Lawrence University sophomore Tashi Litch is a mandolin player with a passion for bluegrass music and a deep curiosity about the world.
So, when the Orcas Island, Washington, native set out to select a college, he had two priorities in mind. He sought a music conservatory willing to nurture his bluegrass skills, and he sought a college that would allow him to explore academic subjects across the liberal arts. He found what he was looking for in Lawrence’s Bachelor of Musical Arts (B.M.A.) degree, launched three years ago with a focus on jazz and improvisational music but open to almost any genre of music. Its 50-50 split between music courses in the Conservatory and non-music courses in the college gave him what he needed.
Litch is now one of more than 30 students who have come to Lawrence via the B.M.A. program since it launched in 2019.
“Lawrence was one of the few that has a college and a conservatory and allows students to participate in both,” he said. “That was pretty important to me, to be able to study music at a high level and also be able to take liberal arts college courses. That’s what drew me in.”
A love of bluegrass
Since arriving at Lawrence, Litch has found his interest in bluegrass nurtured, embraced alongside the classical and jazz repertoire that has long been the Conservatory’s calling card.
He connected almost immediately with a fellow B.M.A. student from Washington state, Evan Snoey, a fiddle player who shares his deep love of bluegrass.
“We knew each other from out in Washington,” Litch said. “He is a year ahead of me and he had felt out the scene here and knew a few players. When I got here, I said, ‘We have to do something, we’ve got to play some bluegrass.’”
That led them to Dominic LaCalamita, a B.M.A. student from Naperville, Illinois, and Ian Harvey, a music and philosophy double major from Seattle. Together they became The Woebegones (they were earlier known as Highcliff).
Coached by Matt Turner, a music instructor in the Conservatory, the foursome has been pushing the boundaries, turning a Billie Eilish song into a bluegrass tune, covering a song by The Strokes, and embracing the progressive bluegrass sounds of the Punch Brothers. They’re also playing some bluegrass standards and have a couple of originals in their set.
They’re getting a chance to show their skills on a big stage during the first weekend of October. The foursome has been invited to perform at the annual IBMA World of Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. They’ll be performing as the Lawrence University Bluegrass Band as part of Saturday’s College Band Showcase.
Litch had connections with some of the festival organizers after having played the festival in his youth as part of a Kids on Bluegrass collective.
“I thought it might be cool to put our names in and see if we can go out there to play,” Litch said. “And here we are. We’re going to be doing an hour-long set on one of the big stages.”
Litch said he grew up playing the fiddle and then the mandolin. He tagged along to jam sessions with his musical family and spent much of his free time trying to emulate the skills of mandolinist Chris Thile. He hit the road during recent summers to play at bluegrass festivals as a duo with his brother.
Now studying at Lawrence and playing in a quartet with other talented music students is raising his game, he said.
“I’m used to playing with a duo, so having the four-piece band was a really different dynamic for me,” he said. “It’s really exciting. There are so many more possibilities and directions we can go with that. I love the more high-energy type of bluegrass that you can do with four of us.”
A beautiful fit with B.M.A.
That’s sweet music to Turner, who has worked closely with the bluegrass foursome while also welcoming B.M.A. students focused on jazz, electronic music, punk, mariachi, global music, and songwriting. They are students looking for high-level music and theory instruction but through a lens of their own choosing.
“I think I can safely say that most of these students would not have come to Lawrence if the B.M.A had not been here,” Turner said. “We’re very excited about all of these students. They’re really good musicians and they’re great scholars, which is an important part of the B.M.A. because it’s a 50-50 split between non-music and music courses.”
Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory, said it’s no coincidence that three of the four members of the bluegrass band are seeking B.M.A. degrees. They are following a path that was envisioned when the program was first rolled out.
“Although the specific track in the B.M.A. degree is called Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, the program welcomes students interested in a broad range of contemporary music styles,” Pertl said. “The common thread is that all of our students, no matter their primary focus, are musically curious, collaborative, and boundary-crossing. These students have brought bluegrass in as another prominent voice in our multi-faceted musical community, so they really are a perfect fit for Lawrence and the B.M.A. program.”
Litch said he has felt that love since the day he brought his mandolin to campus.
“I’ve been able to improve my skills as a musician technically, but also my theory understanding, especially with jazz theory, which complements bluegrass and makes me a more well-rounded musician,” he said.
“The whole ethos of the B.M.A. program is that anyone is welcome,” Litch added. “So, for me, with bluegrass, it’s been great. It’s been really supported.”
Mile of Music is back, and with it comes a return of the Music Education Team, led by Lawrence Conservatory of Music faculty, students, and alumni.
The COVID-19 pandemic put the annual all-original music festival on hold last year, but it’s returning to downtown Appleton Aug. 5-8 for Mile 8. Launched in 2013, the Mile of Music festival has become one of the signature summer events in the Fox Cities, drawing upwards of 90,000 people to outdoor venues, bars, and coffee shops over four days. Pandemic-related adjustments are being made this week, including a larger percentage of the more than 600 live music sets taking place outdoors.
Some of the performances will again land on the Lawrence campus, with both Memorial Chapel (masks required) and the lawn in front of Ormsby Hall (listed as the Lawrence Listening Lawn on the Mile 8 schedule) in play. The festival, presented by Willems Marketing & Events, stretches for a mile along and near College Avenue, from the Lawrence campus on the east end of downtown to Richmond Street on the west end.
The festival schedule—admission to all performances is free—was released over the weekend and can be found here.
Lawrence has played a key role in the festival’s success from the beginning, with instructor of music education Leila Ramagopal Pertl ’87 serving as music education curator, leading a robust Music Education Team that connects with festival-goers for an array of interactive music experiences that augment the live shows. She will again get a leadership assist from Jaclyn Kottman Kittner ’12, a teacher at the Lawrence Community Music School who serves as the director of operations, and Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl ’86.
A bevy of other faculty, students, and alumni will be part of the team. Among the 25 featured interactions: Balinese gamelan and angklung (pitched bamboo rattles) taught by I Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana, a gamelan master, and Sonja Downing, professor of ethnomusicology at Lawrence, and angklung teacher and author Indah Erdmann; Nestor Dominguez ’15 is back to teach mariachi, joined by Jando Valdez ‘24, who recently led the formation of a Mariachi Ensemble at Lawrence; and Brazilian samba drumming and Ghanaian Ewe drumming and dancing courtesy of Alex Quade ’22, Kenni Ther ’16, and Mindara Krueger-Olson ’22.
The music education events will take place in various settings throughout the downtown, including the green space outside of Memorial Chapel and the lawn north of Brokaw Hall known as The Grove.
“This year, because of COVID safety concerns, we are not including any activities that include group singing or playing brass or woodwind instruments,” Ramagopal Pertl said. “There will, however, still be plenty of powerful music-making to explore. We want our sessions to help participants find ways to heal from the stress and isolation of the pandemic. So, a main focus this year will be to empower personal and collaborative expression through songwriting, drawing, drumming, and movement.”
“Everyone is equally valued and heard”
Bernard Lilly Jr. ’18, who performs as B. Lilly and will again be a performer during Mile of Music, will lead songwriting workshops, as will Wade Fernandez, also a Mile 8 performer.
The majority of the music workshops are for all ages and are being supported by community partners Heid Music and the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.
“I’m elated to once again lead a songwriting/song-making workshop,” said Lilly, a talented Chicago-based recording artist who will juggle his music education duties with five performances (two on Thursday, three on Friday) during Mile of Music.
He called the workshops an opportunity to connect with the community on a more intimate level.
“In our sessions, everyone is equally valued and heard regardless of age, gender, race, and musical experience,” he said. “It’s truly a safe space. Our multi-generational rooms create an atmosphere that is welcoming, vulnerable, open, and available to the moment. In my opinion, that is the formula for creativity to commence.”
The songwriting workshops, and, really, the entire roster of interactive experiences, are built on collaboration and conversation. That is something that is special for those leading the workshops as well as those on the receiving end, Lilly said.
“It’s therapeutic and, for me, powerful to witness,” he said.
The Decoda Chamber Music Festival, running from July 28 to Aug. 6 at Lawrence, will include multiple Mile 8 performances, and its instructors and students will partner with the Music Education Team to present interactive sessions. This is the first time the Decoda festival has been held in Appleton, and Michael Mizrahi, a professor of music and a founding member of the Decoda collective, said the opportunity to connect with Mile of Music was a driving force in bringing it here. Read more about the Decoda festival here.
In a partnership between the Decoda festival and the Music Education Team, some of the Decoda students are working with Lilly, creating arrangements of his song, Dear America. They have been collaborating for the past week and will perform with Lilly at 11 a.m. Friday at OuterEdge.
Brian Pertl called the collaboration “particularly powerful” and a joy to watch unfold in real time.
“The classical musicians from the festival are learning so much from Bernard,” he said. “It’s really beautiful.”
That communal relationship feels that much more important this year as we inch toward something resembling normalcy, even as the pandemic continues to keep us from being fully immersed in our surroundings.
“At a time when we are just emerging from being isolated from community, collaboration and self-expression in music-making become deeply important,” Ramagopal Pertl said.
The student connection
Moreau Halliburton ’22 will be among the Lawrence students joining the Music Education Team. She will partner with Ramagopal Pertl to present Art-istry of Music and Body Percussion! workshops.
The Art-istry of Music will give participants the opportunity to interpret live music through drawing and then have musicians “play their drawings,” Ramagopal Pertl said. The Body Percussion! sessions will explore our ability to make music in the simplest of ways.
“We are excited to show the greater Appleton community the power of connecting through song and rhythm using our beautifully diverse bodies,” said Halliburton, who has a self-designed major in music identity studies. “I fell in love with body percussion because you can play music anywhere with anyone.”
This is Halliburton’s first chance to take part in Mile of Music. It’s an experience she didn’t want to miss before she graduates in June.
“I think this kind of music and arts outreach is important because I believe in the magic of community-building through music,” she said. “I also appreciate the connections built between LU students and faculty and the Appleton community through Mile and the playful work done there. This past year has been really difficult for me to connect to the Appleton community because of COVID-19, and now, more than ever, I appreciate and want to find as many of these opportunities as I can before I graduate.”
Sarah Phelps ’07, meanwhile, will focus her energies on the Mile’s youngest participants, presenting Beyond Singing Storybooks with Melissa Fields, an Appleton Area School District teacher. Keira Jett ’18 and Betsy Kowal Jett, the Conservatory’s community programs manager, will present workshops on songwriting for teens and storybook sound exploration for younger children.
“These workshops, along with many others, presented with COVID safety in mind, will bring back a joyful, engaging, and much-needed sense of community through something we all share—our musical birthright,” Ramagopal Pertl said.
A two-week chamber music festival will bring 28 college-aged musicians to Lawrence University in late July and early August for an intensive training program that also will feature multiple free public performances.
The Decoda Chamber Music Festival, presented by the Lawrence Conservatory of Music and the musical collective Decoda, will take place in Appleton from July 28 to Aug. 6. The eight public performances at various Appleton venues—including as part of the Mile of Music Festival—will welcome live audiences. It comes following a year in which most live performances were canceled or moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re bringing nearly 30 young artists from around the world to Appleton for two weeks to study with eight amazing Decoda musicians, some of whom are based right here,” said pianist Michael Mizrahi, a professor of music in the Lawrence Conservatory and a founding member of Decoda. “Students and faculty will work together to create immersive chamber music experiences at venues across the Fox Valley.”
Public performances will include:
July 28: Decoda in concert, Riverview Gardens, 5:30 p.m.
July 30: Decoda in concert, Lawrence Memorial Chapel, 7 p.m.
July 31: Decoda Chamber Music Festival Young Artists’ Concert, Lawrence Memorial Chapel, 7 p.m.
Aug. 1: Decoda Chamber Music Festival Young Artists’ Concert, Lawrence Memorial Chapel, 1 p.m.
August 5 and 6: Decoda Chamber Music Festival performances at Mile of Music. These include 11 a.m. Aug. 5 at Lawrence Memorial Chapel; 11 a.m. Aug. 6 at OuterEdge Stage; 1 p.m. Aug. 6 at Riverview Gardens; and 3 p.m. Aug. 6 at Heid Music. Mile of Music collaborators will include Wade Fernandez, Cory Chisel, and Bernard Lilly ’18 (B. Lilly).
“This kind of cross-genre collaboration will be a win-win for our students and our community,” Mizrahi said of the Mile of Music performances.
Decoda is a national collective of musicians committed to virtuosic performance and audience engagement. Their performances range from trios to large mixed ensembles, with much of the focus on audience outreach at venues that run the gamut from concert halls to schools to hospitals to prisons. Mizrahi and flutist Erin Lesser, associate professor of music in the Lawrence Conservatory, are among the core members of the group.
As part of Decoda outreach, Mizrahi launched the Music for All program in Appleton in 2015. More than 100 free community concerts have taken place over the past six years in conjunction with various local organizations. Among others, it has highlighted the work of women composers at Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs, created short educational music performance videos for the Appleton Area School District, and presented free interactive community concerts for families with young children at Riverview Gardens.
The success of Music for All led to discussions of bringing the Decoda Chamber Music Festival to Appleton.
“This festival lived on the East Coast for many years and was looking for a new home,” Mizrahi said. “Appleton has such a vibrant tradition of live music in the summer—I knew this community would welcome us with open arms.”
Multiple visiting members of Decoda will join with Conservatory faculty to work with the participating students. They will lead daily rehearsals and workshops, teach students how to use music to interact with different local communities, and develop students’ skills in instrumental technique, public speaking, and mission/vision development.
The timing of the festival allows it to mesh with Mile of Music, the all-original music festival taking place Aug. 5-8 at more than 40 venues and performance spaces in downtown Appleton. Lawrence Conservatory faculty have led the music education portion of Mile of Music since its launch in 2013, with the work of the Music Education Team focused on getting festival-goers to engage with and create their own music.
“We’re excited to be partnering with Mile of Music this summer—they’ve been doing live music here in Appleton for the better part of the last decade, and our program will allow for a rich cross-fertilization of artists from different backgrounds, all coming together to create live music for and of our community,” Mizrahi said. “This year in particular, after going so long without live music, we can’t wait to create new musical collaborations in front of a live audience.”
Support for the Decoda Chamber Music Festival includes grants from the John Scott Boren Memorial Fund for the Performing Arts, the Bright Idea Fund, and the Mielke Family Foundation, all within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.
The Lawrence Conservatory of Music’s jazz program has received a national honor that speaks to its ability to creatively make music amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawrence earned an Outstanding Performance award in Downbeat magazine’s annual Student Music Awards, marking the fourth consecutive year the Conservatory has been among the honored programs. The Downbeat awards, now in their 44th year, are among the highest honors in jazz education.
This year’s award, announced on May 6 and being featured in the June edition of the magazine, comes in a new undergraduate category set up specifically because of the pandemic—Asynchronous Large Jazz Ensemble. Downbeat created the new category for students in large ensembles who did not rehearse together as a full band but instead recorded remotely and asynchronously.
For information on the Conservatory of Music, see here.
“It is an honor for these outstanding students to see their hard work and musicianship be recognized on a national level,” Darling said. “With limited rehearsal time, social distancing, and the weirdness of not being together as a big band, I am grateful for not only everyone’s incredible talent and dedication but for their support of each other and their ability to create beautiful music during these challenging times.”
This marks the 30th time Lawrence has earned a Downbeat award, coming in categories that have included large ensemble, small group, jazz composing, jazz arranging, solo performance, jazz vocal group, and Latin group. The annual awards are presented in five separate divisions: junior high, high school, high school honor ensemble, undergraduate college, and graduate college.
The challenges the past year have been unlike anything the Lawrence jazz program has faced in its nearly five decades of music-making. Some LUJE members were on campus, rehearsing at times outdoors or physically distanced in various settings. Others were connecting virtually. Creativity and patience were at a premium.
“Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to record bass and drums separately on TipToe and St. Thomas at different times—the groove between bass and drums is such a critical foundation for the rest of the group, and we didn’t want to use a click track,” Darling said.
She credits Ali Remondini ’21, Clay Knoll ’20, and Liam Fisher ’21 with finding a workable solution that didn’t compromise the music.
Another challenge came when students recorded their parts for Optimistic with cell phones. They were then synced and mixed using Logic Pro X software.
“Liam was instrumental in recording an awesome drum track with just one overhead mic,” Darling said.
The recordings were done over the course of two terms—last year’s Spring Term in which all 15 student musicians were remote and this year’s Fall Term in which there was a mix of remote and in-person among the 19 students.
The recordings found life and engagement thanks to “great improvisational solos” by multiple students in the band, Darling said. The musicians rose to the occasion despite obstacles at almost every turn.
“We haven’t played as a full ensemble since last March—new LUJE students have not even met everyone in the band in person yet,” Darling said. “We can’t wait to start outdoor full ensemble rehearsals in mid-May.”
The mariachi sounds coming twice-weekly from a rehearsal space in Lawrence University’s Music-Drama Center have been a long time in the making. A dream, Jando Valdez ’24 calls it.
The impetus for that dream goes back to 2016, when Valdez, then a freshman at nearby Appleton North High School, started a mariachi band with a few Latinx classmates, celebrating and sharing a genre of music with deep roots in Mexico.
It picked up momentum a year later when Valdez’ group, Mariachi Jabalí, connected with the music education team at Mile of Music, beginning a relationship with Lawrence Conservatory of Music faculty, students, and alumni that would continue through three iterations of the popular Appleton music festival.
It accelerated in the fall when Valdez enrolled at Lawrence in pursuit of a Bachelor of Musical Arts (BMA) degree. He quickly found himself in conversations with Alex Medina ’21, Willy Quijano ’22, and Ricardo Jiménez ’21 on the possibility of launching a mariachi ensemble in the Conservatory.
The idea aligned with discussions that had already begun in the Conservatory, where Associate Professor of Music Matthew Arau, fresh off delivering a keynote address at the International Mariachi Summit in San Diego in August 2019, was all in on adding mariachi to Lawrence’s robust roster of student ensembles. He would help guide Valdez and the other students as they put together a plan and began recruiting other students.
It came to fruition early in Winter Term, when the new Lawrence University Mariachi Ensemble (LUMÉ) launched. Numbering upwards of 30 students during any given rehearsal—roughly half music majors, the others from across the college—the ensemble began playing together twice a week in the Music-Drama Center, with pandemic protocols in place.
“The first time LUMÉ was able to meet in person, it felt as if a piece of myself and my family’s heritage had been reignited,” Valdez said.
He said the ensemble aspires to do more than play mariachi music at a high level. The students also want to learn about the music, where it comes from and what it means to those native to it.
“The difference between LUMÉ and a traditional ensemble is that we want to dive deep into the roots of the music we play and focus heavily on history through research and knowledge from qualified mariachi educators,” Valdez said.
That is music to the ears of Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. He called the Mariachi Ensemble a great fit with the Conservatory as it allows students to explore their musical passions in an intellectual, creative, and meaningful way.
“It is such a great example of what I call empowered learning,” Pertl said. “Lawrence is so good at helping students make their musical dreams a reality.”
The ensemble also aligns well with ongoing Conservatory efforts to teach and explore music from around the world. That is no small thing. Look no further than Gamelan Cahaya Asri, Lawrence’s Balinese gamelan, an ensemble featuring gongs, drums, and bamboo flutes of Indonesia. Then there’s the Conservatory-led music education efforts that are part of Mile of Music, spearheaded by music education instructor Leila Ramagopal Pertl, much of it tied to exposing festival-goers to global music.
“The dream of LUMÉ was perfectly aligned with our commitment to broadening our ensemble offerings beyond our outstanding classical music and jazz offerings,” Brian Pertl said.
Arau, who chairs the Music Education Department and serves as associate director of bands in the Conservatory, said he was inspired while taking part in the International Mariachi Summit two years ago. He met mariachi music educators from across the United States and heard high school mariachi ensembles perform. It’s a musical genre that has rarely been taught or otherwise nurtured in major music conservatories.
Why not? Arau asked. And why not at Lawrence?
“I was blown away by the musicianship and performance presence of these groups, and I realized that it would be fantastic for students at Lawrence to get to learn how to perform this incredible music of Mexican heritage,” Arau said.
He began talking with Conservatory students about launching a mariachi ensemble, but when the pandemic hit a year ago and classes went remote in Spring Term, the idea was put on pause.
Then Valdez reached out to Arau over winter break with an offer to take the lead in making the ensemble happen, even during the pandemic. Arau began meeting with Valdez on Zoom, piecing together the particulars of getting it up and running. He connected Valdez with Fredd Sanchez, a mariachi music educator in San Diego who agreed to regularly Zoom in as a guest artist and teacher. (Sanchez even brought his professional mariachi group, Mariachi Continental de San Diego, onto a Zoom session to perform for the students.)
Rehearsals kicked off Jan. 25 and now take place on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Masks are worn. Musicians are spaced throughout the room. Some join via Zoom on giant screens.
“There is a lot of excitement about the new group because the music is so engaging and inspiring,” Arau said.
That enthusiasm for world music, mariachi in particular, is what drew Valdez to Lawrence when it came time to choose a school. He said he got a sense of community and support within the Conservatory while working with Lawrence’s Mile of Music team.
“The emphasis on mental health and connection to one’s spirit, the importance of effort, broadening your musical horizons, and, most importantly, the words of Leila Ramagopal Pertl, ‘Music is a birthright’,” Valdez said. “And there was a possibility of a mariachi ensemble being formed here at LU, so that became one of my goals if I was fortunate enough to be accepted.”
The new ensemble aims to explore a range of sounds within the mariachi genre. The musicians are incorporating standard mariachi instruments such as trumpets, violins, voice, guitar, and bass as well as some nontraditional instruments such as flute, tuba, euphonium, and double bass.
“This term we are focusing on the style of rancheras, which are songs typically about living in rural Mexico and have a waltz feel,” Valdez said. “In addition, we are learning tunes in the style of son jalisciense—a style that switches between 2-beat and 3-beat rhythms—and polka, which is influenced directly by German polka.”
For the moment, the pandemic is keeping LUMÉ from debuting in front of a live audience. Instead, the students have been working toward a debut livestream performance, set for 9 p.m. March 10.
Lawrence University voice professor John Holiday finished his wild ride on NBC’s The Voice Tuesday night, placing fifth in the 19th season of the popular TV singing competition.
Holiday, an associate professor in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music since 2017, showcased a voice that John Legend called “otherworldly” as he advanced through the blind auditions, the battle rounds, the knockouts, the live playoffs, and the live semifinals, where TV viewers cast votes to move him into the Final 5.
On Tuesday’s finale, he was joined on stage by Legend to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, his final performance during an inspired run.
“It’s been an incredible dream I could never have imagined,” Holiday said of his time on the show.
But the title for Holiday wasn’t to be. Carter Rubin, a 15-year-old coached by Gwen Stefani, was named the winner, based on viewer votes following Monday night’s live finals performances, earning a recording contract in the process.
Late Tuesday, Holiday tweeted: “America, I love you so much! I appreciate every prayer that helped me and my #TheVoice family soar. Congratulations, @carterjrubin! The world is ready for your fierce talents and beautiful spirit. #HoliBaes forever! I love you and I am excited to be on this ride with you.”
Holiday excelled in a competition that began in the spring with thousands of hopefuls and drew an average TV viewership of more than 7 million people during twice-weekly airings over the past two months. The show was conducted without its usual live audience and with social distancing protocols in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flashing a fun sartorial style to match a vocal talent that has made him a rising star in opera circles, the 35-year-old Holiday drew plenty of applause along the way, earning attention in the Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY, hearing effusive praise from the show’s celebrity coaches—Legend, Stefani, Kelly Clarkson, and Blake Shelton—and growing a fan base he calls his Holibaes.
Holiday’s voice students at Lawrence, who affectionately call him Prof, cheered him every step of the way, including through tonight’s finale.
“From day one, Prof has told us that one of the main reasons he pursues his career is to show us what’s possible,” said David Womack ’21, a senior voice student from Austin, Texas. “Watching him quickly become a household name is direct proof that we can do anything we set our minds to, as he frequently reminds us.”
“I love that you continue to show America more of yourself,” Legend told him. “You put your heart out there every single week. You have an out-of-this-world gift.”
Holiday jumped into the competition after the pandemic shut down his performance schedule in the spring. He continued to teach remotely while quietly taking part in the auditions and the early rounds of the show from Los Angeles. The recorded segments—launched with Holiday delivering a stunning performance of Misty that quickly drew Legend to his corner in the blind auditions—began airing in mid-October. Holiday was sworn to secrecy as he advanced through each round as part of Team Legend. He returned to L.A. as the live rounds and viewer voting began two weeks ago.
Sarah Navy ’22, a junior voice student from Holiday’s hometown region of Houston, Texas, said she and her Lawrence classmates already appreciated Holiday’s immense talents. Seeing other viewers discovering not only that talent but also his joyful heart was part of the fun.
“Even though I have spent so much time with him and have heard him sing so much, sometimes I go back to the first time I met him and I become that girl in tears who knew one day she could be great, too,” Navy said. “He is such a genuine person who works so hard and is being a representative for so many people.”
That genuineness shined through all levels of the show, whether Holiday was talking to Legend or host Carson Daly about his teaching at Lawrence, being Black and gay, singing opera, his incredibly high falsetto, growing up in his beloved Texas, his relationship with the grandmother he calls Big Momma, and the pain being felt by artists around the world in the midst of the pandemic.
“He is always so authentic to who he is, which is so inspiring to see,” said Jack Murphy ’21, a senior choral student from Neenah. “And just witnessing the outpouring of love for him. Not only for his talent, but what he stands for as well. It’s encouraging and wonderful. I am so immensely proud of him, and so is our entire studio.”
During his run on The Voice, Holiday became the student under the coaching guidance of Legend. In Monday’s episode, he thanked his mentor for instilling in him confidence that he could shed labels and transcend musical boundaries.
“The Voice has been a place that has helped me to stretch myself far beyond what I thought was possible for me,” Holiday said. “Having John as one of my biggest supporters, his belief in me means the world. … I spent so much of my life hiding, and I won’t ever hide again. He’s given me permission to fly.”
While NBC billed Holiday as a native of Rosenberg, Texas, his home the past three years has been in Appleton. He represented Lawrence well throughout the season, speaking not only to the power of music education but also to the need for musicians to live and perform authentically and with empathy, resiliency, and flexibility.
“We couldn’t be prouder of John Holiday and his incredible journey on The Voice,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “John is the perfect example of the flexible, versatile, virtuoso musician that the 21st century needs and Lawrence strives to produce. He is an opera star who can sing jazz and pop at the highest levels. He is a top-tier performer and a top-tier educator who values his students above all else. What an incredible role model for our students and musicians around the globe.”
With The Voice now finished, Holiday will prepare for Winter Term at Lawrence while getting at least a bit of his performance schedule back. Opera Philadelphia announced last week that Holiday will take the lead in Tyshawn Sorey’s Save the Boys in February, to be streamed on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
Hannah Jones ’22, a junior voice student from Houston, will be among the Conservatory students excited to welcome their professor home, even if it has to be via Zoom for a bit longer.
“Prof always tells us, ‘I want to show you that it is possible,’” Jones said. “Well, he was doing that well before The Voice, but this is another level. Words cannot describe my excitement for Prof’s success.”
John Holiday found a home three years ago with the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton. (Photo by Danny Damiani)
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
As contestants on NBC’s The Voice scrambled to pull together family and friends for virtual watch parties on the show’s opening night, John Holiday had other ideas.
The voice professor in Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music knew he was about to catch lightning in a bottle. He knew the coaches’ response to his performance of Misty was off the charts, and he knew there was a pretty good chance his world was about to explode. He also knew with whom he wanted to share that moment—his students.
So, as Holiday watched from his Appleton home as John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, and Gwen Stefani all turned their chairs and showered his performance with such overwhelming praise that he became the show’s immediate favorite, 10 of his students, connected by Zoom, hooted and hollered along with him and his husband, Paul, and their two house guests, Brian Pertl and Leila Ramagopal Pertl. They screamed when Legend called Holiday’s voice “otherworldly,” and again when a surprised Clarkson dropped the “I didn’t know you were a dude” line.
“One of the things I wanted to do in doing this show is to show my students what’s possible when you stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible,” said Holiday, an associate professor of music who has been on the Lawrence faculty since 2017. “There are people who dare to dream bigger than themselves; they never stop learning, never stop growing. I wanted to show my students what that looked like.”
In the more than two weeks since his audition aired, much has changed in Holiday’s universe, even though he, like most of us, remains mostly homebound in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He continues to teach during Lawrence’s Fall Term, but he’s doing so while juggling multiple media requests and a growing social media presence. His path as part of Team Legend, under the guidance of the iconic singer, is still very much a secret, but viewers will begin to see it unfold as the battle rounds begin in the coming days. The show airs Mondays and Tuesdays.
On campus, Holiday has become the frequent focus of conversation, a welcome respite amid the frustrations of a year dominated by COVID-19. In the Conservatory offices and halls, faculty and students have been leading the cheers. Alumni have been reaching out. Even other music schools have been calling with congratulations.
“There is a definite buzz around John’s performance,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “Everyone is so excited that the rest of the world is hearing this remarkable voice.”
Holiday, a countertenor with the ability to hit the highest notes, made it to the televised blind auditions in front of the coaches—Clarkson, Legend, Stefani, and Blake Shelton—after being selected from among thousands of hopefuls who went through the open-call audition process. He said he opted to enter the TV fray in part because his busy performance schedule, mostly on opera stages, came to an abrupt stop when the pandemic shut down performances around the world.
The reaction was immediate
Holiday’s phone blew up as soon as his audition aired on Oct. 19. A clip from the show featuring his performance quickly drew more than 500,000 views, and posts on various media sites piled on the praise and dubbed him the favorite to win it all.
Success isn’t necessarily new to Holiday. He has performed on some of the biggest stages in the world, and in 2017 received the Marian Anderson Vocal Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington National Opera, given to a rising star in the area of opera, oratorio, or recital repertory. He knows his way around applause. But this reaction was different.
“My social media has gone kind of bonkers,” Holiday said. “And that is absolutely something I was not expecting. I didn’t know people were going to receive it that way. In general, I’m a person who doesn’t read reviews. I think even if they’re great, sometimes it can get to a person’s head, and if the reviews are bad, they can make you feel bad. So, I tend to be a person who, generally, if I feel good about what I’ve done, I won’t read anything. I just kind of sit in the moment and reflect on what I felt was good and what I felt needed some work. But from the moment this came on, it was kind of hard to not see the things that were going on.”
Hannah Jones ’22, a voice student from Houston who came to Lawrence in large part because she wanted to work with Holiday, was on that Zoom call, watching with classmates through the two-hour episode in hopes of seeing the man they affectionately call Prof. For an hour and 50 minutes, there was nothing. Until they saw the boots.
“As soon as we heard and saw Prof’s heeled boots, every single square erupted,” Jones said.
The only shriek that was louder came from Holiday himself.
“The one thing that truly made this moment special is the fact that Prof shared this huge moment in his journey with us,” Jones said. “He could have easily shared this unforgettable moment with his close family and friends, but he chose us.”
Building to this moment
That journey Jones speaks of is one that’s been building for Holiday. What heights he reaches via The Voice, and what doors they open, have yet to be revealed. But the transition from rising opera star to a performer who lives in a more mainstream music world is one that’s very much deliberate. Holiday has frequently dabbled in jazz and gospel genres, and he said he’s long felt the urge to wade into more pop-focused opportunities. The pandemic shut-down and the arrival of a new season of The Voice provided the perfect storm.
“There are a lot of people who feel like opera is elitist,” Holiday said. “As an opera singer, I can understand that. But I also believe that it is not elitist. Opera is music that makes you feel things, the same way that Nicki Minaj might make people feel, the same way Smokey Robinson might make someone feel, the same way that Coldplay might make someone feel. Opera has that same ability. So, for me, the reason I also want to cross over is because I’ve always longed to be the bridge between opera and jazz and pop and gospel music.”
The 35-year-old Holiday grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, learning to play the piano and singing in his church choir, all with enthusiastic encouragement from his beloved grandmother, who he calls Big Momma. He would later join the Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas, giving him his first introduction to classical music.
He held tight to family as he grew up amid frequent bullying. His high voice, now embraced, was often the source of ridicule from others, he said. He was harassed for being gay long before he knew in his heart that he is gay.
“I’m lucky to have my grandmother, Big Momma, in my life,” Holiday said. “She has been my biggest cheerleader.”
She was among the first to tell him that his voice was a gift, not a curse.
He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from Southern Methodist University, a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and an artist diploma in opera studies from Juilliard School.
He has since performed in operas—in four languages—at some of the most iconic venues in the world, from the Glimmerglass Festival to Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center. He’s performed with the Los Angeles Opera, Dallas Opera, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Phoenix Symphony, among others.
About the time he was awarded the coveted Marian Anderson Vocal Award three years ago, the Washington Post called him “an impressive figure on an opera stage” and the New York Times hailed him as “an exceptional singer with a strong voice, even in its highest range.”
His left turn onto The Voice stage and into more mainstream circles isn’t out of character. He’s not running away from opera, he said. He’s simply drawing new fans to his journey.
“For me, I want to be able to change the narrative across the board and make opera more accessible,” he said. “Also make jazz more accessible because there are people who think jazz is far from opera, but it’s actually not. It’s very close to it.”
Holiday grew up singing gospel music and “hearing all the oldies and goodies.” Opera wasn’t something his family was initially drawn to. It wasn’t until he joined the boys’ choir that he gave much thought to classical music.
“It’s not something that was part of our fabric growing up,” he said.
Now, as he reaches his mid-30s and ponders new challenges, Holiday is looking toward those other musical influences. He understands that the ability to excel across the musical spectrum is a challenge with a high bar. He doesn’t want to shy away from it.
“I know that I am more than one-dimensional,” he said. “I feel like boxes are the death of art. … I want to go outside of the boxes in how people perceive the way I should sing. … For me, just singing opera, it would be inauthentic to who I am. I love opera in every fiber of my being. But I am also more than an opera singer. I am more than jazz. I am more than gospel. I am more than pop. Music is just a part of me. And I want to be able to give that in every single way that I can.”
Landing at Lawrence
When Lawrence’s Conservatory had an opening in its voice department in 2017, Holiday was immediately intrigued. He had worked a number of times with Lawrence alumni in his opera and symphonic performances. He knew the school’s strong reputation was legit. And he had gotten a taste of teaching while working with the Ithaca College School of Music.
A chance to teach at Lawrence while still juggling a busy performance schedule was the dream, Holiday said.
It didn’t take long, Pertl said, for that interest to be mutual.
“John’s material immediately stood out,” he said. “The video samples he submitted were stunning, so we were very excited about his application. When he came to campus, he sealed the deal. His live recital was so moving that most of us in the audience were in tears, and the wisdom, connection, and compassion he demonstrated in his teaching made him the perfect fit.”
Three years later, Holiday continues to mesh seamlessly within the talent-filled Conservatory. From the start, he was often on the road due to his performance schedule, but he quickly grew adept at doing voice lessons remotely, connecting with students from back stages or studio locations or hotel rooms. It’s a skill set that other faculty members tapped into in the spring when the pandemic sent students home for Spring Term and all classes and lessons went remote.
Holiday also serves as a de facto recruiter for the Conservatory while on the road, visiting high schools, particularly those that cater to the arts, whenever he can.
Jones, the third-year Lawrence student from Houston, said she first considered Lawrence after meeting Holiday her senior year when he visited her Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“He came to my school to do a masterclass with some of the students,” Jones said. “At the end of the masterclass, Prof sat down at the piano and sang a Negro spiritual, Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air. I went up to him after the masterclass ended to express how amazed I was, and then he started speaking life into me and dismantling the unspoken doubts I had in my mind at the time. I remember bawling in the restroom and making the decision to go wherever Prof was. Prof is the reason why I am at Lawrence.”
Holiday doesn’t take those words lightly. It’s building that connection with students, making them understand what’s possible, making them believe in themselves, that gives him his greatest joy, he said. Allowing them to now see him being coached while competing on The Voice is one more piece to that puzzle. The teacher has become the student.
“I am not a coach, I am a teacher,” Holiday said. “And a teacher is someone who is teaching the science of the vocal anatomy. … How to breathe, how to stand, what it means to have good posture, what it means to have good vocal health, and how to navigate the complexities of the vocal apparatus. It is the most amazing gift to be a teacher and to inspire others to be the best of themselves and discover who they are meant to be in the world.
“And what is really beautiful to me is now being able to be in a position to show my students what it looks like for me to be taught and coached on the biggest of levels.”
Jones said she and other students are well aware that they have to share Holiday with the world. That’s always been the case, his performance demands being what they are. It may be even more so now that The Voice is introducing him to a wider audience.
“There have been a few times where we have had to remind Prof to not spread himself too thin,” Jones said. “But Prof’s ability to teach never wavers. We were having Zoom lessons long before the pandemic. … He pushes us to be better versions of ourselves. ‘You are your own competition’ is one of Prof’s signature quotes, and it’s a quote that has changed my life.”
Embracing what’s ahead
Now comes the next step on The Voice, a show that in its 19th season still draws an audience of nearly 8 million viewers. The coaches have established their teams. The battle rounds are set to begin.
For obvious reasons, Holiday can’t reveal what’s ahead. But he can say the experience of working with Legend was spectacular, and the opportunity to get to know and work with the other contestants was a beautiful experience.
He was in Hollywood filming the show earlier this fall, connecting with his students for lessons but unable to reveal where he was or what he was doing.
“I haven’t missed a step,” Holiday said. “All of my students have gotten all of their lessons, and I’ve just enjoyed it. They didn’t know what was going on, and, of course, I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell anyone. My students are used to it. They’re used to me being on the road and teaching from the hotel or teaching from the studio where I’m at. I was teaching from the hotel room where I was staying in Los Angeles. That was an experience in itself, to be experiencing all these wonderful things and then also be teaching my students.”
Now, as the show progresses, he hopes his students will enjoy what they’re seeing—his commitment to the work and the music, even amid obstacles and challenges, his enduring love for Texas and his family, his attachment to Lawrence and his adopted home in Wisconsin, and his never-compromising eye for fashion. And he hopes other viewers looking on, 8 million strong, will share in the joy. After all, this is supposed to be fun.
“We’re living in such a time that can be devoid of hope and joy and peace, and I want to be able to give that with my music in every way,” Holiday said. “I don’t know if I succeed with that but I think that people who really connected with me can feel that. That’s my biggest hope and my biggest prayer.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
During long walks over the summer, Leila Ramagopal Pertl ’87 and Betsy Kowal would talk at length about ways they could collaborate to dynamically connect Pertl’s Lawrence University music education students with Appleton youngsters whose classes had gone virtual amid the pandemic.
Pertl, an instructor in music education in Lawrence’s Conservatory of Music, and Kowal, the Conservatory’s specialist in community outreach, saw a need as overwhelmed elementary school teachers and parents grappled with the demands of online instruction.
They also saw a learning opportunity for their Lawrence students.
The resulting project, a series of live virtual music workshops in collaboration with the Appleton Public Library, debuted on Oct. 24 and will continue with two more this fall and another three or so in Winter Term. Called the Backyard Groove, the free workshops tap into culture bearers in the areas of mariachi, samba, and gamelan music to introduce a wider range of music to students in kindergarten through sixth grade, all wrapped in interaction and participation.
Sign-up for the 10 a.m. Nov. 7 and 21 virtual workshops can be found here.
The students in Pertl’s elementary performing arts methods class prepare the 45-minute workshops, create “grab and go” music kits that participating families can get from the library, and then deliver the workshops live on Saturday mornings.
“This pandemic has given us an opportunity to think differently,” Pertl said. “What are the ways in which we can think about online engagement? Can we use our screens creatively, can we get to every child in a way that allows them to not only perform music but make their own music?”
The project also was approached from the desire to incorporate antiracism into the instruction. How can the workshops speak to global music traditions that are alive and well here in the Fox Valley? That led to partnerships with I Dewa Ketut Alit Adnyana and Sonja Downing, Lawrence instructors in Balinese gamelan, Clarice Cast, an accomplished samba drummer from Brazil, and Nestor Dominguez ’14 and Jando Valdez ’24, who have each created mariachi programs.
“In our Lawrence music education class, we ask the question, ‘What is the music of our community?’ Pertl said. “We can’t know this until we open our doors, extend our hands to our neighbors, and listen. Right here in Appleton we have culture bearers from many global music traditions. When our students are learning to create inclusive and culturally responsive classrooms, they are learning to take a close look at who is in their classroom, and in our larger community, before designing curriculum; a curriculum that engages every child and for which a teacher must renew their sense of being a beginner again—to engage with new music traditions and model joy, curiosity, and respect.”
See more on Lawrence’s music education program here.
The mariachi session kicked off the workshop series. It’ll be followed by the samba workshop on Nov. 7 and the gamelan workshop on Nov. 21, with additional workshops to be scheduled in early 2021. Pertl said she’s hopeful the sessions will draw upwards of 40 screens each, perhaps more as word spreads and interest grows.
For Alex DeBello ’23, part of the mariachi group, the process of creating and then delivering the workshop was both educational and inspiring, for both the Lawrence students and the Appleton youngsters.
“It allowed us to share the beauty and richness of mariachi in a way that was just as vibrant and fun as it was informative,” DeBello said. “Not all of our workshop participants, or even us students who were tasked with creating this workshop, had a mariachi background, so it was an immensely powerful thing to be able to awaken so many minds to this intricate musical tradition.”
Moreau Halliburton ’22, also a student in Pertl’s class, understands how important it is right now for families to find those connections when children may be feeling particularly isolated.
“Music connects us all, no matter how far apart we are,” she said. “I worked with groups of children over Zoom this past summer and they all expressed their sadness in not being able to play and have fun with their friends. Having creative online spaces for children right now, like these online music workshops, provides a safe space for children to come with their families, dance, sing, and meet new friends.”
The library was excited to join forces with Lawrence and reach out to area families looking for those opportunities, said Kowal, who is working with library staff to facilitate the workshops.
“The Backyard Groove is an opportunity to celebrate and uplift the many ways that folks in our community make music,” she said.
The workshops are giving the Lawrence music education students a chance to do what they love—making music and sharing their love of music with kids. DeBello said seeing “everyone’s smiling faces” on the day of the workshop was a huge boost during a difficult time.
“We’re still learning, singing, moving, and dancing despite all that this year has thrown at us,” she said.
In addition to the workshops, the Lawrence students are creating video resources that Appleton teachers—and those in other districts who show interest—can then use in their online teaching. The pandemic has forced music teachers to explore different ways to reach elementary school students, and turning loose the creative minds of Conservatory students to tackle that challenge has been exciting, Pertl said.
“It’s one way our students can engage in responsive classroom creation, foster professional relationships, and serve the community; all skills needed for impactful teaching” she said. “As usual, it’s a complete joy to hand the Lawrence pre-service teachers this project and see the many different ways they come up with its expression.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On a crisp, clear October afternoon, with fall foliage painting a backdrop of blended oranges, yellows, and purples, music can be heard drifting across the Lawrence University campus.
Patty Darling is leading the Jazz Ensemble’s horn players through an outdoor rehearsal on the lawn east of the Music-Drama Center. Nearby, on the steps outside Shattuck Hall, percussion student David Pickar ’23 is quietly strumming an upright bass, working through the particulars of a methods class. A block to the north, Loren Dempster and two of his chamber music students are going through chord progressions and other lessons under the open skies in City Park.
Inside the Music-Drama Center, meanwhile, in a space reconfigured for social distancing and with musicians masked up, you can hear Andrew Mast as he guides the Wind Ensemble through its repertoire, with in-person students and those on Zoom connected in real time.
Elsewhere in the center or in the adjoining Shattuck Hall or on the stage of Memorial Chapel, on any given day this fall, you might find jazz, choir, band, and orchestra ensembles in full rehearsal mode, cameras and large video screens providing a communal music experience for both in-person students and those participating remotely. You might find opera instruction in full flight. You might find a voice student in a studio space, connected virtually with professors John Holiday or Estelí Gomez for a one-on-one lesson. You might find a music education class in conversation virtually with a Brazilian samba drummer in California or a mariachi player in Chicago as they collaborate on lessons to be shared with Appleton Area School District students.
Alumnae, students collaborate on masks for musicians. Read more here.
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges during this unusual and often awkward time, but the music in the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, thanks to a full-on commitment to technology, innovation, and flexibility, is very much alive. Conservatory faculty have found creative ways to safely educate and motivate student musicians, on campus or scattered around the world.
“While creating music distantly is not the same as playing together in person, Lawrence has worked very hard to find ways for us to create music with one another,” said viola player Courtney Wilmington ’21, a neuroscience and music education double major who is studying remotely from her home in Vancouver, Washington.
It’s been an evolving process. Tapping into lessons learned when students were sent home for distance learning during Spring Term, the Conservatory set out over the summer to re-imagine its music offerings during a Fall Term that has roughly 25% of Lawrence students studying from afar. Particular focus was put on the ensembles, a huge part of the Conservatory’s music experience and one that is difficult to replicate when not everyone is in the same room.
“There was a real worry coming into this about what would happen with ensembles,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “If the student stays home, what sort of ensemble experience will they have? We said, ‘Why can’t we use our technology to bring our distance students into our actual rehearsals so they can participate and feel like they are a part of this experience instead of sitting alone in their room recording a cello track? And how can we create an actual community of music-making no matter where the students are?’”
More than anything, that sense of community was at the forefront of Fall Term planning, faculty members said. It’s key not only to maintaining the Conservatory’s high-level music education but also to supporting the well-being of students—music majors or otherwise—who live with a deep desire to make music together.
“While the way we are creating music is different and sometimes awkward right now, it still gives us the chance to share this experience, work toward common goals, and be together,” Darling said.
Charting a new course
Ensemble directors—among them, Matthew Arau, Mark Dupere, and Mast with orchestras and bands, Stephen Sieck and Phillip Swan with choirs, and Jose Encarnación and Darling with jazz—spent much of their summer focused on how they could make the ensemble experience both robust and safe, exploring everything from air filtration systems to proper masking to creative use of shared spaces.
Audio recording engineer Brent Hauer, video recording assistant Alvina Tan, and ITS staff helped set up ensemble spaces that feature one camera focused on the director and one that encompasses the full room. Virtual students can see and hear the in-person musicians and the director’s guidance while the in-person students and director can interact with students who are virtual on video screens.
The virtual students can play along, although they need to have their audio muted because Zoom technology can’t quite sync the sounds in real time. But the instruction and the unity of playing together remains. Eventually, the students who are virtual will record their parts to be added into final recording projects via the handiwork of Hauer and Tan.
“We were looking to come up with a really creative way to keep students engaged,” Arau said. “One thing that became really important was to find a way to have the unity and spirit of togetherness that happens in an ensemble, even though we’re apart. I kind of had this theme in my mind—‘Lawrence, Together!’ My biggest concern was there would be two independent streams. There would be the online students and the in-person students and they would feel so separate from each other, and possibly doing totally different things. So, it was important to find a way that the students who are online still feel connected to Lawrence and particularly to the ensembles.”
Mission accomplished, and not just in the ensemble rehearsals, Wilmington said.
“I think the most successful way we have that connection is through the breakout room feature on Zoom,” she said. “When there are only two or three other students in a breakout room, you are able to unmute and perform for each other, to get real-time feedback. This has been really helpful in my woodwinds technique class, where we can go into breakout rooms and play scales together or get feedback on our playing from peers.”
Every area of the Conservatory has made online engagement a focal point during the pandemic. Some of that involves the work with ensembles. But there’s also peer-to-peer collaborations, student-faculty interactions, and virtual recording projects. Other initiatives encompass community outreach, whether with Appleton secondary school students or with area nonprofits.
“The pandemic has been unusually hard on choirs—big gatherings of people who all share the same air,” Sieck said. “But we’re doing some innovative things.”
He pointed to mixing modalities so that eight or nine singers are live while the rest join online, then using software to combine individual recordings into a full choir. He has students exchanging performance videos with music students across the Appleton Area School District. Cantala, a women’s choir, is working virtually on a 19th Amendment project with other women’s choirs, and another choir, the Hybrid Ensemble, is creating an American songbook album for hospice patients and retirement homes in the Fox Valley.
“This is not the way we would have imagined a celebrated conservatory choral program working a year ago, but our students are making it work,” Sieck said. “Lawrence students need to sing. They need a place to let their voice soar or dissolve into an impossibly quiet chord. They need the connection, vulnerability, challenge, and electricity of music-making. And not just the approximately 100 students who study voice as part of their major in the Conservatory, but also biologists, computer scientists, and historians. Choir becomes a home away from home for so many Lawrentians.
“No, we can’t sing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with 200 singers and 100 instrumentalists sharing the stage right now, but we can always sing.”
Cantala’s focus on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment mixes music collaborations with contextual lessons, Swan said.
“We’re having lively discussions about what it means to have the right to vote, the importance of equity, and the opportunity and responsibility of voting,” he said. “We’re watching the Ken Burns documentary, The Vote, providing us with a better contextual understanding of voting rights and privileges for women. Our repertoire focuses on the theme, ‘We Rise by Lifting Others.’ Texts include writings by Susan B. Anthony, words of empowerment by a Chicago-based female ensemble, poetry by Georgia Douglas, and an encouraging closer, Still I Rise, by African-American composer and conductor Rosephanye Powell.”
Cantala is partnering with Appleton East High School Chamber Singers and Belmont University Women’s Choir on the project.
The Jazz Band, meanwhile, is working remotely on a set of recordings, and the Jazz Ensemble is meeting with groups of four to five students at a time—the horns group rehearsing outside whenever possible—with plans for joint recordings by the end of the term.
“Playing music together, however we do it, is helping us stay connected during these incredibly difficult times,” Darling said. “That is of utmost importance.”
Outreach close to home
Music for All, an ongoing Conservatory initiative that brings live music into the community, is continuing virtually during the pandemic. It’s part of wider efforts to keep music outreach, a key piece of the mission of the Conservatory, active during the pandemic, even if it has to be via technology. That’s something that Wilmington said she and other students are excited about.
“We will be able to submit video recordings for performances all around the Appleton community, such as at Riverview Gardens and Harbor House,” she said. “We will attend the events live through Zoom to introduce our recordings. … It allows for the feeling of community and sharing to be maintained despite the distance.”
Swan, meanwhile, said his Hybrid Ensemble, which explores a variety of styles and genres, is doing outreach with area retirement communities as it works to create a special collection of music.
“We will be rehearsing repertoire during the next two terms, based on our research outcomes,” he said. “Our plan is to interview residents, develop relationships, and compile a recording at the end of Winter Term that reflects a diverse selection of repertoire, suggested by these elderly partners. We’re hoping this final recording will provide entertainment, joy, and encouragement to our elderly population.”
Virtual concerts also are in play this term. And energies that otherwise would have gone into the Conservatory’s annual spring Presto! music tour are now being directed toward music outreach closer to home, Pertl said.
Through it all—the virtual concerts, the ensemble collaborations, the creative use of music spaces, the community projects—the thread of innovation and adaptation blends with the need for engagement and growth. Different, yes. But the music and the mission live on despite the difficulties of the pandemic.
“I’m excited that we’re actually looking at technology and its possibilities and not just focusing on what we can’t do,” Pertl said. “Instead, we’re saying, ‘What can we do?’ I think that’s a very Lawrencey thing. We’re trying to teach our students to be creative and innovative and be problem-solvers. It’s OK, we know this pandemic is here. What are we going to do to not only make the best of it but maybe do something no one else has ever done before?”
Lawrence University music students will soon be getting specially made face masks suitable for their music-making needs.
The music, after all, must go on even though life in the Conservatory of Music has been altered in almost every conceivable way in this pandemic. Every student, whether playing a brass or woodwind instrument, will have an appropriately designed mask so they can safely partake in ensemble practices or performances.
That’s the short story.
The deeper story is about alumni connections and Lawrence ingenuity, all leading to students in the Theatre Department’s costume shop, fresh off a master class from the alumna who designed the masks, creating more than 100 of the face coverings for their fellow Lawrentians. Masks and music-making are not easy partners.
“The Conservatory has been wrestling with how to get their large ensembles together this term,” said Karin Simonson Kopischke ’80, instructor of theatre arts and costume shop supervisor. “Just trying to figure out a safe way to do it.”
Enter Katy Hopkins ’85, who operates Yahara River Woodwinds, an instrument-repair shop in Stoughton, Wisconsin. With much of her business curtailed because of the pandemic—out-of-work musicians are less likely to need instruments repaired—she began making and selling face masks, including three specialty models she designed and developed for musicians, one for playing brass instruments, one for playing the flute, and one for playing other woodwinds.
“It took a long time for me to design these masks because there’s just a different set of issues,” Hopkins said. “If you’re playing a reed instrument, you have to have a mask that’s not going to interfere with your mouth, and you don’t want the reed to break. You have to be very careful about the kind of material you use. For flutes, when they blow across the instrument, a lot of their air goes out into the room. You have to figure out how to contain that air.
“You also need to find the right material that will still stay on your face when pulling a mouthpiece in and out,” she said. “It still has to contain your air when you’re not playing. The material has to be lightweight enough that the poor musician doesn’t die from heat exhaustion. Most wind players, they get pretty warm when they play anyway. To have something over your face and mouth can exacerbate that feeling of being flushed. There are just a lot of things to consider when you’re designing these.”
Students pitch in to make cloth masks for campus. Read more here.
When Hopkins, an oboe player who majored in music performance at Lawrence, landed on workable designs this summer, she shared them on Etsy. The response was immediate. She has been flooded with orders from around the country, to the point where she’s had to turn down sales because she can’t keep up.
Among those who came calling was her alma mater. After flute professor Erin Lesser gave one of the Yahara masks a thumbs up, Dean of Conservatory Brian Pertl, a Lawrence classmate of Hopkins in the early ’80s, reached out for a large order, perhaps 100 or more.
“At that point I was already overwhelmed by orders,” Hopkins said. “I said I’d love to help out, but I can’t keep up.”
Pertl then floated the idea of Hopkins teaching her design to the costume shop students, under the direction of Simonson Kopischke. Funds were allocated for a contingent sale of the design and for a master class that involved Hopkins coming to campus to teach the particulars of her design.
It’s a win-win, Simonson Kopischke said. The musicians get their masks and the students in the costume shop, who had been looking for a project to take the place of theatre costume work that has been partially sidelined by the pandemic, get a chance to put their creative skills to work.
“It’s a chance to use their hands and use their creativity and release the stress,” Simonson Kopischke said. “And it’s a work-study program, so a lot of them depend on the money they make.”
Hopkins delivered the master class to seven students in the costume shop on the lower level of the Music-Drama Center, reconfigured with sewing machines now spaced eight feet apart.
The masks will be black, suitable for concerts. The Conservatory purchased the black fabric, but other material, from the thread to the elastic, was already on hand.
“We’re set up pretty much like a professional costume shop,” Simonson Kopischke said.
For Hopkins, the mask work is a satisfying detour for an instrument repair business that just launched a year ago.
“I was a lifelong sewer and I started just making regular masks for friends and family,” she said of the early days of the pandemic. “And they all said, ‘Hey, these are really nice, you should sell them.’ I needed extra income and I needed something to do and I’m a very creative person, so I started making masks and selling them on Etsy.
“In mid- to late summer, I started getting requests from my music educator colleagues and friends saying, ‘Have you thought about developing masks for musicians? We all have to go back to school and our administrators are requiring us to have something that’s going to work and protect us and our musicians.”
She went into her lab and started tinkering with designs, finally settling on three that are distinct and functional.
Hopkins is hopeful this is but a brief rerouting of her business.
“I hope for all of us that COVID is short-lived and we can go back to normal,” she said. “I expect this is a short-term business venture. But I’ve enjoyed the creative process, and I’m very excited about working with Lawrence students again.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com