5/27/2009 Libby Sternberg

Perfect Pitch

F&M's Music Department successfully integrates academics and performance.

On a frigid January evening, a warm glow from the Ann and Richard Barshinger Center for Musical Arts beckoned visitors in from the icy twilight. About 400 students, faculty and community members eagerly anticipated the Franklin & Marshall Philharmonia orchestra’s taking on two familiar greats—Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Ravel arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition—?in addition to pieces by contemporary composers.

The performance was joyous yet polished, and, judging by audience attendance and response, overwhelmingly appreciated. It was a performance even a university music department stuffed to the rafters with music majors would ?be proud to call its own.

While Franklin & Marshall’s Music Department is stuffed with music lovers, only about a dozen students are music majors. In fact, of the 70 or so people on the Barshinger stage for this concert, only a few were music majors. Of the remaining students, not all were even music minors.

The Philharmonia’s ability to attract talented and committed non-music majors is emblematic of the Music Department’s success at doing the same.

“We see around 500 students who participate in some way in the Music Department,” says Brian Norcross, instrumental conductor. “Last year a competition winner went off to medical school and the concert master went to pharmacy school. Non-music majors come from across the spectrum. Most of the recommendations I write for seniors are for medical school.”

This is by design. Norcross and his colleagues in the department have made it a priority to ensure music offerings are open to all students.

Because the music major at F&M is primarily an academic pursuit, there is no special audition process for the aspiring music major. Nor are there extra fees for non-major students who wish to study privately for credit.

Music majors and non-music majors are treated equally when it comes to participation in the many performance opportunities, which include the College Chorus, Chamber Singers, small and large orchestras, Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble and Chamber Music Society. Courses include music history, theory, jazz, composition ?and music criticism.

The Liberating Effect of Music

Music is supposed to have a liberating effect all its own, transporting performers and listeners alike to “eine bessre Welt”—a better world, as the lines from Schubert’s famous paean to his art, An die Musik, explain. So why study music within the liberal arts setting at all?

“A conservatory is singularly focused, usually on performance,” says Doris Hall-Gulati, adjunct assistant professor ?of music. “But the liberal arts school with a great music ?program can still provide a good grounding in music, ?and students can continue to further their musical studies ?from this setting.”

Hall-Gulati, who received her undergraduate education ?from a conservatory, has taught clarinet at F&M for ?18 years. She, like all the private instructors, still has ?an active performing career, and, like other faculty ?members, plays with the F&M ensembles.

This liberal arts approach to music changed the life and ?career path of Jeffrey Nytch, D.M.A., ’87. He arrived on campus intent on becoming an economist.

“The banking system, the economy and public policy always fascinated me,” he says. “I showed up as a freshman thinking I had my life all planned out. But I think the mark of a good education is that those assumptions get shaken up and you discover new things.”

Some of those new things were geology and music courses, which quickly overwhelmed his love of economics. Nytch ?was not new to music. He had been involved in it his whole life, as a singer in his church choir, as a pianist, even dabbling ?in composition in high school. But a music history course ?at F&M started “answering all the questions I didn’t realize ?I’d had about music.”

As one of the first music majors, he felt he had the department all to himself. “I was surrounded by these amazing people,” he says of his professors, “and if there was something that wasn’t offered and I wanted to study it, we found a way.”

That way eventually led him to graduate school, where he earned both master’s and doctoral degrees at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the National Repertory Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Binghamton Philharmonic and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra have performed his compositions. The recipient of numerous grants, awards and commissions, including the College’s Alumni Citation, Nytch has had his music recorded and ?has performed as a countertenor soloist.

This past year he has been a visiting assistant professor ?at F&M, filling in for John Carbon, professor of music, who is on sabbatical. When Nytch was a student, a professor told him that if he wanted to study composition, he should read as much poetry and literature and study as much philosophy and art as he could. That would be as important or even more important than being a great composer “out ?of the box.” Nytch wholeheartedly embraces that outlook.

“I’m a big believer in not forcing musicians to develop ?too early,” he says. “I think music is something that requires time to blossom and develop. It takes time to develop ?an artistic voice.”

The question of any musician—can I make a living at this?— appears to have been answered happily for Nytch. This fall ?he will join the faculty of the University of Colorado as ?director of its Entrepreneurship Center for Music.

“The ultimate goal of music entrepreneurship,” he says, “is more than just to find ways for music students to launch sustainable careers. The ultimate goal is to help build artist-citizens. I’m really thrilled about this job because it not only draws together my various professional endeavors over ?the years but is also rooted in my liberal arts background ?and my belief in public service, both of which were formed here at F&M.”

Nytch’s attitude is shared by fellow alum Tara Villa Chamra, D.M.A., ’00, who earned her bachelor’s in music and theater, then went on to graduate school, earning a master’s and doctorate in conducting. She is now an assistant professor ?of music at Davidson College, where she also serves as director of its symphony orchestra.

“Music is not an isolated study,” Chamra says. “It involves not only working with other musicians but teaching and communicating with audiences. Today’s audience comes ?from such a wide variety of backgrounds that it is important ?to have diversity of study in order to better communicate ?the ideas, emotions and meanings present in music.”

Chamra herself has been successful at communicating ?with audiences of all kinds. She won the first Varna International Orchestral Conducting Competition two ?years ago and was invited back to conduct the Vidin ?(Bulgaria) State Philharmonic. She served as the assistant conductor of the Penn State Philharmonic Orchestra ?and the Penn State Chamber Orchestra.

Learning by Doing

The musicians who made their way through Gershwin’s masterpiece at the January concert probably learned ?as much about the composer’s Tin Pan Alley roots than ?if they had read about the stylistic context or done ?a chord-by-chord analysis of his major works.

The latter are important academic pursuits, to be sure, but the performance of the actual music amplifies musical understanding exponentially. That balance of academics ?and performance is a key component of music at Franklin ?& Marshall.

Ironically, this learning-by-doing approach presented a challenge for those who first shaped F&M’s Music Department.“The argument was and always is that in an academic environment, you are studying about something, ?not doing it,” explains Bruce Gustafson, chair of the ?Music Department and Charles A. Dana Professor ?of Music. “Therefore you should be teaching people ?about music, how to understand it, how to enjoy it.”

Gustafson and others were insistent that music could only ?truly be understood through performance. He fought to ensure that performance was part of the academic offerings and counts among the department’s “big moments” the success of integrating performance into this academic major.

“Our objective is not the same as a conservatory,” he points out, “but you learn music by doing it. This approach took some convincing of those not in music.”

Gustafson, who arrived at F&M in 1981, is an example of the performer-scholar. He teaches music history as well as harpsichord and has earned an international reputation for his books and writings in journals and encyclopedias on French harpsichord music. He also appears frequently as a recitalist.

“I’m basically a musicologist who refuses to stop playing,” ?he jokes. This combination, though, explains his commitment to the performance component of the academic music major.

Elisabeth Thompson ’09, a music and anthropology ?major who studies voice at F&M with Artist-in-Residence ?Gwynne Geyer, thinks the performance opportunities make ?“a world of difference” in her understanding of the art.

“The department is really good at making sure you have the opportunity to get on the Barshinger stage to present what you’re working on,” she says. “In the voice studio, we have weekly master classes where you work with an accompanist ?in front of other students while Ms. Geyer critiques you.”

Thompson loves the dynamic in the performing groups created by including non-music majors. The College has ?two choral groups, the College Chorus and Chamber Singers. William Wright, F&M’s choral director, directs both. Thompson is a member of the Chamber Singers.

Like Nytch, Thompson arrived on campus thinking she would major in something else, perhaps English or psychology. She had sung all through high school but had never had any formal training. Now the mezzo-soprano is looking at graduate schools and internships with opera companies.

While performance opportunities at F&M abound, ?even classroom study includes its “show” versus “tell” moments. “In our conducting program,” Norcross explains, “every student ends up conducting. You don’t see that ?at every undergraduate program.”

Norcross, like Gustafson, is an active performer outside the College. He is a frequent guest conductor and clinician in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Illustrating his influence on students beyond the Music Department, Norcross was voted “Most Influential Professor” in the Arts and Humanities ?by the 2004 and 2008 senior classes.

“We work hard to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for students every semester,” Norcross says of the department’s commitment to performance within the academic setting. And, because the department and College are small, many students can find the opportunity to be a “pretty good-sized fish in a relatively small pond.”

Norcross, whose own background includes degrees from the New England Conservatory, the University of Massachusetts and the Catholic University of America, knows what each educational approach offers and is wholeheartedly committed to Franklin & Marshall’s approach.

“The liberal arts setting is designed to get a person ?to grow intellectually,” he says. “The liberal arts expose ?students to ideas they didn’t know were out there. When ?you have a musician who is still growing as a person, ?that’s a powerful influence.”


F&M's Musical Heritage

Franklin & Marshall may have ?added the music major only?in 1983, but music has always played a role at the College.

In the 1840s, students with mandolin, clarinet, flute, viola and guitar skills would be so filled with musical joie de vivre that they would roam neighborhoods serenading “favored families” ?in town. Later,  Mandolin and Glee Clubs were formed, with students doing well enough ?to tour as far as the Midwest.

The Glee Club became so popular in the 1920s that competitive auditions were used to select only the best performers. But into the 1930s and the war years, its ranks were thinned. It bounced back in the 1950s, swelling to 70 men in 1956. A mixed chorus replaced the club when the College went co-ed in 1969.

Instrumental music dates back to the 1860s, when students provided band music to “break up orations.” The next decades saw the formation of the College Orchestra and the aforementioned Guitar and Mandolin Clubs, which performed with the Glee Club.

In the 1920s a “pops” orchestra formed after a violin-playing history professor found a fraternity house with a trumpeter, ?pianist and flautist. This fledgling effort blossomed, only ?to be cut back during the war years, regaining full strength ?after the war.

A student band became a permanent F&M fixture at ?the turn of the century, but the marching band didn’t really flourish until John H. Peifer Jr. ’36 took over its leadership ?as a Works Progress Administration project. Under his direction, the band played at football games and wrestling matches ?and led the “freshman pajama parade” each fall.

The marching band grew, playing at the World’s Fairs in 1938 ?and 1939, touring and participating in marching competitions.

Until 1947, music at F&M was an extracurricular activity. ?But in that year, Assistant Professor William H. Reese became ?the lone faculty member in the new Music Department, which offered courses in music theory and history. Reese also directed the Glee Club and put together instrumental ensembles.

In 1950, Hugh Alan Gault replaced Reese, continuing the model of modest academic offerings complemented by some extracurricular performance opportunities. More comprehensive music history and theory courses were added to the curriculum when Courtney Adams joined the faculty in 1978.
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