The Last Word
By Ken Butler


“In large groups, there is the leader, or conductor, who marshals the forces to create the music. It is his or her interpretation of the work that the musicians will perform, and for a large group, that’s the way it should be. However, the philosophy behind the Collegium Musicum is that of a group of friends who meet to enjoy each other’s company and make music collaboratively.”

Though Conner is the musical director of the group, there is no ‘conductor’ – decisions of interpretation are made by the ensemble as a group and each member is expected to bring his or her knowledge and experience to the music. Conner said, “In a way, playing this music is like playing jazz;” though most of the music is written out, performers are expected to bring their own perspective to the performance of the music. It is no surprise, then, that Conner also leads one of the College’s two Jazz Improvisation Ensembles.

Both students and faculty comprise the ensemble group
Collegium Musicum.

Muhlenberg students have not been content to let the music department faculty create all the College’s ensembles. Both The Girls Next Door and the acaFellas grew from the same impulse: as an additional performance outlet for singing a capella music. Sarah Ruderman ’02 and Alicia Klein ’02 created The Girls Next Door in 1999, and Marie Ingrisano ’03 was a founding member. Ingrisano remembers, “We were all interested in singing a capella music, but the Dynamics could only add a few new members each year. We were also interested in singing a wide variety of music: jazz and Broadway, of course, but classical, pop and even barbershop.”

Because there was no faculty member driving the group’s existence, the singers found they had to do everything for themselves: find rehearsal space; secure, and often write their own arrangements; do their own publicity; and raise their own funds. This turned out to be a distinct advantage, according to Ingrisano. “We had the freedom to do what we wanted, and we found that we wanted to use the music as a springboard for something bigger and better for the community.” They began to follow the Greek organization model of fundraising for other groups, singing fundraisers for Camp Imagine! and other off-campus organizations. The lessons they learned – public relations, organization, scheduling – proved as valuable as the musical experiences.

The Girls Next Door, an a capella group created in 1999,
is one of the College’s newer vocal groups.

Still other groups have formed when the resources have appeared. When Elaine Martin, part-time lecturer in flute, found five interested students, she formed the Flute Ensemble. The size of the group has nearly doubled, which is both a blessing and a curse. “It’s great that we have so many students who are passionate about the flute, but it is now more like the Flute Choir than the Flute Ensemble!” she joked. For Martin, the essential difference in those two terms complements Conner’s comments about orchestras and ensembles: “In a large group, there are always other people playing the same part you are. That teaches important lessons, namely intonation (playing in tune with others) and playing in time together. But you also have less responsibility in a large group. In a five-member ensemble, where each member plays a separate musical line, you must know your part very well, react to the players around you, and listen to the whole group for the proper intonation.”

So, the next time you’re in the Center for the Arts, stop and listen. You’ll likely hear one of Muhlenberg’s new or existing ensembles, doing what they were formed to do…teaching through performance.

Before Ken Butler became hypnotized by the theatre, he spent the first 25 years of his life as a musician. Through a remarkable set of circumstances, he is now Executive Assistant to President Randy Helm. Through the generosity of the President, he still makes music – and theatre – whenever possible.

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