Morningsider Fall 2021 Feature: New Era In Music

Sep 16, 2021 • Visual and Performing Arts, Music
Erik Mahon conducting jazz band
Morningside's music program enters a new era of performance and music educator preparation.

New Era In Music

By Carly Hanson '14

Read this story and more in the Morningsider (Fall 2021 Issue)

Music has been a cornerstone at Morningside since its first official year of classes in 1895. Back then, a total of 196 students enrolled in collegiate, commercial, musical, and medical departments. Today, Morningside is home to nearly 1,200 full-time undergraduate students, many of whom spend their days filling the halls of Eppley and MacCollin with the sounds of music - and it shows in the level of musicianship and quality of performances displayed by the students and faculty.

One of the keys to Morningside’s success in music is that involvement in the ensembles and productions is open to all students, regardless of major. For newcomer Martin Gaines, this inclusivity is fundamental to music itself.Morningside marching bandMorningside's marching band at a football game.

The storied past of Morningside’s Conservatory of Music is reflected in the courageous work of Morningside’s student musicians and faculty today says Heath Weber, dean of the school of visual and performing arts. With a vision for excellence in music, close-knit environment rooted in creativity and support, and pride in every rehearsal, performance, and event, Weber is confident that the music department is poised for success even in the face of post-pandemic challenges because of the dedication shown by Morningside students and faculty within the department and throughout campus.

“Regardless of your background, where you are from, how you were raised, or what you believe, music is about people and community,” said Gaines. “To me, this is the spark that cultivates the lifelong passion for learning that we seek to instill in our Morningside students.”

Gaines joined the music faculty in fall 2021 as the director of instrumental activities and an assistant professor of music. Ready to make music once again after a year disrupted by COVID-19, Gaines says his long-term goals are rooted in the growth of the program and helping establish Morningside as the premier destination for music education and performance in Siouxland and the Midwest. Whether it’s on the field with the Mustang Marching Band or on the stage of Eppley Auditorium with MU Wind Ensemble and All-America Concert Band, the latter which is open to community members, Gaines is excited to take the instrumental music program to the next level.

Innovation and growth are also on the mind of Ryan Person, director of choral activities and assistant professor of music. Since taking the helm of the choir program in 2018, Person has embraced the traditions of choral music at Morningside while infusing it with new energy and direction. As a native Iowan and experienced choral director, Person followed the Morningside choral program for many years before becoming the director. When he prepared to step into the role in the fall of 2018, he spent time getting to know the storied tradition of choral music at Morningside by sifting through dozens of yearbooks and talking with alumni. He was particularly inspired by the tenures of Paul MacCollin, the director that founded the Morningside Choir in 1923, and James Wood, who gave the choir international visibility through travel during the 60s and 70s. Travel, both domestically and internationally, remains an integral part of the choir experience today, and the Morningside Choir will take flight once again in 2022 for a May Term to the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany in conjunction with the applied agriculture and food studies program.

“At Morningside, we take pride in providing life-changing experiential learning opportunities for students. For generations, choir tours have been very important to the fabric of the Morningside choral experience. I feel that international travel remains essential as the Morningside Choir strives for increased visibility and notoriety as one of the finest collegiate choral ensembles within the United States,” said Person. “Perhaps more than ever, regional and national music tours are of utmost importance as we enhance and maintain student enrollment at Morningside. The framework of private liberal arts colleges and universities has vastly changed during the past twenty years, and tours are imperative to successful recruitment. My hope is that we will have a monumental impact on the music patrons and alumni in attendance and inspire our international audience to take interest in American choral music performance, particularly at Morningside.”

Ryan Person conducting the Morningside ChoirRyan Person conducting the Morningside Choir

With the 100th anniversary of the Morningside Choir just around the corner in 2023, the department is regarded as a leader of choral music in the Midwest and routinely recruits award-winning student musicians. In 2020, the Morningside Choir was the only college choir in the state selected to perform at the Iowa Choral Directors Association Showcase. The choir also regularly tours and connects with high school students throughout the region, resulting in increased interest in the program and for good reason - the pursuit of excellence is palpable in this program. Person says that the addition of excellent choral students has significantly expanded each ensemble’s music reading ability and improved their performance of challenging repertoire. While standard choral repertoire remains at the heart of each performance, the directors also program selections that apply to and interest diverse student populations. The choirs have also partnered with numerous living composers to learn about their compositional methods and conditions for writing, and the students have found these experiences to be both enlightening and fulfilling.

The evolution of the choral program has only enhanced Christmas at Morningside, the annual holiday music spectacular in Eppley Auditorium each winter. This community tradition draws audience members from Siouxland and beyond, and the concert has become even more of an artistic experience in recent years. In 2021, Christmas at Morningside will soar to greater heights with an expanded stage and state-of-the-art lighting and sound in addition to the choral and instrumental students and faculty who work tirelessly to create a Christmas performance unlike any other.

2021 will also see the revival of a community choir at Morningside. The Morningside Symphonic Chorus, formerly known as Master Chorale, is open to anyone in the area who wants to sing in a choral ensemble and perform incredible works of music by new and historic composers. Led by Josh Nannestad, director of music education and associate director of choral activities, the chorus will kick off their inaugural year with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Opportunities like those offered in the Morningside Choir, treble choir Cantabile, tenor-bass choir Camerata, Morningside Symphonic Chorus, and the forever festive Christmas at Morningside are all part of Person and the music department’s mission to increase visibility for the programs both on and off-campus. Person is especially excited to continue fostering relationships with alumni with initiatives like the alumni choir during Homecoming and the development of the CODA Legacy Award.

“From singing ’The Morningside Hymn’ to our annual choral retreat at Lake Okoboji, I feel blessed to associate with the customs that are important to our current students and alumni,” Person said. “In doing so, I also believe the incorporation of traditions with new ideas has been essential in the development of our forward-trending program.”

This song of tradition and transformation can also be heard in the jazz program, led by assistant professor of music and director of jazz studies Erik Mahon. He joined the Morningside music faculty in 2018, and he has seen an increase in the number of students interested in jazz each year. Now that the Morningside Jazz Ensemble has reached its capacity, he hopes to start a second ensemble in the near future to offer more opportunities for students to learn about and play jazz music.

The annual jazz festival is one of the ways that students and the community can engage with jazz music at Morningside. While COVID-19 prevented the jazz festival from being held in 2021, the festival will return in February for its 49th year. Mahon says the Morningside Jazz Festival is the largest and longest-running festival anywhere in this area, dating back decades to when jazz was more present in daily life and the ’who’s who’ of the art form played on Eppley’s stage. During this three-day event, Morningside welcomes over 1,000 visitors to campus including high school students whose experience may result in their enrollment.

Lincoln Larsen playing the trumpetLincoln Larsen playing the trumpet

“Jazz is America’s music. Jazz is not an exclusive art form - rather it is the exact opposite. All are welcome, whether they participate or enjoy as a listener. We as a music faculty simply want to welcome students into our musical communities and enrich their experiences, musically and otherwise, at Morningside,” said Mahon.

While the ensembles at Morningside are open to all students, the experience they provide for music and music education majors is especially invaluable. From learning critical listening skills and having the opportunity to direct their peers to seeing their faculty model excellence in teaching and performing their own recitals, students majoring in music and music education are set up for success and ready to teach the next generation. Because Morningside instrumental music education students can engage with jazz band, marching band, and concert band, they are better equipped to take over a comprehensive instrumental music program at most high schools and are often in high demand. Similarly, vocal music education majors establish a strong foundation in singing while exploring various music styles in choral ensembles and voice studios. Person credits voice faculty members Shannon Salyards Burton, Kate Saulsbury, and Blair Remmers ’14 for their collaboration and guidance of young singers as they prepare for careers in performance and teaching. He also noted that learning how to build a community is an important part of becoming a music educator.

“While our ensembles are performance-based, significant time is spent team-building through large and small group conversation and activities,” Person said. “Our future music teachers understand the importance of leading well-balanced rehearsals that support all students with respect given to their gender identity, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. In addition, our developing educators learn how to discuss and address mental health topics and support students with related conditions.”

Gaines agrees that they want Morningside music education students to be the best-prepared generation of future music teachers in our history.

“With the dedication of our current students, I believe they have an infinite ceiling to their potential,” he said. “We hope to foster and inspire their dedication, and then shine a light on their talents.”