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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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: email@example.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence University students are preparing to begin a new academic year – some on campus, some remotely – in a world that looks decidedly different than it did one year ago.
The excitement and promise that marks the arrival of Fall Term remains intact, but it comes with the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to adjust behaviors to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, including the required signing of the Lawrence Campus Community Pledge by every student, faculty, and staff member who will set foot on campus.
A little more than 850 students, or roughly 62% of the student body, are expected to be living on campus for the Fall Term, with another 118 living off campus but in the Fox Valley. The remaining students, roughly 25%, will be accessing classes remotely from other locations around the world.
See details on Lawrence University’s plan for Fall 2020 here.
The traditional Welcome Week for first-year students begins Sept. 8 with a mix of in-person and virtual activities designed to assist in the transition to Lawrence. Returning students will follow, with classes beginning Sept. 14.
Nearly 80% of the more than 410 new first-year and transfer students are expected to be on campus for Fall Term.
The vibrancy and interactive nature of classes, long a hallmark of Lawrence, will be a priority no matter how those classes are delivered. And efforts by Student Life will focus on helping students find ways to interact outside of classes in a safe manner. Throughout the summer, Lawrence leadership, faculty, and staff have been exploring options and making changes in physical spaces and protocols in an effort to tackle the daunting challenge of launching an academic year in the midst of a global pandemic.
Living by the Pledge
All Lawrentians who will be on campus will be called upon to “Honor the Pledge” in order to keep safe those with whom they are sharing spaces. Among the Pledge requirements: wear a mask in indoor public spaces and when gathering in groups outdoors; maintain 6 feet of physical distance; get a flu shot; participate in testing and contact tracing; and follow the same safety-minded behaviors while off campus.
“We are personally and communally responsible to keep ourselves, and each other, healthy: to physically distance, to wear masks, to monitor our health, and to regularly clean personal campus spaces,” President Mark Burstein said in a message to the campus community in late August. “All of us living, learning, and working on campus this fall need to understand and to honor the responsibilities outlined by the Pledge.”
The University’s pandemic health plan speaks to how different campus life will be during Fall Term. Bellin Health has been contracted as a health care partner. Students will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival on campus. Faculty and staff are being tested as well. Bellin will continue to test regularly throughout the term, and Wellness Services will coordinate contact tracing with the Appleton Health Department. Kohler Hall, meanwhile, has been set aside for use as quarantine and isolation space as needed.
None of it is ideal. The challenge for students, faculty, and staff is to work together to find ways to make experiences in and out of the classroom – in person or online — as fulfilling as possible while adhering to the new safety protocols.
Sterling Clarke Elvin Ambrosius ’22 chairs the Lawrence University Community Council’s Student Welfare Committee and will be among the students leading that charge, reminding fellow students early and often of the importance of staying committed to this new reality.
“We have the ability to make or break this term on campus,” Ambrosius said. “It is really important that we show that we care about our fellow Lawrentians by doing everything we can to maintain best practices for public health.”
With the help of Student Life and other campus resources, students will need to tap into creativity and resourcefulness as they navigate a different kind of college experience. That will begin with the arrival of Welcome Week on Tuesday and continue through the end of Fall Term on Nov. 24 and most likely into Winter Term.
“Even during such uncertainty, I remain hopeful that we will come together as Lawrentians, both virtually and in person, to make the most of this new academic year,” Vice President for Student Life Christopher Card said in a message to students.
The classroom experience
The majority of classes during Fall Term are being delivered virtually, and Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine G. Kodat said faculty have worked hard over the last three months to improve upon online instruction. The lessons learned during Spring Term, when remote classes were pulled together quickly, will pay off with a more deliberate and confident classroom experience, with the focus staying true to the faculty-student interactions that Lawrence prides itself on.
“In making their decisions about how best to teach their courses, faculty have carefully considered how campus requirements for masking and social distancing will affect in-person instruction,” Kodat said in a message to students. “In addition, they have participated in workshops enabling multiple refinements and improvements in distance instruction.”
Physical changes, some more noticeable than others, will greet students returning to campus. A number of classrooms have been altered to allow for physical distancing during class, and some have been outfitted with new technology to better accommodate distance instruction.
Nine classrooms – four in Main Hall, three in Briggs Hall, and two in Youngchild Hall – are being equipped with ceiling microphones and web cams to make them Zoom-ready. It will allow students who are remote to participate in the class in real time.
In all, 27 spaces have been adapted for in-person instruction, including 12 classrooms, one computer lab, five art studios, three science labs, four performing arts spaces, and two rooms in Warch Campus Center that have been repurposed into a classroom.
Large classrooms that previously accommodated as many as 48 students will now be limited to 16 students, with desks or tables spaced across the room. Walkways will be marked to route traffic in and out of those classrooms with physical distancing in mind.
In the Conservatory, meanwhile, significant changes have been made in how music and performance spaces will be used.
For practice rooms that previously were available on a first come, first served basis, a new assignment protocol has been established. Five to six students will be assigned to each practice room, meaning only that select grouping will have access.
Studio spaces, meanwhile, have been outfitted with new technology, allowing one-on-one lessons to be conducted remotely. The on-campus student will be in the studio while the professor will connect via Zoom from a remote location. This isn’t new to the Conservatory. Two music professors who have significant touring commitments were already doing this while on the road; now it’s being expanded to the other studio spaces in the Conservatory. The investment in new tech will remove any connectivity issues.
When ensemble or other music sessions need to be held in person, they will move to bigger spaces in Lawrence Chapel or the Music-Drama Center, spaces that are being adapted with new technology and will be more readily available because musicology and music theory classes will be remote and thus not using those spaces. The larger spaces will allow for needed physical distancing.
“We are trying to do everything we can to make this as easy and convenient and safe as possible,” Dean of Conservatory Brian Pertl said.
Existing study spaces on the first and second floors of the Mudd Library have been “de-densified” to accommodate distancing. The library’s third and fourth floors will remain closed.
Access to the library’s second floor, home to the newly constructed Center for Academic Success, will be available per designated stairwells to allow for needed distancing. The main stairwell will be for going up only, while the north and south stairwells will be for going down. Library materials will be available through a digital check-out process.
In the Warch Campus Center, stairways also will be designated for one-way traffic. Andrew Commons will function without in-house dining, with all meals served on a to-go basis. Most of the food stations will still be available, but self-serve stations will be closed. There will be no salad bar, for example, with salads instead being available pre-packaged.
In the Buchanan-Kiewit Wellness Center, faculty, students, and staff will continue to have access to recreation and fitness equipment, but they will need to schedule their visits, said Erin Buenzli, director of wellness and recreation. The number of people in the center at any given time will be limited.
Some of the spaces in the Wellness Center have been adjusted as well, including cardio equipment being placed in the gymnasium to better allow for those using it to be spread out.
In the residence halls, shared kitchen space, including refrigerators and cabinets, will be off limits. And access to the residence halls will be limited to on-campus students and staff only.
Across campus, plexiglass barriers have been installed in Brokaw Central, Mudd Library, Chapman Hall, the Music-Drama Center, the Wellness Center, and Warch Campus Center, among other high-traffic areas. All campus buildings with a central ventilation system are being outfitted with new filters that exponentially increase air filtration and disrupt the passage of the virus through the ventilation system. And all systems where feasible are being recalibrated to increase outside air flow.
The protocols and physical changes, as well as the expectations laid out in the Pledge, are designed to keep those on campus as safe as possible while delivering a robust academic experience. Adjustments will be made as needed. The Lawrence Pandemic Planning Team has a contingency plan in place – known as the “Stoplight Guide” – to determine next steps should a virus outbreak occur. The Fall Term is set to begin under a “green light.” It will move to “yellow light” if enhanced precautions are needed, halting in-person activities for two to five days; and will move to “red light” if the campus needs to be shut down, with in-person classes and activities shuttered for 14 days or longer.
The arrival of Fall Term is an unprecedented challenge for Lawrentians, as it is for institutions of higher learning around the world. We’re about to welcome the Class of 2024. It is go time.
“Even amid the challenges and grief this year has brought, the beginning of a new school year is a moment that I cherish,” Burstein said. “I am looking forward to the academic year, seeing new and familiar faces virtually and on campus.”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
The Central Park Five, an opera that featured Derrell Acon ’10 in a leading role when it debuted last summer in southern California, has won a Pulitzer Prize for music.
The Pulitzer announcement came Monday, with the Pulitzer jury calling Anthony Davis’ jazz-infused opera a “courageous operatic work.”
The production was presented by Long Beach Opera, with Lawrence University alumnus Acon playing one of five black or Latino men wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape and beating of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. The real-life case drew national attention then and again 13 years later when DNA evidence exonerated the men, bringing renewed cries of injustice and a lawsuit that would eventually cost New York City $41 million.
The Pulitzer for Davis is a crowning honor for a production that Acon says was both fulfilling and emotional.
“Portraying the character of Antron McCray was the most moving experience of my operatic career,” Acon said Tuesday. “My colleagues and I all felt a sense of honor and duty to share this deeply tragic story, which is unfortunately all too familiar for many black folks in American society.”
“I wasn’t really anticipating any particular response,” he said after getting an enthusiastic welcome on opening night. “I was more aware of my own responses, understanding that it would be a very emotional process for me. As a young black man in America, you know, a lot of these topics are very close to my own experience, and these struggles are very mirrored in my own life.
“I think a lot about the rehearsal
process, tending to all of these emotions, letting them out, having a lot of
beautiful discussions with my colleagues, especially the five of us in the lead
Acon graduated summa cum laude from Lawrence in 2010 as a double major in voice performance and government. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in 19th-century opera history and performance from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
Acon, who serves on the Lawrence
Board of Trustees as a Recent Graduate Trustee — a position established for
alumni within two to 10 years of their graduation — earned multiple regional
and national honors as a student and already has more than two dozen operatic
roles on his resume.
In 2018, he relocated to southern California and began working with Long Beach Opera, landing the role in The Central Park Five. He also facilitated public conversations about the Central Park Five case and other issues of injustice and now serves as the opera house’s director of engagement and equity.
Last summer’s opera was led by Davis, who had attempted to stage an earlier version in New Jersey with little success. This time, the reworked production drew national attention.
In announcing the Pulitzer, the jury said Davis’ opera, with libretto by Richard Wesley, is “marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”
Acon is the second Lawrentian involved in a Pulitzer-winning opera in the last decade. Eric Simonson ’82 directed the original production of Silent Night, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence University’s jazz program has earned a prestigious DownBeat award for the third consecutive year, this time in the Latin Group category.
The LU Jazz Band, performing as a Latin Jazz/Afro-Cuban ensemble, earned a Latin Group award in DownBeat’s 43rd annual Student Music Awards, announced April 28.
DownBeat’s student awards, released each spring, are among the highest honors in jazz education. The 2020 honors will appear in the June edition of DownBeat magazine.
The Latin Jazz/Afro-Cuban endeavor started out as a bit of an exploration last year for the LU Jazz Band. A number of Conservatory of Music students expressed interest in expanding their knowledge and skills in Afro-Cuban music. Jose Encarnacion, an assistant professor of music and director of Jazz Studies, and two students from the percussion studio, Alex Quade and Nolan Ehlers, just so happened to be in the process of learning to play Bata music, sacred African music of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Africa.
“Nolan had been in Cuba studying abroad, learning about Afro-Cuban rhythms and traditions,” Encarnacion said. “I found these conditions to be perfect timing for converting Jazz Band into a Latin Jazz/Afro-Cuban ensemble. In collaboration with Nolan, we put a concert together. Nolan, as co-director, would teach some of the traditional rhythms and songs as I worked with the style and feel of the music.”
For more on the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, see here.
It was the performance from that concert, Afro-Cuban Roots and Traditions, which included Afro-Cuban rhythms such as Rumba, Guiro, Bata and Salsa, that garnered the Jazz Band the DownBeat Award.
“These students really embraced diversity, opening themselves to new
cultural and musical concepts,” Encarnacion said.
In the previous two years, the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble took home
the prize in the large ensemble category.
DownBeat’s SMAs are presented in five separate divisions: junior high, high school, high school honor ensemble, undergraduate college, and graduate college. Lawrence has fared well in those undergraduate awards over the past four decades. Students and ensembles in the Lawrence Conservatory have won 29 awards in various categories, including large ensemble, small group, jazz composing, jazz arranging, solo performance, and jazz vocal group. They now can add Latin Group to the list.
Seeing the Conservatory take home a top prize for the third year in a row is
a huge honor, Encarnacion said. It’s not something the jazz faculty or students
take for granted.
“Every year the students push themselves to rise to new heights,”
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
The ranking is music to the ears of Conservatory Dean Brian Pertl as he and his team launch into a Spring Term like none before. As are professors in departments across campus, the Conservatory faculty have taken up the challenge of keeping the community aspect of the Lawrence experience intact while shifting to distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more on the Lawrence Conservatory of Music, see here.
Lawrence professor launches national fundraiser for artists shut down by COVID-19. See details here.
Tears were shed when word first came down that Lawrence, like other colleges
and universities across the country, would be quickly transitioning to virtual
instruction during the spring, Pertl said. But the conversation among faculty shifted
almost immediately to ways in which the learning experience could still be
marked with close faculty-student interactions, community building, and
opportunities to tap into skills that will be in demand in the music world
What’s happened over the past four weeks – Spring Term began Monday following Winter Term finals and a two-week spring break – has been nothing short of amazing, Pertl said.
In the horns studio, Assistant Professor of Music Ann Ellsworth has taken her practice of group warm-ups each morning in Music-Drama Center 163 and transformed it into a daily Zoom session with her horn students. And she’s invited prominent horn makers and horn players from around the globe to interact with her students via Zoom masterclasses.
“So, horn makers from the U.S. and horn players from
places like the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and at least one from Germany will
be Zooming in to speak to her horn students,” Pertl said. “It’s sort of taking
advantage of this opportunity that a lot of these great musicians in the world
are stuck at home, too. They are actually eager to interact with students.”
Trombone professor Tim Albright is working on a virtual trombone ensemble project, recording Charles Ives’ Variations on America, arranged by Lawrence alumus Dominic Ellis ’17. Trombone students will be recording their parts remotely, and the music will be stitched together on campus, thus keeping the trombone ensemble alive, just in a different setting.
Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Arau, who is teaching a rehearsal techniques class for music education, is partnering with middle and high school music programs in Malaysia, led by Lawrence alumnus Dan Miles ’10, and Hong Kong. Lawrence students will direct those music students from afar.
A number of student music groups, most notably in the
jazz and improvisation area, will be exploring live improvisation in virtual
spaces, performing together even though they are spread across the country or
around the world.
Students preparing for junior or senior recitals are re-imagining what those recitals might look like. While some remain on campus and will stream recitals from Harper Hall, others are prepping for remote recitals that incorporate elements and skills that might not otherwise have been considered, including turning a recital into an animation-infused music video.
“All of sudden our students, instead of throwing up
their hands and being dejected or saying, ‘I can’t,’ they’ve taken up the
challenge, and they’re saying, ‘I can, and not only can I, I am going to do
something that is going to push my boundaries,’” Pertl said. “They’re redefining
what a recital can be.”
Staying flexible and staying connected are front and
center as faculty and students venture into these uncharted waters.
“It’s beautiful, creative flexibility,” Pertl said.
“We’re working with our students all the time to say, ‘This is what you’re
going to need out there in the world, and this is what’s going to be exciting
about being a musician in the world today.’ And they are going to be taking all
of these forward-thinking practices, and they’re just going to be doing them,
which is a sort of neat and beautiful thing.
“Is it ideal? No, it’s not ideal. Nobody wanted this to happen. But can we make the very, very best of this and come away with skills and knowledge that we wouldn’t have otherwise had to acquire, but skills and knowledge that will be beneficial for our students once they leave here?”
Ellsworth said her daily warm-up sessions with horn students
might seem like a small thing, but it’s that sort of personal connection that
students most feared would be lost.
“I ask everyone to mute themselves and then choose one student for each exercise to unmute so we can all hear that one person,” Ellsworth said of the sessions. “I play a short exercise from our routine and they all repeat it after me. The purpose of the group warm-up for horn is that half of the benefit is getting the mouthpiece off the face in-between exercises; it slows us down, prevents injury while we’re still cold, and sets us up for the rest of the day.
“But it turns out the real purpose for distance group warm-up is the time after our 45 minutes of playing, when I leave the room but leave the meeting running. I tell them they can hang out or not and that I’ll be back in 20 minutes, and I’ll come back and they are still there, hanging out, talking about student stuff. We had a prospective student join one meeting and I left them there to get acquainted because they can’t come to visit the campus. It’s super productive.”
There are dozens of other examples of collaboration and
creativity taking place across the Conservatory as Spring Term gets rolling,
Pertl said, all of which speaks to the ideals that landed Lawrence on the
“hidden gems” ranking in the first place.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public
information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org