Music beyond the classroom: Students create opportunities through collaborative projects

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hear No Evil concert

Within the walls of the Butler School of Music, students tuck themselves into practice rooms for hours perfecting their artistry, then come together for ensemble rehearsals and group performances. But somewhere amid all that hard work, communities form and ideas emerge. And while this traditional form of music education is valuable, something just as important is taking place — students are collaborating off campus to create, learn and perform in settings completely separate from their studies.

“They’re surrounded by this,” said Martha Hilley, 34-year faculty member of the music school. “And I think more and more of them are saying, ‘Hey, I see these groups. I see Eighth Blackbird.’ ... Then they see all these people who are out making a way for themselves. I think they start saying to themselves, ‘Hey, if they can do it, why can’t we do it?’ Then you just have to have the guts to put yourself out there.”

Over the years Hilley said she has watched as “her kids” meet up and form these outside projects. She attends as many performances as she can—even as some groups like Line Upon Line and the Fast Forward Music Festival play to sold out crowds.

In the past year, two new groups formed and launched waves for the creativity and excitement in their work. Tetractys, a mix of four alumni and current students, a new music concert series that commissions and performs new works by young and emerging composers. They planned to start their inaugural year with three performances, but closed their season in June after nine shows, said Chris Prosser, D.M.A. Composition student and co-director of the group. Added performances included a show at South by Southwest Music Festival and two collaborations with the Blanton Museum of Art.

Tetractys concert“We are trying to create a community of people who want to be a part of new music and premiere new music and submissions of work,” he said. “I think we were more interested in contributing to the new music scene that already exists in Austin. Austin is a great town for doing what we want to do. It’s not oversaturated with new music.”

Many of the musicians and composers they hire are affiliated with the Butler school in some way.

“Enterprises like these are not even outside school work—they are beyond school work,” said Yevgeniy Sharlat, composition associate professor at the Butler school. In the end, forming a professional group while a student will make the transition into the professional world much smoother, he added.

“Those first few years after school are the most crucial and riskiest, because they are up against many other exceptional musicians,” Sharlat said. “They are waiting for that moment when everything will just snap into place and people will call and ask them to participate in this and that.”

Hilley agreed that testing the professional waters as a student is a smart move.

“You’ve got a support system in the faculty that will be there and who’ve got your back no matter what. But they’re also getting you ready for the world when you get out there where nobody knows you and nobody helps you up,” she said.

New music ensemble Hear No Evil formed in April 2015 when Marley Eder (B.M., Music Performance, 2015) recruited a number of peers he collaborated with during his time at UT. One year later, co-directors Eder and James Burch (D.M.A., Music, 2016) put on several shows per season showcasing music by local composers in addition to mainstays of modern ‘Pierrot’ repertoire.

“UT was definitely the breeding ground of this,” Eder said. “It was a really natural product of who we were at that time in that community. We wanted to actualize what we were doing in school.”

Burch said the ensemble takes what they are doing in school, but takes them forward several steps.

Sharlat said much of this hands-on experience these groups find in the real world is just hard to recreate in an educational setting. He maintains a composition forum for his graduate and doctoral students where they hear from professionals and discuss career goals. Eight years ago he launched CLUTCH (Collected Labors of the UT Composition Hub), a student organization that runs a concert series. Prosser, of Tetractys, was Sharlat’s “right-hand man” with CLUTCH last year.

“It gives them a chance to work in a safe environment,” Sharlat said. “It preps them for the kinds of tasks they need to do—publicity, how to attract audience to come, how to make the experience especially ravishing, the best way set up stage, how to add drama of concert with the way pieces are arranged. All these things, there isn’t really a course in the school of music that teaches any of these things. They can’t really be taught. They are learned by doing. Forming an organization like CLUTCH is the right step.”

Hilley, aside from her piano courses, also teaches career goals and management for graduate-level students, where she brings in professionals to teach students about networking and using the knowledge and skills they may already have, but just don’t realize it.

“It’s so great to see all of this happening,” Hilley said. “I think the students are really passionate about the possibilities of life beyond the hallowed halls.”

Photo credits: Top: Hear No Evil performs in June at Austin’s New Media Art & Sound Summit. Bottom: Marley Eder, center, performs on the flute during a Tetractys concert in June. Photos by Lawrence Peart.
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