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Diversifying Ensemble Repertoire

| Kaitlyn Konrardy, Vocal Performance Major, Fine Arts Certificate, '23

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire prides itself as being a campus community that promotes equity, diversity, and inclusion because we understand that it’s our individual differences that make us a stronger team. It is for this reason that UWEC continuously strives to recognize every student’s unique culture and background as it relates to the university’s mission statement. This is a campus-wide effort that takes place in all parts of campus, but especially across the bridge in Haas Fine Arts Center.

Music is often described as the universal language. Many people use music as a medium to express personal thoughts and perspectives that may otherwise be unknown if not for music. That is why it’s so important to recognize the people behind the music we are hearing, and strive to understand what it is they are trying to say behind all the notes and rhythms we perform. The ensemble directors of UWEC’s Music and Theatre Arts Department acknowledge these truths and have dedicated their careers to making sure that all voices are heard in the pieces performed within the UWEC Music and Theatre Arts Department.

Dr. John Stewart, director of the UWEC’s Wind Symphony, discusses how important it is for our university ensembles to perform repertoire written by composers who are typically under-represented in society due to their gender, race, ethnicity, and/or religion.

“It's important for us as artists to challenge ourselves because not everybody’s view of music and the world is the same as mine,” he states. “We need to make sure students see themselves in the music that we play.”

Dr. Chris McGinley, who directs the university’s Symphonic Choir, Novum Voce, and Singing Statesmen, adds that it’s because of these diverse composers that we become stronger and more well-rounded musicians. He comments on how different musical cultures often have different pedagogy and teaching strategies for the music they create. “It accesses and trains different parts of our musicianship,” says McGinley.

choir

Dr. Frank Watkins, director of Concert Choir and Women’s Concert Chorale, speaks to the same points made by McGinley, asserting that musicians need to do their best to perform music written by diverse composers with as much integrity and authenticity as possible.

He believes that when approaching this particular type of music, musicians need to tell themselves: “I’m going to give my scholarship, my study, and what is due to that piece to make it as authentic as possible.” He adds “If this piece is traditionally taught orally and in the oral tradition, then why would I try to water it down by putting it on pen and paper? That’s not how it's supposed to be done.”

Dr. Phillip Ostrander, director of UWEC’s Symphony Band, specifically mentions that incorporating more music written by composers of under-represented backgrounds has become a career goal of his since beginning in the field of education.

“This is the first thing I talk about on a professional-level with colleagues. Both here at the university, and around,” says Ostrander.

Every summer while on academic break, Ostrander dedicates a considerable amount of time attempting to discover more music written by composers of diverse backgrounds that he is able to program for his own ensemble to perform. He spends his time talking with colleagues, looking on the internet, listening to new pieces of music, discovering new composers, and talking to composers he has programmed about other composers. “This has become an obsession for me,” he says.

While finding music written by composers from diverse, under-represented backgrounds might seem like a daunting task, there was a general consensus among each of the professors interviewed. Dr. Watkins sums it up best when he states “There are great composers and great music all over the place, all you have to do is look.”

Dr. Ostrander expanded on this point asserting that it was because of the widespread attention to the lack of repertoire written by diverse composers that this music has become much more readily-available to musicians. “With the complete paradigm shift at the concentration of choosing repertoire, information has become much more widespread.”

Dr. Stewart discusses some of the department’s continued efforts to bring more attention to the music of diverse composers. He mentions that the university bands have been known to reach out to composers of under-represented backgrounds and commission original pieces for the university’s ensembles to use in concerts. Some of these artists include Kevin Day, an African American composer hailing from Texas, Stacey Garrop, a female composer out of Chicago, and even Heidi Joosten, a 2013 alumna of UW-Eau Claire.

Ensemble directors are keenly aware that music education majors make the large majority of the groups they teach, and that they are the ones that will go on to educate future generations of diverse musicians. It’s a responsibility that none of these professors take lightly.

“For us to start planting those seeds now, that's how change is going to occur. Because they're going to get out into the field and they're going to model their experience similar to what they saw here,” says Stewart.

McGinley adds that a professor’s influence goes well beyond choosing pieces to perform, as important is teaching the music in a way that student-performers fully understand the point of view from which it was written. “I believe firmly that the choices I make and the model that I give and the explicit instruction that I give to my students will make far more of an impact as it filters through them and out into their careers in the future than any single piece of music I choose.”

Dr. Ostrander sums it up best with this final quote: “Regardless of whether you’re going to be a band director in the futureーthe content, and the things that we study and perform and try to learn about in Symphony Band needs to reflect the world around us. It’s just important.”