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Learning From the Best–A Student Celebration of SMTD Faculty

Like many School of Music, Theatre & Dance students, Henry Nettleton, a musical theatre junior, chose U-M based on the faculty. While in high school, he attended SMTD’s “MPulse” summer program for musical theatre, run by Department of Musical Theatre chair Brent Wagner.

“I was astounded at Professor Wagner’s scholarship and specificity, and his attention to detail,” said Nettleton. “It was through him that I realized how much work it takes to be a musical theatre performer, as well as being empowered to rise to that level.”

Not long after, Wagner took the time to meet Nettleton for coffee while visiting Seattle. “He sees hundreds of kids auditioning and applying to the University every year. But he takes the time to come and talk to me?! That’s the person I want to spend four years with.”

It’s a known fact: The number-one attribute that students cite as the reason for wanting to attend the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance is the faculty.

Clearly, the SMTD faculty is renowned, and their accomplishments are many. There are concertmasters of major symphonies (David Halen, St. Louis Symphony and Yoonshin Song, Detroit Symphony Orchestra); Grammy Award-winners (Jerry Blackstone, conducting, Michael Daugherty, composition); Guggenheim Fellows (Geri Allen, jazz and contemporary improvisation); a Drama Desk Award-winner (John Neville-Andrews, theatre & drama); a MacArthur Fellow (Bright Sheng, composition); a member of YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (Joseph Gramley, percussion); Metropolitan Opera singers (Stephen West, chair of the voice department); and eight Arthur F. Thurnau Professors, a University-wide honor for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.

This is but a small sampling of the extraordinary professors at SMTD. The faculty also comprises authors of influential books and articles published in esteemed journals…founders and members of celebrated theatre and dance companies…performers with great orchestras, opera companies, and jazz bands…composers of some of the most important contemporary music being created. Their accolades, honors, and achievements could fill pages.

And yet, when talking with students, it’s not the professional accomplishments of their professors—though greatly admired—that they like to discuss. Instead, they mention their individual attention, caring, and investment in each student’s success.

The quality of teaching that they’ll receive at STMD is often already made clear at a student’s audition. “I quickly saw that the dance professors are extremely welcoming and supportive,” said sophomore dance major Lena Oren regarding her audition and interviews. “I didn’t find this to be the case at many of the other auditions I had, so it really stood out to me and made my decision to come to Michigan that much easier.”

When he was applying to the School, Alex Fox, a junior viola major, requested and received a lesson with Yizhak Schotten (viola). “This is someone who is not only a fantastic musician, but also wants his students to know what he knows, about his instrument, about art, basically about life—what you need to know in order to be successful as a musician.” Fox was sold on Michigan.

Now a masters saxophone student, Jonathan Hulting-Cohen came to Michigan as an undergrad. “I met Donald Sinta [saxophone] at my audition and was taken aback by his astounding energy. We got immediately to the core of his values: developing people—taking young kids and turning them into adults. And when they leave, they can play brilliantly. But they can also think broadly.”

It’s a common refrain: SMTD professors strongly encourage students to develop and expand their interests at large while they focus on their goals.

Flores Komatsu, a sophomore directing major in theatre & drama, says his advisor Malcolm Tulip helped him realize that U-M offered more than any conservatory. “He is very interested in how an arts education shouldn’t just be focused solely on the arts,” said Komatsu. Ultimately, he said, Tulip has given him flexibility in choosing classes that fulfill the degree requirements and provide the necessary artistic foundation, while also being molded by Komatsu’s interests.

Gabrielle Lewis, a music theory senior, had the same point made to her by conducting professor, Kenneth Kiesler (director of university orchestras). “He told us how important it is to broaden our horizons,” she said. “We obviously have to know everything about the music, but in order to connect with the rest of the world and the people who are coming to hear the music, we must be able to relate to them and provide a comfortable, open environment—that we don’t have walls around our exclusive art form. He’s a huge proponent of us being versatile humans.”

Christopher Lees (conducting), who leads the University Philharmonia Orchestra (UPO), shares this philosophy, said Fox. “He is all about knowing about life. Knowing what’s going on in literature, in the news, and in the world around you. Just trying to bring the outside world into an art form that is 400 years old.”

Students are also quick to praise the faculty for their personal attention. Madeline Doyle, a junior majoring in oboe performance and minoring in performing arts management, appreciates the teaching style of her studio professor, Nancy Ambrose King (oboe). “She holds us to a high standard and expects a high level of commitment while being extremely supportive and encouraging,” said Doyle. “She wants to see us all succeed and she will do everything that she can to make that happen. She really thinks about how each of us in the studio learns and understands concepts differently, and she caters to our needs as individuals.”

Lewis was particularly impressed by an experience with Ramon Satyendra (music theory) who made himself available through constant email contact for an entire weekend to help her get a major project completed. “You can just tell they are 100 percent committed to your education and getting the best experience here,” she said.

Oren agrees. “I find that all my professors are on my side and truly want me to succeed as a student, dancer, and human being,” she said. “They are extremely generous with their time and always offer extra help after class. In fact, my ballet professor, Amy West, worked with me after class on Mondays and Wednesdays to get me back into shape for pointe work. These professors have such busy lives with their own projects, families, and work, but they definitely put the students first without thinking twice about it.”

Nettleton adds that the faculty is committed to creating the best learning experiences for students. When Cynthia Kortman-Westphal (musical theatre) took a leave of absence last fall to work on Broadway, she used her remarkable breadth of theatre contacts to bring in Neil Bartram, a renowned Broadway actor/lyricist/composer. Not only was he an excellent substitute, but the connection also led to the department doing a reading of a new musical—a remarkable experience for students.

Fox says that the faculty often provide invaluable opportunities for students. He was thrilled, last year, as a member of the UPO, when he was conducted by Martin Katz (piano) in Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. “[Katz] is so well known for his collaborative vocal work with some of the greatest opera stars ever known,” said Fox. “As a freshman, getting to sit down with one of the greatest pianists of any faculty around the world—it was an experience unlike any other.”

Doyle sums up the overall student attitude toward the faculty when talking about Professor King: “She is a positive influence not only in terms of the oboe and music school, but also in every aspect of my life.”