The Traditions Guy

Austin McWilliams leading Taiso.
Austin McWilliams has been leading Taiso for the past two years. He inherited the role from Akehiko Takahashi, who brought Taiso, an exercise routine that has been practiced in Japan for nearly 100 years, to MSA in 1990. Photo by Logan Jackson.

Austin McWilliams thought he would have some fun with a handful of his fellow resident assistants (RA) one random morning during the Missouri Scholars Academy. McWilliams was an RA for one year, in 2017, and he and his peers would take turns choosing music to listen to as scholars were attending class or activities.  

“I was playing some crazy stuff to be funny, which I’m sure everyone found very annoying,” McWilliams joked. “One of my fellow RAs was definitely not a fan. He kept saying, ‘That’s not music, that’s not music!’”

A picture of a sign with Austin McWilliams singing in the foreground.
McWilliams has taught the “Whaaaaaaaat, that’s not music!” course since 2018. Photo by Logan Jackson.

While McWilliams didn’t know it at the time, that response to his music choice would become the title of his major class the very next year, as McWilliams transitioned from RA to faculty.

Since 2018, McWilliams has taught a major class called, “Whaaaaaaaat, that’s not music!” The course allows scholars to explore what music truly is. McWilliams begins with the physical origins of sound and students dig through musical theory and compositional techniques of classical composers. Once they get to the 20th century, students become the musicians and analyze numerous experimental works. The students get to showcase their musical abilities, too, as they play their instrument of choice.

“We survey several musical eras and study the compositional developments during those eras,” McWilliams said. “We also create and perform our own contemporary musical works. It’s a ton of fun.”

McWilliams, who is from Poplar Bluff, was a scholar himself in 2011. He was hoping to return to MSA at some point to relive the magic, but his summer schedule was always full. McWilliams was finally able to find some time six years later and was thrilled to join the faculty the next year.

“My summers as an undergraduate student were always full of internships,” McWilliams said. “I loved my time at MSA and was always upset I didn’t have the time to interact with the academy. It was great to finally have a chance to return.”

McWilliams developed a passion for music when was 5 years old and his grandmother sat him down at a piano and taught him to play chopsticks. He has a master’s degree in choral conducting and has an interest in the intersection of music, science and social equity. For the past several years, he conducted at Opera Grand Rapids and taught at Western Michigan University.

He enjoys sharing that musical talent with MSA students, too.

Austin McWilliams playing the piano.
McWilliams showcased his musical expertise during the MSA opening ceremonies. Photo by Logan Jackson.

“I always stayed active with music growing up, and it’s been so fun to share that passion with the scholars,” McWilliams said.

Along with his major class, McWilliams has taken over a handful of the traditional MSA activities. He leads the choir, conducts the first Boomba call of the academy and has taken over as the Taiso master. Akehiko Takahashi brought Taiso, an exercise routine that has been practiced in Japan for nearly 100 years, to MSA in 1990. Takahashi was a long-time faculty member who retired from the academy a couple years ago. McWilliams led his first Taiso session last year.

“I’ve kind of been dubbed the traditions guy, which is an honor, especially when it comes to Taiso” McWilliams said. “When I started on faculty, Akehiko and I really hit it off. As he headed toward retirement, he apparently sensed in me that there was a Taiso master waiting to be released. During his final day, he told everyone that I was going to taking over. It was a very sweet moment.”

McWilliams added that his first time leading Taiso with MSA faculty, staff and RAs last year is a memory that is etched in his mind. He doesn’t take it for granted that he gets to lead one of the popular activities during the academy.

“It’s so much fun,” McWilliams said. “It’s a blast to stand up there and see everyone doing to the motions. I can’t help but smile the entire time.”