Over a decade ago, Joshua Whalen came to Riverland as a student and, later, met best friend and violinist, Victoria Torkelson. She was heavily involved in music and theatre and convinced Josh to try out for the play Annie, Get Your Gun. Josh recalls being terrified at first but said, “…doing that show kind of changed something in me. I fell in love almost instantly with performing the day we did it in front of an audience.” Although strumming on guitars and writing songs had been a big part of Joshua’s life for 17 years, he’d never considered playing in front of people until after that moment on the Frank W. Bridges stage. Getting to be the reason people were applauding, laughing, and enjoying themselves felt amazing, inspiring Josh to add a music emphasis to his studies and dive headfirst into the Riverland Theatre Department, where he spent many years.
Now over ten years later, Joshua leads Whalen and the Willows, an Alternative band based in Austin, MN, and teaches guitar as adjunct music faculty at Riverland Community College. At first Josh wasn't sure what he would think about teaching but it’s now another thing that he’s fallen in love with. He says teaching is intimidating because there is so much to learn, but that it's also fun and rewarding to be able to work with students. Teaching has made Josh a better musician because of the accountability it requires. He’s a strong believer that to teach somebody something, you should be really good at it yourself. Whether his students are playing for enjoyment or to make a career from it, Josh uses many of his real-life experiences from his journey with Whalen and the Willows to guide his students.
Three of the Whalen and the Willows band members are Riverland alumni, each getting their start as performers at Riverland Community College in one way or another. “It's amazing how it just all kind of leads back here, in this community. Riverland is a very important part of my life and is an important part of my history… Whalen and the Willows would not exist without the Riverland Community College Theatre.”
A tremendous amount of hard work and practice goes into what this band does. As lead singer, songwriter, booking agent, media manager, and every other little job in between, Joshua has had a few immense failures while developing the band, but has been able to navigate these obstacles with support from family, friends, and the Riverland community. He believes, “When you fall in love with something you just never stop doing it,” which is why he continuously works on honing his craft. From recording music to putting out records and playing shows, he tries to improve every single day. Each member of Whalen and the Willows wants to make music a bigger part of their life. They're very passionate and that's what makes them a band that cares so much about what they do.
Whalen and the Willows is excited to perform at the Frank W. Bridges Theater at the Austin Riverland Community College campus because “there’s nothing like playing where you got your start.” Seeing the names of people buying tickets has been illuminating for Joshua because he can see the growth his band has had. From having six people in the audience in 2013 to drawing almost sold-out crowds at Parkway Theater in Minneapolis, it’s a big deal for the band to see so much support from people in their hometown. The Austin show is significant in building Whalen and the Willows music career because they need to prove the value of their music to people in their hometown first. “If you can't find enough people in your hometown to value [you], no one else is going to give you a chance.” This show is Austin and Riverland’s chance to see that Whalen and the Willows brings value and that their music means something.
A portion of the proceeds from their hometown show benefits the Riverland Theatre and Music scholarship funds. While attending Riverland, theatre and music scholarships encouraged Josh to stay in the music program, proving to him the value in following his passion. “There are people in this community that are giving money to arts programs to help students stay in the arts and to pursue their craft because they see there's value in it. I think that's tremendous.” In Joshua’s experience, Riverland’s support and scholarships for the arts has been very special to have in the community. As a theatre and music scholarship recipient, Joshua says “It's fun to give back to that for the next generation.”