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Five people pose standing in the EXCEL Lab

SMTD’s EXCEL Lab Announces Winners of 2024 EXCEL Prize and Other Awards

Apr 30, 2024 | Alumni, Announcements, News, Students

On Tuesday, April 23, the EXCEL Lab – SMTD’s center for performing arts entrepreneurship, leadership, and career services – announced the winner of the 2024 EXCEL Prize as well as the recipients of the Throm Family Innovation Award and Impact Awards. The EXCEL Prize is awarded to a U-M student (or student team) that has developed an exceptional performing arts venture that meets the award criteria of artistic excellence, innovation, social impact, professional development, and sustainability. The prize includes $10,000 in funding and ongoing mentorship by EXCEL staff. The Throm Family Innovation Award – a new award made possible by a gift from Carrie and Peter Throm and the Throm Family Innovation Fund – and the Impact Awards also provide funding and mentorship.

Dean Gier holds out his arms in praise towards Allyson Cohen, who holds her large honorary check.

Dean David Gier congratulates Allyson Cohen for winning the 2024 EXCEL Prize. Photo credit: Chris Boyes

Allyson Cohen (MM ’25, violin) is the winner of the 2024 EXCEL Prize for her Concert Music Outreach Collective (CMOC), a non-profit organization seeking to increase access to live chamber music performances for underserved communities and to promote compositions by diverse composers. CMOC takes high-level chamber music performances out of the concert hall and into the community through an engagement-based concert series in prisons, shelters, and addiction recovery facilities. “I am so incredibly honored to be the recipient of this year’s EXCEL Prize,” Cohen shared. “It’s really thanks to the mentorship of Gabrielle Piazza and the EXCEL team, along with the help of my violin mentors, Danielle Belen and Annie Fullard, that this is possible for me.”

With the EXCEL Prize funds, Cohen plans to expand the reach of CMOC concerts and launch a new program. Up to 10 new compositions by BIPOC student composers will be premiered at CMOC concerts and will be professionally recorded for the composers to have in their portfolios. “It is a deep love of music that drives all of the work that we do,” Cohen said, “and I feel so fortunate to be able to continue our mission to make classical music more accessible with the help of the EXCEL Prize.”

Logo for Concert Music Outreach Collective
Standing in the EXCEL Lab, Allyson Cohen holds up a large honorary check for her $10,000 EXCEL Prize

Allyson Cohen poses with her honorary EXCEL Prize check. Photo credit: Chris Boyes

Gabrielle Piazza, assistant director of the EXCEL Lab and the manager of the lab’s funding programs, noted the array of projects represented by this year’s EXCEL Prize finalists. “The ventures spanned genres of classical and folk music, artist promotion and recording, film, theatre, and television production,” she noted. “It’s this diversity and venture caliber that really highlight the incredible range of student talent and drive here at SMTD. The EXCEL Lab is honored to support their work.”

Gabrielle Piazza stands speaking next to a monitor screen showing portraits and information.

Gabrielle Piazza, assistant director of the EXCEL Lab, presents the Impact Award winners at the April 23 presentation. Photo credit: Chris Boyes

Kiana June Weber (BM ’13, violin; BM ’24, music education; grad. cert. ’24, arts entrepreneurship & leadership) won the Throm Family Innovation Award for Fiddle Club, an immersive online classroom that uses gamification and community engagement to bring high-quality folk music education to classical musicians, music teachers, and adult amateur musicians. “I am honored by this recognition of what Fiddle Club has achieved thus far,” Weber stated, “and deeply grateful for the support in our initiatives moving forward.” After the initial launch of a successful online library and community, Weber plans to use the award’s funding to bring Fiddle Club’s curriculum into the classroom, with a teacher toolkit and several trial school programs to premiere in fall 2024. She expressed “a huge thank you to the EXCEL Lab and to the Throm family for making this a reality – supporting these actionable and important steps forward toward improving music education for all.”

Cortez Hill (BTA ’24) and his collaborator Andrew Otchere (BFA ’23, theatre & drama) of o-Pong! Productions and Stephen Riesen (MM ’25, voice) and his collaborator Lee Alexander (BFA ’21, musical theatre) of Vibrascope Records, won Impact Awards for their respective ventures.

Hill and Otchere founded o-Pong! Productions to create and support film projects that provide underrepresented people a launchpad, producing their unique stories and ideas through the lens of comedy, pride, and optimism. Their initial work has been focused on the U-M student community, with goals to build engagement and impact beyond the university. “I am really grateful for the EXCEL Lab for their continued support for o-Pong! Productions through the EXCELerator and the EXCEL Prize funding opportunities,” said Hill. “My co-founder Andrew and I are excited to use this funding to continue developing film and theatre content that serves misrepresented and underrepresented communities!”

Riesen and Alexander are the CEOs of Vibrascope Records, a music label that aims to bring together a community of artists and listeners, to break down barriers between genres, and to connect artists to promotional resources. “We are honored to be the recipients of the EXCEL Impact Award,” Riesen said. “This prestigious endowment will allow us to continue our momentum as we build sustainable promotion resources for our clients.” Lee expressed that the goal of Vibrascope is “to level the playing field in the music industry. Winning this prize will benefit our company substantially, assisting us in building promotional resources for artists to use to reach their target audiences.”

Five people pose standing in the EXCEL Lab

Allyson Cohen (left), Lee Alexander, Stephen Riesen, Cortez Hill, and Kiana June Weber at the EXCELebration, where the awards were announced, on April 23 (not pictured: Andrew Otchere of o-Pong! Productions). Photo credit: Chris Boyes

Jonathan Kuuskoski, director of the EXCEL Lab and chair of the department of entrepreneurship & leadership, praised the work of the award recipients and the spirit of innovation and leadership found at SMTD: “This year’s cohort of EXCEL Prize finalists continues the tradition of audacious ideas, a deep commitment to social good, and an innovative savvy around addressing persistent performing arts industry problems. These young professionals are inspiring and remind us that SMTD really is a place where leadership skills can flourish alongside disciplinary excellence. We are proud to fuel their work as they launch, grow, and sustain these compelling ventures for years to come.”

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