Nazareth's performance-based music program is widely accessible, and a new music center will expand its reach across the region.

by Robin L. Flanigan

student music group

Emma Pogge '19, Kara Rider '17, and Nick Napoli '18

Soon after internationally known singer-songwriter Josh Groban put out the call last year for 20 back-up singers for shows coming through upstate New York, Nazareth College music education major Jessica Tripi '17 received word she’d been selected.

“It was such an incredible opportunity, so surreal,” she recalls. “I was in third grade when You Raise Me Up came out, and I’ve always loved his voice. I started jumping up and down.”

The request for singers had come to Nancy P. Strelau, associate professor of professional practice who conducts the Nazareth College orchestras and serves as the coordinator of auditions, through Groban’s national music director. Five sopranos, five tenors, five bassists, and five altos were selected by recommendation.

“It’s crazy that you go to school expecting just a music education degree, and you get these extra opportunities to perform,” Tripi explains. “I want to explore more of the passion I have for that.” She now plans to pursue a master’s degree in vocal performance.

At the heart of Nazareth College’s music program—one of the finest in the Northeast for the scope of its offerings and accomplished faculty—is an emphasis on performance.

Whether music majors want to be teachers, clinicians, scholars, or professional performers, they are taken seriously as skilled artists, receiving more applied performance instruction than most students in the country.

All 200 or so undergraduate music majors receive both ensemble and solo instruction for eight semesters, a component not typically included for all professional programs in music across the country. In addition to a public studio recital on their primary instrument every semester, students also participate in one or more public ensemble concerts each semester.

For the past three years, the Music Department has enrolled the second-highest number of new students at Nazareth—representing 17 percent of the undergraduate student body—in music education, music therapy, music performance, music history, music theory, musical theatre, and music/business. Music majors are consistently the top academic performers at Nazareth, yet the department also holds strong appeal for students who choose other courses of study: approximately 25 percent of its ensemble membership is comprised of non-music majors.

Now Nazareth is getting a space to match the caliber and breadth of its celebrated music program, with a 550-seat performance hall and education center acoustically designed to showcase the talents of students, faculty, and visiting artists. The center is scheduled to open during the 2017–18 academic year.

The space will increase opportunities for collaboration and provide the space to support concerts and residencies from renowned musicians, and undoubtedly take Nazareth’s music program to the next level.

James Douthit, D.M.A., associate vice president for academic affairs and Music Department chair from 2005 to 2014, says the music center’s value cannot be underestimated: “It’s similar to giving the basketball team a basketball court.” Musicians need a space that supports their training and professionalism.

‘It's Upon Us to Make it Happen'

Rigorous pre-professional opportunities—offered officially through established programs or off the cuff based on interest or chance—aren’t unusual for students at Nazareth.

When Aaron Siebert-Sio '19, a music major with concentrations in composition and piano, walked into Strelau’s office last school year to say he was interested in an internship writing music for motion pictures, she told him to send her his resume and that she’d see what she could do.

“I was expecting this to be something for my sophomore or junior year, but a few weeks later, I got an interview for an internship at Remote Control Productions, no less,” says Siebert-Sio.

That’s the California-based film score company run by noted composer Hans Zimmer, the one responsible for the music behind successful series such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek. Three months later, he landed the internship.

“The attitude here is, ‘When you’re ready, you’re ready,’” says Strelau. “It’s upon us to make it happen. That’s the joy of my job.”

Siebert-Sio credits Nazareth with stimulating his personal growth “at a multilayered level that goes beyond a specific degree,” by giving him “a scope of appreciation for detail” and the tools needed for making any kind of decision. “I actually observed a notable advantage over others during my time in L.A. due to this preparation,” he says.

That sort of advantage helped Shade Zajac '15, a music performance major, beat out three other candidates to nab the impressive position in May as conductor of the Genesee Symphony Orchestra. Another student, majoring in music/business, spent the summer interning with international music company BMG in Manhattan.

Faculty connections led to Brittney Burgess '18, a music education and vocal performance major, singing for a Sesame Street video created by Nazareth art lecturer David Cowles (watch the video). Cowles, who’d previously sold animated videos to Sesame Workshop, had been contacted to help create an “F is for Fairytale” song and video. On recommendation he connected with Burgess, a classical opera singer, who had to sing like a little girl, with no vibrato, while lip-syncing to animation.

“It’s opportunity after opportunity,” Burgess, who also got to sing with Groban, says of her time at Nazareth so far.

Great opportunities to showcase a love for music aren’t limited to music majors. Students from the music, physical therapy, art, and business departments competed in the fall of 2015 to create commercial jingles for the national car manufacturer Elio. Musical scores by Jacob Brooks '18 (music/business major), Kyle Bronson '19 (physical therapy), and David DiPrimo '19 (visual communication design) were chosen as the winners.

Faculty support often continues after diplomas are handed out. Keith Koster, assistant professor of music education, for instance, uses an Excel spreadsheet to track graduates, reaching out to them to advise on career options, job interviews, graduate school, and more. During the academic year he reserves two hours on Thursday nights to mentor alumni using FaceTime or Skype; during the summer months he keeps in touch with them through texts or Twitter.

Explains Koster, “I want them to know that they will always be a part of our music education program here at the College, that I care a great deal about their lives and work in music education beyond Nazareth, and the community that is an important part of the Nazareth experience still exists beyond graduation.”

Community Connections

In 2015 the Nazareth Music Department hosted some 190 concerts and events attended by 13,000 students, family, faculty, and community members. Many of them were held in the Linehan Chapel, a beautiful space but one acoustically designed for choral music instead of bombastic wind ensemble or orchestral literature. Space also has been a consideration, as the platform cannot support the growth in size of the various ensembles at the college.

The stage space in the new music center will be almost double the size of the platform available in the chapel, offering the chance for more musicians and multiple ensembles to perform at the same time. The College’s large ensembles continue to grow and now boast a 70-person concert choir, 70-piece orchestra, 65-piece wind symphony, 55-piece symphonic band, 40-person chamber choir, and 25-piece jazz ensemble. (The chapel will continue to host baroque concerts, and the College’s solo and chamber music recital series will still be held at the Nazareth College Arts Center’s Wilmot Recital Hall.)

The new music center will encourage more creative projects for all students, allowing for richer collaborations of video, literature, and sound, and increasing possibilities for instruction.

“It will change my teaching,” says Strelau. “An orchestra is about balancing and blending 70 people, so it’s definitely more than the sum of its parts. How do you blend the violin, oboe, and trombone in a truly viable space that allows you to explore more? This will let us go far more in depth into the sound we’re producing.”

Deeper still will be the number—and format—of community partnerships throughout the region.

Every year, more than 400 community members take part in programs including early childhood music classes, performing ensembles, camps, festivals, and workshops. An orchestral conducting project for high schoolers offers mentoring opportunities for Nazareth students, who can inspire a life-changing transformation simply by making music beside someone who aspires to that level someday.

Nazareth and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra have been brainstorming ways to work together more. Aside from offering an attractive location for concerts and events in the heart of one of the RPO’s strongest constituencies, the music center could act as a laboratory of sorts for educational experiments.

“However this relationship increases, we’re hoping that anything that develops from it is specifically put in place as an asset to the College,” notes Richard Decker, vice president of artistic operations for the RPO. “We’d like to be a resource as much as we can.”

Non-music Majors Share Passion

For a student in the 21st century, a music degree is one of the most pragmatic degrees to pursue, according to Douthit. With an emphasis on critical thinking, analytical thought processes, performance, and communication, it has been a launching point for varied careers outside of music among Nazareth alumni, including library science, advertising, and chiropractic work.

Nazareth takes seriously the passion non-majors have for music, which is why the College recently began offering music scholarships to non-majors as well. Recipients are asked to participate in one of the school’s ensembles.

For those with blended interests in music and business, Nazareth offers a joint collaboration between the Music Department and the School of Management—the first of its kind in the Rochester area and recognized by a trade magazine as one of the most interesting programs in the country for its hybrid nature. The music/business major exposes students to the creative, financial, legal, technical, and marketing aspects of the industry in addition to the study of music.

“Our music/business students are a diverse and versatile group,” says current Department Chair Beverly Smoker, D.M.A., professor of music. “Some are interested in popular music and recording, others want to be leaders in arts organizations, while others also pursue interests in classical music. We recognize that all students need some type of entrepreneurship training.”

As new needs are identified, additional music programs will continue to come down the pike. There are plans to launch a bachelor’s degree in composition in 2017 and a new Master of Music in performance and pedagogy was recently approved by the music accrediting body, the National Association of Schools of Music and New York State Department of Education. As a prelude to the composition degree, Nazareth will continue offering a composition competition in which students write for the orchestra, wind symphony, or choral ensembles.

And the people behind the music program will continue to wait eagerly for the music center to be built, while speculating on new initiatives they believe will raise Nazareth’s profile, recruit more students, and better support the community.

“The new space changes everything,” says Strelau. “It changes everything.”

Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.

Music @ Naz

    Chris Redmond is principal bassoonist in the Naz symphony orchestra

    Non-music-major Musicians Thrive

    Chris Redmond '17 didn't end up majoring in music, but he is principal bassoonist of the Nazareth College Symphony Orchestra. The diverse opportunities of the comprehensive college enabled him to find and prepare for his #lifesWORK.