UW Clinic Fosters Musical Growth

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The University of Wisconsin’s Summer Music Clinic hosts middle- and high-school students.

(Photo: Courtesy University of Wisconsin )

Now in its 91st year, the University of Wisconsin’s Summer Music Clinic in Madison has established a history of teaching middle-school and high-school students while remaining open to fresh ideas. The clinic’s jazz offerings and a new state-of-the-art performance center promise to make this summer’s weeklong programs especially vibrant.

“There is a lot of good tradition and things that don’t necessarily change a lot,” said Carrie Backman, music program advisor for the clinic. “There’s a close connection to the university’s school of music. As music education has evolved, so has our approach. There’s a purposeful movement for students to experience as much as they can, regardless of their skill level. [This is] a place for them to strive and to learn.”

Backman has experienced all sides of the clinic. She first entered the program as, in her words, “a really horrible trumpet player” in the sixth grade. Teaching and encouraging all participants has been key to the clinic’s success. Along with auditions that find ideal spots for each performer, attendees can assemble their own programs from a selection of classes. These range from music theory to yoga for musicians. Small groups, big bands and Afro-Cuban ensembles are among the numerous jazz offerings.

“Students who participate in a jazz-based program plus a classical program become a much richer version of their musical selves,” Backman said. “Any part of jazz speaks to people in a different way than classical music, and students find [their voices in a way] that they don’t in orchestra or concert band.”

Johannes Wallmann, director of jazz studies at the university, has substantially built on its jazz program since he arrived on campus in 2012. For the clinic, he previously has enlisted locally based artists like bassist Nick Moran alongside such visiting teachers as saxophonist Teodross Avery and bassist Marcus Shelby. The faculty is prepared to deal with attendees at all skill levels.

“Some of the jazz ensembles will have students who never played in high school jazz ensembles before and who are just dipping a toe in the water,” Wallmann said. “If they have a positive experience, it could be the start of a lifelong love of playing music, or trying something out and deciding, ‘It’s not for me, but I had a good experience.’”

The clinic usually hosts between 300 and 400 middle-school students, and the same number of high-school musicians for each of its junior and senior weeklong programs that run from June 21–July 3. Primarily, attendees come from across Wisconsin and the Midwest, though Backman said that some have come from as far away as Alaska. Participants can attend jam sessions at the city’s North Street Cabaret and at Common Ground Cafe in nearby Middleton.

“At both jam sessions, characters are welcome,” Wallmann said. “This is a place where people can be a little more eclectic, and that’s valued and appreciated—rather than frowned upon.”

Some students might also receive full-tuition scholarships to the university as a result of their performance. One such UW student, Max Newcomer, plays saxophone in the school’s jazz orchestra while studying mathematics and economics. Collaborating with different players at the clinic was just as crucial to his experience as his own musical evolution.

“We all began to develop language as a group,” Newcomer recalled. “Some were the traditional calls and responses we have in the jazz language; others were little motifs each of us would try to elaborate on throughout our improvisation. By the end of the week, the connection between all of us was deeper due to our combo developing as a whole unit and not purely as individuals.”

Students also will be able to take advantage of the campus’ Hamel Music Center, which opened last October. The building includes a 700-seat concert hall, 400-seat recital hall and a multipurpose rehearsal space. State-of-the-art acoustic elements can be adjusted to accommodate for the sonic differences between, say, choral groups and amplified instrumental ensembles.

“Our previous concert facilities were marginal, not beautiful, and didn’t sound great, so it was embarrassing when people would come from modern, well-equipped high schools,” Wallmann said. “Now, our facilities match the rest of the education we provide.”

Wallmann noted that Madison’s supportive attitude toward diversity is another benefit, especially as senior students explore identity issues beyond notes on the page.

“Young people come to camp and tell us, ‘I use these pronouns,’ or, ‘I go by a name that maybe doesn’t quite match gender presentation,’ and this is something that they’re experimenting with,” Wallmann said. “Seeing that personal growth has nothing to do with music per se, but [seeing them] take another step forward in life into adulthood, into becoming the people they want to be as adults, has been wonderful.” DB




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