrumental music, his bands performed well at regional and state concerts. In 1988, his marching band was crowned Class AA State Champion. Karrick taught at the high school levelfor seven years before moving into higher education. In the fall of 1991, Karrick entered the Ph.D. program in music education at Louisiana State University. After completing his degree in 1994, he then taught at the University of Toledo.

And in 2003, Karrick joined NKU’s faculty as the director of bands. For the last 19 years, he has managed the entire band program, including the Symphonic Winds, the Concert Band and the Basketball Pep Band.

“I always enjoy teaching beginners,” Karrick says. “They start with nothing—a blank slate—so everything they do musically is because you showed them the way. But you don’t teach them everything.You point them in the right direction, and, eventually, they take on some of the learning themselves.”

Karrick has also assisted with student teacher supervision and has taught classes in music education, conducting, orchestration and marching band techniques. One of the most important classes, he says, is music theory, which he has taught several semesters at NKU.

“I enjoy teaching theory because it’s allabout putting music together,” he says. “It’s where students learn the nuts and bolts of music—chords, scales, modulations,secondary functions. Those are all the tools that musicians need. Musicians need to be able to take a piece of music and break it into component parts. And then composers need to be able to take component parts and put it into a piece.”

When Karrick isn’t leading bands or teaching, he is also a composer. He published his first piece at 38 years old. Bands all over the world have performed his song, “Bayou Breakdown.” The song is even more special for Karrick, who wrote much of the song in the parking lot at NKU when he was in the process of interviewing for his job as director of bands.

For Karrick, his balance as a teacherand musician is two-fold.

“You learn every year,” he says. “The thing about teaching and being a musicianis that you can always get better.”

“The most gratifying thing is watching them grow and creating a real, successful musical experience because you positively motivated them, created opportunities for them, pushed them.”

A LIFE-CHANGING DIAGNOSIS

By 2011, at the age of 50, Karrick was at one of the highest points of his career. He had racked up a list of credits that any musician would envy, and bands had performed his compositions all across the globe. However, days before he was set to attend The Midwest Clinic in Chicago as a guest conductor, he was sitting in a hospital bed.

“It was a form of pneumonia called pleurisy, where your lungs fill up,” Karrick says. “They eventually had to tap into my lungs to drain them.”

After a two-week hospital stay, Karrick bounced back but later began bleeding and bruising easily—a sign that his platelet count was going down. Despite trying many different treatments, nothing helped. In February 2014, Karrick’s oncologist noticed a lump on his neck. After a biopsy, Karrick was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that had started attacking his lymph nodes, pelvis and bone.

“My doctor said that if you have to have cancer, that’s the one you want to have,” he says. “It’s the most predictable.”

Karrick spent the next six months undergoing chemotherapy treatments. He lost all of his hair and developed dystonia, which is a movement disorder that causes your mouth muscles to contract involuntarily. He’s no longer able to play the trumpet, but he finds love for music in other ways with writing and composing regularly.

“I had an embouchure—all of the instruments have this muscle formation and lip formation needed to play. After the first round of chemo, it destroyed something. A lot of brass players get it,” he says. “I really can’t get a sound out. I haven’t really tried to play the trumpet since May 2018, but I play a lot of piano and perform regularly with rock, jazz and soul bands. You just roll with the punches.”

One year later, Karrick was in remission. But then his platelets started sinking again. This time, the damage from the chemotherapy was the reason. Karrick was then diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), formerly known in medical circles as preleukemia. The cure? A bone marrow transplant.

TAKING TIME OFF

Karrick knew his transplant would happen a year in advance. And he also knew the long-term risks.

“There is a 60 percent survival rate for these things. Doctors lose every four out of 10 patients,” he says. “But if I didn’t do the transplant, everything would have shut down eventually.”

Neither his siblings nor his four children were a match, so he registered with Be the Match, a global registry that connects patients with bone marrow or stem cell donors.

“I really want to encourage Americans, especially underrepresented populations, to consider being a donor,” Karrick says. “There is a serious lack of available donors.”

Before Karrick was admitted to Cincinnati Jewish Hospital on July 17, 2018, he experienced a series of tests and procedures to assess his general health to make sure he was physically prepared for the transplant.

“Jewish Hospital is one of the top places in the country for bone marrow transplants,” he says. “Their results are on par with the top places in the world.”

Karrick’s surgeon implanted an intravenous catheter—a long, thin tube commonly called a central line—into a large vein in his chest to infuse the transplanted stem cells, medications and blood products into his body. And then it was time to get started. After the pre-transplant tests and procedures, Karrick experienced conditioning, a process that destroys cancer cells, suppresses your immune system and prepares your bone marrow for new cells.

“They gave me powerful chemotherapy for four days in a row. It kills everything in your body—bone marrow, immune system, everything. Then you rest for a few days,” he says. “A week later, you watch as all your numbers go down to zero.”

A week later, on July 24, the donor’s stem cells were infused into Karrick’s body through a central line. When the new stem cells entered the body, they traveled through the blood to the bone marrow. Over the course of several weeks, those stem cells began to multiply and make new, healthy blood cells, which is known as engraftment.

In the days and weeks after Karrick’s transplant, he remained under close medical care at Jewish Hospital. Three weeks later, he made it home just in time for his 58th birthday.Even though Karrick was released from the hospital, he had daily blood tests to monitor his condition and make sure the donor cells grafted with his body. Lucky for Karrick, he had support at home.

“When you go through this transplant procedure, you can’t go at it alone,” he says.“I couldn’t drive. My primary caregiver was—and is—my wife Carole. It was a big sacrifice for her to make. Our house is 23 miles away from Jewish, and she spent every day single day with me at the hospital.”

Karrick, grateful for a second chance at life, is 100 percent engrafted.

“I was lucky to have really good doctors. I’m here because of science,” he says. “It changes a lot of your perspective on life. I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth. You appreciate nice days a little bit more. You appreciate good times. I found myself a lot less tolerant about time that gets wasted. A lot of stuff that might have been important before just isn’t anymore.”

COMING BACK TO WORK

Karrick had a bit of an unconventional return to NKU after his bone marrow transplant. He came back to campus in the fall of 2019, just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S. He taught for a few months in person, and then everything went virtual.

Despite the many setbacks throughout the last decade, Karrick is dedicated to teaching. For the last 38 years, the students keep him coming back to work—even onthe hardest days.

“My juice for coming in every day is student growth,” he says. “I’m not the most popular or well-liked professor because I’m really honest with my students and tend to be a little brash at times. The most gratifying thing is watching them grow and creating a real, successful musical experience because you positively motivated them, created opportunities for them, pushed them.”

About This Article

Jayna Morris ('22)
Editor, NKU Magazine
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Published April 2022
Photography by Scott Beseler
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