Dancing out of the ivory tower

image031Next year Harrisonburg High School will open a Fine Arts Academy, a school within a school for students who want to delve deeper into choral or instrumental music, art, drama, dance or creative writing. The academy will offer classes that will be interdisciplinary, collaborative and experiential.  Open to freshman and sophomore students, the academy is currently accepting applications for their first year. Those accepted will select one or two arts disciplines and plan their high school curriculum to accommodate classes that will cover history, culture and practice. During the senior year, students will tackle  a collaborative “capstone” project affirming their learning and putting it in a broader context. Classes will be taught by a team of teachers, all artists, and students in each discipline will experience not only their own art but that of their classmates.

If you’re a JMU person, that description should sound rather familiar. It’s a formula for learning that permeates the university from art to zoology, including everything in between like engineering, business and health sciences. As you might guess, the similarities aren’t coincidental; they’re deliberate. They reflect the input of many of the individuals who have helped plan the academy.

One of the great benefits of living in a “college” town, as is Harrisonburg, is the resource of people who are experts in their given fields. That is especially beneficial when their knowledge and experience is shared. Such is the result in Harrisonburg. Planning of the Fine Arts Academy, which is directed by J.R. Snow (’99,’08M), Harrisonburg’s fine arts coordinator and director of bands, has involved the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and the College of Education. Among those contributors to the process is Suzanne Miller Corso, professor of dance at JMU. The high school has never had a dance program before, so in planning this component of the academy, such expertise is essential. In a very real way, the venture represents a university dancing out of the ivory tower.

Suzanne is not alone. The team of teachers includes JMU alumni Bethany Houff (’01,’03M), Richard Morrell (’83) and Juann Brooks (’94,’05M). The board of the academy includes: Eric Ruple, professor of piano; George Sparks, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts; Phil Wishon, dean of the College of Education; Jon Gibson, professor of ethnomusicology; Kate Arrechi, professor of musical theater; and Mary Ann Alger, wife of President Jon Alger. And there are many more. But lest you think it’s all JMU, faculty members from Eastern Mennonite University are also involved, as is the Arts Council of the Valley. It is a community effort, centered around giving students the rich and life-changing opportunities that the arts afford.

Such a collaborative process, between a university and local school system, exemplifies the best of what a truly engaged university can and should be. It is change through shared knowledge, collaboration and a vision for what’s possible. We applaud JMU’s efforts and Harrisonburg’s new venture.

You can learn much more about Harrisonburg’s new Fine Arts Academy on YouTube.

And if you’re close to Harrisonburg, you can see a sample of Harrisonburg’s lauded theatre arts program next month when the high school stages their annual — and often sold-out — musical. This year’s performance is Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Change like jazz

Omar Thomas ('06)

Think jazz. Do you instantly imagine a sultry saxophone, a winsome trumpet and brushes on skins accompanying a silky voice? Or do you think of an intimate, smoke-filled club with a pianist and the thump of an upright bass? Yep, that’s jazz.

But ask Omar Thomas (’06) about jazz, and you’ll find he has a different take. He thinks big.

Drawn to enroll at JMU after hearing the Marching Royal Dukes, Omar studied music education, thinking initially that he would become a high school band director. Instead, he realized he had a passion for composition. Now the award-winning composer is on the faculty of the department of harmony at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston where he shares his passion for music in a big way. He also is an adjunct faculty member at Harvard. Omar  founded and now leads his own 18-piece jazz orchestra in Boston, the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble. Big jazz. Beyond his scheduled classes, Omar has worked with Composers and Schools in Concert, a nonprofit organization that “supports music education and the creation and performance of contemporary jazz and classical music,” according to the CSIC website. In this capacity, Omar delivers his passion for music to high school musicians. For these young musicians, it has to be cool jazz.
Berklee College of Music logo, circa October 2010

Image via Wikipedia

This week, Omar will be on JMU’s campus to deliver his big brand of jazz to JMU. He will conduct the premiere performance of his arrangement of Radiohead’s Sail to the Moon with the JMU Jazz Ensemble. The performance is Thurs., Feb. 16th, at 8. p.m. in the Concert Hall of the Forbes Center. Omar will also present a master class about “how to have a life in music after JMU.” The class will begin at 1:25 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 15. He will discuss grad school auditions (New England Conservatory), making a living in Boston as a freelance composer, using social media as a marketing tool, working with music publishers and teaching music at the university level.

According to music faculty member Chuck Dotas, one of Omar’s mentors, Omar “was awarded the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award and received an Honorable Mention at the Ithaca College Jazz Composition Competition. Dancing, his first big band piece, composed for the JMU Jazz Ensemble, garnered international acclaim at the Jazz Composers Symposium hosted in Tampa, Fl.  Omar was also a member of the exclusive BMI Composer’s  Workshop in New York City, under the direction of Grammy-winning composer, bandleader, and pianist Jim McNeely. Omar is a two-time Boston Music Award’s “Jazz Artist of the Year” nominee.

Not surprisingly, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts George Sparks thinks Omar would  be a great candidate for Be the Change.

It is a great nomination … notable jazz….  Change like jazz.

Read Tyler McAvoy’s (’12) story about Omar at http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/harmonious_career.shtml
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