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UA graduate student teaches middle schoolers, college kids while progressing own musical career

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Jim O'Rourke for the Daily Wildcat UA graduate student Shawn Cullen guides a choral rehearsal on April 11, 2012. Cullen is also the conductor for the Arizona Repertory Theatre's Production of "Bad Boy."

Shawn Cullen gets up at 7 a.m. to teach middle schoolers about music. At around noon, he zooms to campus, attending classes until 6 p.m. before he heads to rehearsals for upcoming shows. Although 16-hour days are nothing new, it’s all a balancing act that Cullen does with ease and a contagious energy.

“Your body gets used to it — it’s like training for a marathon,” Cullen said. “It gets easier with time.”

Besides pursuing a master’s in conducting at the School of Music, Cullen directs band and teaches vocal and theater arts at Magee Middle School and is the assistant director of athletic bands for the UA. Add that on to the titles of adjunct professor, musical theater conductor, director for Tucson’s Reveille Men’s Chorus and, his most recent endeavor, conductor for the Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of “Bat Boy: The Musical.”

“It’s a crazy, funky, outside-of-the-box musical,” Cullen said. “The cast is so fantastic and it’s all about delivering the story through music from point A to point B. I love when the musical connects with the audience and they get the point and the story.”

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Cullen’s love for music started when he first learned trumpet in elementary school — he immediately felt a connection to music of all kinds. He tried choir, band and orchestra and followed theater all through high school.

“I don’t think I could function without doing it,” he said.

As an undergraduate student, Cullen balanced a full course load with a full-time job teaching music and performing arts whenever he could at after-school arts programs.

“I love seeing kids get a piece of music for the first time and really understanding it,” he said. “They feel successful and it makes them feel special. That’s one of my favorite parts.”

He always tells his students that his hands help direct, but they are the ones truly making the music.

Cullen’s teaching methods and style quickly earned him a reputation for being innovative and having a lot of energy and an artistic flair, which he says comes from loving what he does.

“I’m lucky I have favorite parts throughout my day and not just one,” Cullen said.

And Cullen is on his way to his ideal career — musical directing for a touring Broadway show. He’s created what he calls a “Renaissance career,” bucking the idea that it’s impossible to do everything you need to do in order to get where you want to be.

“There is always more than one way to get to a goal,” he said. “Just as long as you never stop trying to get it.”

And he said he hopes opportunities like “Bat Boy” will help him crack into a competitive industry and achieve that goal.

“Goals can be reached,” he said. “It’s all about overcoming obstacles and hurdles and giving time to what you love.”

ARIZONA REPERTORY THEATRE’S ‘BAT BOY’ IF YOU GO

Where: Tornabene Theatre

When: Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-show discussion at Thursday’s performance, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and shows continuing until April 29.

Cost: Student tickets are $21, senior, military or UA employee tickets are $29 and regular admission tickets are $31

For ticket information: Contact the UA Fine Arts Box Office at 621-1162 or arizona.tix.com.


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Updated September 18, 2021