In Iowa State's Department of Music and Theatre, innovation abounds. Whether blending the arts and entrepreneurship or creatively adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our students and faculty are always exploring new ways to learn and create.
Innovation is instrumental
Several music and performing arts majors are members of the inaugural LAS Dean's Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I+E) Academy, a two-year program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences helping students bring their businesses and big ideas to life.
"My entire perception of how innovation and entrepreneurship relates to teaching has changed."
Logan TeKolste (’22 music) is working with Iowa State graduate student Jacob Schmieder to add sound-induced lighting to band instruments. She said the academy has helped her grow as a music educator.
“My entire perception of how innovation and entrepreneurship relates to teaching has changed,” she said. “I have learned so many valuable skills and concepts, such as finance basics and marketing that aren’t just helpful to our business, Varsity Music, but also apply to the more administrative side of teaching instrumental music.”
Silver linings online
When the pandemic shifted instruction online in 2020, music students started learning recording and sound enhancement to boost their practice and performance. Some students have since used their recordings to apply for national competitions.
While flutist Kat Mason (’24 music) still prefers the “one-and-done” nature of an in-person jury or audition, she said recording gave her valuable skills and insights.
“Recording was a big deal for me,” she said. “I was able to be kind to myself and get over some of the perfectionist standards that I had set for my jury recording. I gained practice on how to record, where to record, and how to be kind and supportive to myself throughout the whole process.”
The ISU wind faculty also created a new virtual resource during COVID-19, producing a yearlong series of online workshops for students.
“We made lemonade out of lemons and brought our nine studios together,” said Sonja Giles, associate chair of music and professor of flute. “We created a virtual weekly seminar, which included our faculty leading classes that suited their strengths on everything from best practice techniques — to realizing peak performance habits — to ‘Breathing Gym’ — to beginning improvisation — to creating an eye-popping resume.”
Hands-on learning — with swords
In Performing Arts 105 class, innovative, hands-on learning opportunities are everywhere. This year, alumnus Brandon Brockhus helped students brush up on their stage combat skills with lessons in rapier and dagger fundamentals. Another guest instructor Dion Flynn — a nationally known improviser famous for his appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” — led a phenomenal improv workshop. Then, in ISU Theatre’s first inaugural networking and career expo, students explored career opportunities with organizations such as Des Moines Metro Opera, Des Moines Performing Arts, NBC News and a variety of artists and professionals.
Jazzing it up
When the pandemic affected live performances, Mike Giles, teaching professor of music, led his jazz students on a new path of creative discovery instead. Giles assembled an Iowa State band with the same instrumentation — a trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums — as Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, one of history’s greatest jazz bands. He then challenged the students to learn a tune from each album of Davis’ band.
“We learned about the individual players, the heavy hand with which Miles led them, and witnessed the growth of that ensemble firsthand by playing the selected tunes in chronological order,” Giles said. “The obvious restrictions of the pandemic created unique and initially unseen paths that dove into creative areas we might not have discovered otherwise.”
The ensemble celebrated their work with a recording session, which Giles edited into a video with educational information.
“The obvious restrictions of the pandemic created unique and initially unseen paths that dove into creative areas we might not have discovered otherwise.”
“I enjoyed how we had the creative freedom to play Miles’ music in different styles and bring these songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s into the present day with our unique arrangements,” said Quinton Nespor (’22 industrial engineering, ’22 master’s in business administration). “Miles was famous for continuing to advance and develop jazz music throughout his lifetime, and we embraced that as well. I’ve been extremely privileged to have wonderful opportunities to perform new music and meet other amazing musicians throughout my time at ISU.”
New music for a new ‘normal’
During the pandemic, Jodi Goble, associate teaching professor of music, stayed busy writing new music for collaborators she dearly missed. Her composition recital “Stuff Jodi Wrote,” performed last fall after twice being delayed for COVID-19, featured some of those new works.
“Being able to make live music with those lovely people, for a live audience of friends, colleagues and students, felt unbelievably joyous and moving, and like a big step toward whatever the new ‘normal’ is for us as performing artists,” she said.
Goble’s recital featured alumni soloists as well as faculty members Chad Sonka, Jonathan Sturm, Julie Sturm and Jennifer Rodgers. Her compositions drew from a wide range of inspiration, from the 1918 influenza pandemic to the poems of Japanese writer Yone Noguchi. For the piece “The Words We Need,” Iowa State’s Cantamus singers inspired Goble’s lyrics through their profound responses to two questions: What has no one ever told you, that you need to hear? What do you need to tell someone else that you never have?