The Last Word
By Ken Butler

 

Walk into the Baker Center for the Arts any time of the day or night and there will always be one constant: you will hear music. In performance or in rehearsal, a singer alone in a practice room or a full orchestra in the Band Room, music majors – as well as students from across the campus community – are making music in record numbers.

The music program, under Department Head Douglas Ovens, has undergone a population boom since the mid-1990s and now boasts over 75 majors and minors. To provide performance opportunities for all these students, many new performing ensembles have sprung up. In addition to the Muhlenberg Wind and Jazz ensembles, the College Choir and the Opera Group, the music department now sponsors a College Orchestra, two Jazz Improvisation Ensembles, a Flute Ensemble, the Renaissance music ensemble Collegium Musicum, Chamber Singers, Interplay Jazz Group, and a Percussion Ensemble.

Musical students have also formed their own bands and vocal groups. In addition to the mainstay a capella group The Dynamics, which has been active on campus for over a decade, two new vocal groups have been formed on campus: The Girls Next Door, an all-female a capella group, and their male counterparts, the acaFellas.

Dr. Ovens is enthusiastic about all the new ensembles. He points out that performance opportunities are a core piece of the mission of the department. “Without actually performing, instrumentalists and singers have only a theoretical knowledge of their craft. The technique and interpretive elements that they learn in their private lessons are only truly applied during a public performance.”

Associate Professor Ted Conner agrees. “I think of the ensembles as the equivalent of a laboratory for chemistry majors. It’s where you take your theoretical knowledge, your historical knowledge and the training you have on your instrument and bring it all together.” And different ensemble experiences reinforce different lessons and even different types of learning. For instance, the repertoire for a flutist will be quite different in College Orchestra, Wind Ensemble and Flute Ensemble, and performers must adjust to the different demands placed on them by the works performed in a given ensemble.

Assistant Professor Diane Follet continues, “Singing in a mixed choir is quite different from singing in an all-female ensemble. The range of the female voice utilized is much greater when you don’t have male voices to sing the lower notes. Also, women singing alone have to sing in much ‘closer’ harmony, which requires them to listen more attentively to each other so that they can remain in tune.”

One of the most interesting new ensembles on campus is the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble dedicated to performing music from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Founded by Ted Conner, a group of 10 students and faculty play music on period instruments, such as the harpsichord, recorder, and the viola da gamba, an instrument that bears a resemblance to a small cello but has six strings to the cello’s four. Some of the students sing as well as play instruments, and the group performs music from the masters of the period: Dowland, Monteverdi, and Purcell, as well as new works composed for Renaissance ensembles. In addition to students, Conner’s wife Elizabeth, a classical bassist, performs with the group, as does Jill Stephen, professor of English, who plays recorder. Lisa Perfetti, associate professor of French, also occasionally performs with the ensemble on violin and recorder.

This very different form of faculty-student collaboration and research is a source of pride for Conner.

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