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Teaching Artist Initiative Helps Student Performers Advocate for Their Art

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Graduate Woodwind Quintet

When presented with the opportunity to introduce the work of composer Paul Hindemith to elementary students, members of Penn State’s Graduate Woodwind Quintet were a bit skeptical. They weren’t sure about performing such challenging work for youngsters who may have never heard classical music before. But, thanks to the Teaching Artist Initiative, they learned they can present virtually any work to any group—as long as they make it meaningful for the audience.

Robyn Dixon Costa, adjunct faculty member in the School of Music, launched the Teaching Artist Initiative during the 2012–13 academic year, and will continue the effort in 2013–14 thanks to an Incentives and Innovations Grant from the College of Arts and Architecture. The focus of the initiative is to develop students’ performance and communication skills, forge a discernible connection with the music, and create interactive activities to engage audiences in performances. “My passion is to have our student performers connect with their music AND with the audience,” explains Costa, who has three performance degrees in oboe. “Many orchestras water down their art for the sake of educational or ‘audience friendly’ programming, which makes the musicians unhappy and sells the audience short.”

The Graduate Woodwind Quintet didn’t sell their audience—elementary students at the Stone Valley Community Charter School in Huntingdon—short. In a program called Stories Through Music, the quintet introduced the work of George Bizet, Sergei Prokofiev, and yes, Paul Hindemith, to children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The performers’ goal was to introduce the students to the instruments of the woodwind quintet and portray how music can tell a story. In the case of Hindemith, the students were asked to write their own stories to Kleine Kammermusic in a format similar to Mad Libs—the quintet crafted a storyboard with key words missing, and the students filled in the blanks using their own creative listening and writing abilities.

According to Graduate Woodwind Quintet member Hope Licciardello, a master of music candidate in clarinet performance, participating in the Teaching Artist Initiative prepared her for the “real world.” “As performing musicians we need to know how to form a chamber ensemble, target an audience, and how to sell our music to all ages,” she explains. “Even if it is the music of Hindemith and not Christmas carols, I learned it can still be made relatable and fun for third graders. Before this program, I would have never thought that possible.”

Making the music relatable benefits the performers as well as the audience, Costa notes. “Interacting with the audience helps lessen stage fright and makes performers more comfortable,” she says. “The audience wants to see performers’ human side—it’s okay if a musician has to swab her instrument on stage.”

Costa recruited students to participate in the Teaching Artist Initiative last year and plans to do the same for 2013–14. In addition to the Graduate Woodwind Quintet, participants included the Graduate Saxophone and String Quartets, a Flute Duo, and a voice soloist. The students received no credit for their participation, but Costa hopes to ultimately develop the program into a 400-level course. In 2013–14, students may choose to receive independent study credit.

Costa herself has been a “teaching artist,” performing with an ensemble in rural Arkansas through Chamber Music America’s Rural Residency Program. Penn State joins a few select music conservatories with outreach programs similar to the Teaching Artist Initiative. Penn State’s program will include outreach to local elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as the University community. Costa “supplements” the coaching the Penn State students already receive from School of Music faculty.

“Our Penn State students are receiving superior coaching on the mainstays in their repertoire from our excellent music faculty. My job is to work with the students on their presentation skills and to help them think creatively regarding how they present their music to the audience,” says Costa. “This year, our TAI participants presented their programs to six different schools and six University audiences. Our goal for next year is to keep up our presence in the schools and to expand into the greater University community in innovative and surprising ways.”

According to Tim Hurtz, associate professor of music in oboe, the Teaching Artist Initiative is a “great enhancement” to the School of Music’s chamber music program. “The Graduate Woodwind Quintet’s extra coaching by Robyn has been excellent at getting them to speak to, relate to, and entertain audiences,” he says

Lisa Bontrager, Distinguished Professor of Music in horn, agrees, noting Costa has the experience and training to impact the student performing groups and help them make stronger connections to audiences.

Those “connections” are at the heart of what Costa is striving to do. “There is a difference between a traditional performance that is transactional, and a transformational performance where both the audience and musician leave transformed,” she explains. “Performers should be advocates for their art.”