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The Blue & Gray Press | August 25, 2019

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Science and math professors keep their music alive



The hobby started early for Keith Mellinger, associate professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Mary Washington, when his cousin loaned him a guitar during the summer after his high school graduation.

Over the next 22 years, Mellinger performed solo and in bands, releasing two albums, one called “An Acoustic Duo,” with his former band, “Bookends.” However, after hearing the flat-picking instrumentals of the American bluegrass guitarist Dan Crary, Mellinger’s acoustic rock style began to change.

“That’s what really pushed me over, because [Crary] has been a big influence on me,” Mellinger said.

Just before Mellinger began flat-picking, Neil Tibert, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, began playing the guitar again for the first time in 10 years. After finishing his Ph.D. and moving to Fredericksburg, Tibert walked into a guitar store and bought a Honduran mahogany Fender Stratocaster. He hid it from his wife until his children finally told on him, although she ending up being excited.

“Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop,” Tibert said.

As Tibert continued to play the guitar, Mellinger, with his Taylor 814 rosewood, Martin D-18 and Yamaha 12-String, focused on flat-picking, a technique of playing with a flat pick rather than using the fingers. This altered his style of music to a bluesy tune characterized by lots of individual picking.

“I’ve changed the direction it was going, and that’s what makes [playing the guitar] fresh,” Mellinger said.

It was the music, in fact, that changed Tibert. By resuming playing the guitar, he learned he needed to “allow more time for family and myself.”

Today, Tibert has a collection of guitars and antique amps to accompany his Neil Tibert Band, a power trio band that has a blues and roots rock style, playing everything from Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton.

Tibert plays hard on stage, sweating and breaking strings to create the perfect sound. He may be more serious in the classroom, but his love of music is always present. His lab coat even has the “Van Halen 5150” album logo stitched into the back.

“I do it because I love it. It’s a way to escape and put my worries aside… It’s part of me, that’s it,” Tibert said.

Along with the guitar, Mellinger makes playing the banjo, piano and mandolin look effortless, whether it’s on his couch after work or performing occasionally at 909 Saloon, Amy’s Café and Barnes & Noble. For his birthday, Mellinger’s wife bought him a travel-size guitar that goes through security and fits perfectly in an overhead bin, so he never has to be without his music.

“It’s a part of my life,” Mellinger said.

However, it can be surprising to students that their professors have a life outside of their profession.

Tibert said that “it really does throw [students] off,” when they find out about his hidden musical talent, although they are a good, supportive crowd.

Both Mellinger and Tibert have passions outside of paleontology and geology books, coding theories and awards, although most students wouldn’t expect it. While their careers may involve teaching, their free time is filled with music.