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Remote Teaching: How to Rock Professional Communication

By Sharon Campbell Knox on June 2, 2020 in University

The last time Kenny Aronoff was at UC Davis, he was part of the Experience Hendrix tour ensemble at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

This quarter, the superstar drummer Zoomed in as a guest speaker for Brad Henderson’s Business Writing course (University Writing Program 104A).

Against a backdrop of wall-to-wall gold records — he’s earned 1,300 in his 40-year career — Aronoff spoke about professionalism and communication as a musician who has navigated the entertainment industry to the highest level. An author and seasoned public speaker, Aronoff’s talk included a heavy dose of creativity and inspiration, illustrated with tales from his astonishing career.

Aronoff opened with a jaw-dropping list of musicians he’s played with, from Beyonce to B.B. King. In the class chat, someone typed, “omg lady gaga!”

His focus on communication is, he said, one of the reasons he is in such demand. “I probably get hired as much for as my ability to connect, communicate and collaborate as I do for my musical talent,” he said. “You have to be an excellent communicator, and you have to be professional all the time in whatever setting you’re in.”

He described a period of four weeks when he worked with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Bob Seger, the Indigo Girls, Willie Nelson and Bon Jovi. “Every single one of those artists is a different corporation. I have to adjust constantly every day.”

Aronoff emphasized the importance of creativity, gave his take on dealing with difficult people, and closed with life lessons on passion and resilience — a perfect message for our times:

Kenny Aronoff holds drumsticks.
Aronoff as he appeared on the cover of his 2016 autobiography “Sex, Drums, Rock ’n’ Roll!: The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business.”

“Replace fear. When I’m overwhelmed with sadness, I replace it with something positive. With COVID-19, my business has been shut down for a year. That’s a lot of performances and recording sessions to lose. I know people in my industry who are freaking out. Not me. I’m doing things.”

Important things, like speaking to college students.

“It was interesting to see how important professional communication and behavior is, even in an artistic field that values creativity and talent so heavily,” said Diego Huston, a senior psychology major. “I loved listening to Kenny's story. I wasn't expecting to be interested at first, but Kenny is such a captivating speaker that I was quickly sucked in.”

Design major Shehreen Husain agreed: “I didn’t know what to expect coming into this guest lecture, but I left with a profound feeling of inspiration and enthusiasm. One of my favorite parts was how important it is to be purpose driven and know your ‘why.’

“As a graduating senior and music producer, I deeply resonated with Kenny’s talk: When my actions are truly in alignment with my core values, I am able to give that extra effort even when my life situation is hard. Kenny made this message relatable and inspiring. I’m grateful to have been a part of this.”

The Zoom Advantage

Henderson has always brought guest speakers to his classroom — typically corporate executives or engineering professionals — to address workplace communication and professionalism. Teaching in the Zoom environment got him thinking more broadly this quarter.

“My Business Writing students are econ or man econ [managerial economics] majors, but they also come from STEM, English, design … it’s a great mix,” he said. “After they graduate they will be looking to work in a variety of settings. The entertainment industry is a huge sector in California, but one we don’t get much exposure to in Davis.

“It was exciting to introduce my students to a world-class musician who is also known for his professionalism and communication skills.”

Other speakers this quarter blended entrepreneurship and business savvy with communication skills.

“I was initially dreading the switch to remote classes,” Henderson said, “but it’s created some great opportunities. We’re at a moment in history when people are looking for new ways to connect.”

While Zoom or Skype appearances have long been an option in the face-to-face classroom, having disembodied guests appear on a giant screen doesn’t give the same immediacy. “When a guest shows up to our class in a remote learning environment,” Henderson said, “we’re all in this virtual reality together.”

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About the author(s)

Sharon Campbell Knox Sharon Campbell Knox is director of communications for Undergraduate Education. Contact her at scknox@ucdavis.edu.

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