Music Professor Builds Foundations for Students' Dreams

Published: June 14, 2023 | Author: Kol Gibson | Read Time: 5 minutes

Dr. McKay Tebbs plays onstage in front of a marimba.In the fall of 2022, Dr. McKay Tebbs launched the new Commercial Music program at SUU, and the program has already made its mark on the music community. His students have had an eventful first year, from winning the Thunder 91 Battle of the Bands to booking gigs in Springdale and even attending the National Association of Music Merchants Trade Show in Anaheim, California. Though the program has only been up and running for less than a year, the foundations for its success were laid over twenty years ago by Dr. Tebbs and the support he was given to pursue his dreams. 

For Dr. Tebbs, it all began when his family purchased their first computer with internet access during his sophomore year of high school. An avid guitar player from the age of 12, Tebbs would wait through the beeps, whizzes, and pops of the dial-up connection to research his favorite guitar heroes. It was through this research that he discovered Berklee College of Music in Boston, a prestigious music school that had trained many of the greats. He began to dream of attending Berklee, but between the cost of tuition and his desire to also complete missionary service for his church, he didn’t know how he could make his dream a reality.

While serving a mission in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tebbs received a letter from home that included a quote by Henry David Thoreau that said, ”If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” This quote encouraged Tebbs to keep hoping for his future at Berklee. After returning home from two years of service, he began making plans to attend his dream school, but in the meantime, he enrolled in general education classes at his local community college.

In the spring of 2003, Tebbs got a call from his high school counselor, Dana Stratton, who had found the perfect scholarship for him–the Jessica Elizabeth Luttrell Scholarship. Also known as the “I Have A Dream Scholarship,” it was intended for people with big dreams who need help making them come true. The scholarship’s namesake was a 1999 graduate from Dixie High School in St. George, Utah. Soon after she graduated, she was involved in a rollover car accident that took her life. Jessica had the dream of graduating college and becoming a teacher, so her parents chose to start the scholarship program to honor her dreams by encouraging others to pursue theirs.

The next day after attending a full day of classes, Tebbs went to get into his car and head home, but his car wouldn’t start. He realized he was out of gas, so he trekked to the nearest gas station to buy a gas can. On the way back to his car, he cut through the St. George City Cemetery on 700 East and noticed a gravestone that was decorated with balloons and flowers. As he came close to it he read the name: Jessica Elizabeth Luttrell. “I was very surprised to come face to face with the grave of the girl that I had learned about the night before,” he says. “It wasn’t long before I found myself talking out loud to her about the scholarship, my dreams, my aspirations. I told her that if I could somehow be chosen for her scholarship, I would pay it forward someday and create a scholarship fund myself and even write a song about her. I remember distinctly feeling like she was there with me.”

This special moment with Jessica inspired Tebbs to apply for both the scholarship and Berklee College of Music. The following summer, he was accepted into Berklee and awarded the scholarship that laid the foundation beneath Tebbs’ feet and lifted him to the castle he built in the clouds years before. Tebbs graduated from Berklee in 2006 and recorded a song called Jessica’s Star, dedicated to Jessica Elizabeth Luttrell the following year. From there, he went on to receive both a master’s and doctoral degree in music arts from the University of Southern California. After teaching guitar and recording/music industry classes at Chadron State College in Nebraska, he returned to southern Utah to direct the Commercial Music program at SUU. (Learn more about his career and listen to Jessica’s Star by visiting

Dr. McKay Tebbs plays guitar while sitting on a stool.Dr. Tebbs recently found a poem that reminded him of his life entitled “Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole. The poem speaks of an old man who crossed a vast chasm late at night and then turns back to build a bridge for others to cross. Tebbs was reminded of the bridges he has crossed in his own life by those who came before and his promise to Jessica Luttrell to pay it forward. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his receiving the Jessica Elizabeth Luttrell Scholarship, and in her honor, he has created a scholarship fund for Commercial Music students at SUU. Learn more about the scholarship at

“I don’t have much to give,” says Dr. Tebbs, “But I’ve learned that even a small contribution can go a long way in providing help to a single student. I’m excited to support the next generation of musicians who will be coming through the ranks of the Music Department at SUU.”

Dr. McKay Tebbs is helping his students to build firm foundations under the castles they’ve built in the clouds. If you would like to join Dr. Tebbs in his efforts, please visit


About the College of Performing and Visual Arts

The College of Performing and Visual Arts (CPVA) at Southern Utah University comprises 41 academic programs including liberal arts (BA/BS) and professional (BFA, BM, BMEd) degrees in art, design, dance, filmmaking, music, and theatre. It includes graduate programs in the fields of arts administration (MFA, MA), music education (MME), and music technology (MM). More than 60 full-time faculty and staff are engaged in teaching and mentoring over 900 majors in the College. CPVA presents over 100 performances, lectures, presentations, and exhibitions each year and is affiliated with the Southern Utah Museum of Art (SUMA), Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the Center for Shakespeare Studies. Southern Utah University is an accredited member of the National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD), National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD), National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) making SUU the first public university in the state of Utah to be accredited by all four associations. For more information about the College of Performing and Visual Arts, visit

Tags: Financial Aid Music Technology Music Faculty Community College of Performing and Visual Arts

Contact Information:

Kol Gibson