Communications and contra music: The professor who does both

By Brie Haro | November 2, 2021 4:26pm
Dr. KG posing in the doorway of his office and performing at the Vancouver Night Market. Canva by Brie Haro
Media Credit: Annika Gordon and Brie Haro / The Beacon

My name is Jeff and I’ll be your instructor today.

If you’ve ever heard this phrase, chances are you’ve had a class with communication studies professor Jeff Kerssen-Griep. However, the classroom isn’t the only place where he uses his interpersonal communication skills — the stage gets them as well. 

Kerssen-Griep is known to many as one of the most interactive communication professors at UP, but what most don’t know about is his role as a guitarist in the band Joyride and the Limber Celtic Union. 

While walking through a night market in Vancouver, Washington, senior nursing major Grace Batra heard melodic and fast-paced tunes of contra music being played. Not long after, she heard a familiar laugh. 

As she looked at the players in the band, she recognized the same professor that helped her understand the nuances of communication while studying abroad in Austria: Kerssen-Griep.

“It was so fun to see him in his element,” Batra said. “It’s like the same thing when he teaches, you can tell he’s actually passionate about it and cares about what he’s teaching.”

KG performing at the Vancouver Night Market.
by Brie Haro / The Beacon

Batra described his teaching style as comparable to his role in the band. Kerssen-Griep would look out into the crowd and interact with his bandmates, giving and listening to the cues that would tell him to speed up or slow down. 

Kerssen-Griep has been playing music for around 40 years, and doesn’t intend on stopping anytime soon. His love for music was sparked around middle school, where he started out playing the drums, before moving onto the saxophone and picking up the guitar after college.  

During the era of spandex and all things rock and roll, Kerssen-Griep began his musical career while playing in a rock cover band at bars, but found his true musical calling after listening to the Pogues, an Irish trad punk band. 

While he loves all music, especially funk and soul, his favorite type to play is Contra Dancing music, purely for the type of environment and community it fosters.  

“I'm part of a scene now where you know music breaks out a lot,” Kerssen-Griep said. “It's not a show, it's just something everybody's kind of participating in, because you just can't not, it feels great to do it.”

Joyride, the band Kerssen-Griep is the guitarist and percussionist for, has had over 120 shows.  Three elements work together in every show: the dance caller, the dancers and the musicians. Each relies on the other in order to create a joyous celebration.

KG plays his guitar alongside his band, Joyride.

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Kerssen-Griep

Some of the arrangements that he and his band play have been improvised. Kerssen-Griep calls these “eyebrow situations” or “eyebrow bands” where he looks around at his bandmates and can tell which direction they are heading. Whether it be speeding up the tempo, changing the key, or playing a whole different arrangement, he is just ecstatic to be a part of a community where they all listen to one another. 

“Music is kind of done second by second and then it's gone again,” Kerssen-Griep said. “It comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, and yet you feel like you're just in the midst of something that's bigger than yourself.”

For Kerssen-Griep, the music can be entrancing. 

“I remember having an experience where I was enjoying the music and forgot that I was making it,” Kerssen-Griep said. “That's the best kind of performance experience I've had. It’s where you’re sort of forgetting that [experiences and memories] are being made and you're somehow participating in the making of them.”

While playing, Kerssen-Griep will often look out into the crowd and smile at his wife, Emily Kerssen-Griep, making sure she is having just as good a time as he does, she said. 

She recalls one of her favorite performances happening right on their front lawn during the thick of quarantine and was grateful for the community her husband helped foster throughout their own neighborhood.

KG and his bandmates performing at the Vancouver Night Market.
by Brie Haro / The Beacon

Long-time friend and fellow musician, Kris Voss-Rothmeier, has known of Kerssen-Griep before he became “Dr. KG”. Voss-Rothmeier had played with Kerssen-Griep in an all men's group for about 20 years and in a megaband that consisted of over 100 musicians in the Portland area. He says Kerssen-Griep just loves to have fun and brings a sense of community with him wherever he goes.

“He’ll be standing in front of a crowd and will yell a little ‘yip’ or will just enjoy watching people dance in circles or will be enjoying the evening,” Voss-Rothmeier said. “He’s playing in the band but he’s also part of the fun.”

The night market had been the first live gig that Kerssen-Griep and his other band, The Limber Celtic Union, has performed since the pandemic shut down the concert scene, but much like how he felt about performing in person again, Kerssen-Griep missed the fun he’s been able to have and facilitate in the classroom. 

He began teaching while getting his Masters and his Doctorate in speech communication at the University of Washington. This will be his 23rd year at UP. 

While teaching, Kerssen-Griep tries to read the room, watching out for glances students make at each other when he mentions a reading, posture shifts, eyebrows distorting, or facial expressions that are asking for more explanation. He is glad he was thrown into the teaching realm while he was studying at UW and feels as if it is one of his passions. 

“I've been teaching ever since I discovered it was the thing I should be doing in the world,” Kerssen-Griep said. “So, I don't know how I got there, it actually feels a little bit by accident, but once I'm teaching it feels absolutely on purpose.”

Brie Haro is the Community Engagement Editor for The Beacon and can be reached at