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UW-Madison musicians mentor area high-schoolers

March 17, 2011 By Sally Younger

Within the instrument-strewn classrooms of four regional high schools, University of Wisconsin–Madison musicians are inspiring the next generation of classical performers.

“My musical life has dealt with audiences almost exclusively from the bright side of the footlights,” says doctoral violinist Lauren Basney, “and to be offered the chance to share this music in another way is both exciting and challenging.”

In weekly rotations, Basney and 15 of her undergraduate and graduate peers from the UW–Madison School of Music impart to their students experience and a passion for enchanting chamber music.

The program is VIBES (Vital Instrumentation Big Ensemble Sound), and it was formed in 2008 by two UW–Madison music students committed to nurturing teenage players. Their vision triumphed at that year’s Arts Venture challenge on campus, and the School of Music has since trained and deployed volunteers to high schools in Middleton, New Glarus, Oregon and Sun Prairie, Wis.

With Renaissance origins and featuring masterworks from Bach to George Gershwin, chamber music has been described as a wordless conversation, balancing skill and coordination among a close group of performers.

“I don’t think many young musicians get this sort of opportunity,” says VIBES coach Jennifer Hedstrom, a collaborative-piano master’s student. “Chamber groups are very different from the large ensembles because of their intimate nature.”

The premise — that the mentored trios and quartets of students would infuse fresh skills and commitment into their larger school orchestras — continues to impress veteran music teachers.

“VIBES is a great way for the most motivated kids to get more coaching,” says Director Leyla Sanyer of Oregon High School, which has collaborated with the program for two years.

Moreover, weaving chamber instruction into the curriculum has enriched students’ classical experience within and beyond the classroom.

“More of my students are now showing an interest in attending concerts,” Sanyer says, “usually the Madison Symphony.”

Developing the individual abilities of young musicians invites volunteers to enhance their own mentoring skills.

“As a doctoral student at UW, I know that teaching others about the music that I love is in my future,” Basney says. “This is first-rate, hands-on experience in this field.”

She feels the personalities of her students at Middleton High School prove the highlight of her coaching experience.

“The kids are bright, respectful, engaged and absolutely hilarious, as well as talented,” she says.

Managing class time and selecting repertoire compels flexibility on the part of coaches, who marvel at the growth they observe within their chamber groups.

“Oftentimes in rehearsals I will separate parts, for example, having the cellist play the melody on her own,” pianist Hedstrom says of coaching in Oregon. “After making a suggestion to the cellist to change the shape of the melody, she will play it in a completely different manner. Not only is it amazing to see this change take place so immediately, it’s incredible to see the whole group react to that change.”

Sending coaches into other high schools remains a possibility, according to doctoral cellist Andrea Kleesattel, one of VIBES’ student managers. She notes, however, that the program values strength over expansion.

“If it seems that it would be good for the program to expand, we would be interested in contacting other schools,” Kleesattel says. “We’re planning to wrap up this year and then see what will be best for the future.”