A Place Where Souls Can Soar
When the founders of UMHB established the university's first curriculum in 1845, they included music as an essential component of a classical education. The importance of the fine arts was such that, by 1928, the university constructed a four-story building completely devoted to the study of art and music. Presser Hall has served for more than 80 years as the home for music on the UMHB campus. In those years, the university's music program has gained accreditation and grown in scope, to the point that it has outgrown the performance facilities available to it on campus.
Recognizing this need, the UMHB Campus Master Plan calls for the construction of a new performance hall for opera, musical theater, and theater productions. The facility will include a 600-to-800-seat theater with a proscenium stage and fly space, to accommodate the requirements of a dramatic production, complete with orchestra. The facility will offer dressing rooms and practice areas for student performers as well as a spacious lobby area for patrons. Plans call for this facility to be located near the Main Street entrance to the UMHB campus, to create a destination point where fine arts lovers from the surrounding communities can come to enjoy choral programs and theatrical productions along with members of the campus community.
"We believe that the new performing arts center will not only make it possible for us to bring our concerts and opera productions back to campus but will also encourage the continuing growth of our music programs," says Ted Barnes, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. "We want to prepare students for the world's greatest stages, and the closer their own stage is to these famous halls, the closer they will be when they graduate."
Have voice. Will travel.
Haide Gonzalez and Josiah Davis came to UMHB via very different routes, but they share the same goal: to sing.
Haide grew up not too far from the university, in Round Rock, Texas. When UMHB choral director Dr. Michelle Roueché conducted a choir clinic there, she heard Haide sing and invited her to audition for a scholarship. On campus Haide met George Hogan, director of the opera program, who urged her to give opera a try. The result was a starring role for the freshman in the children's opera, Little Red's Most Unusual Day.
Josiah Davis came to UMHB from his home in Ossining, New York. His voice teacher there knew about George Hogan's success in training young vocalists for careers on the stage, and he recommended that Josiah do his undergraduate studies under Hogan's tutelage. Josiah liked what he found at UMHB, and in no time the baritone found himself playing Big Bad Wolf, with Haide as Little Red.
The vocalists spend many hours preparing for a production, in addition to keeping up with their required courses in English, history, math, and religion. And for Little Red's Most Unusual Day, the cast maintained a grueling schedule of ten performances in seven days, traveling to different locations to stage the opera for delighted crowds of elementary school children.
For Haide and Josiah, the work is worth it. "Performing before an audience is important," says Josiah. "My voice teacher used to tell me that each performance is worth ten lessons, because it helps you learn to do your best under pressure. It is natural to feel nervous when you sing before an audience, and the only way to get past that is to perform as often as you can, until you get used to it."
"We work hard, but I wouldn't have it any other way," adds Haide. "I know that this is my calling; this is where I'm supposed to be."
UMHB music programs have significantly changed and grown since the construction of Presser Hall in 1928:
Today, large choral and instrumental groups are a vital part of music education.
When Presser Hall was built, the university had no large choirs or instrumental groups. As these groups developed, the only spaces large enough to serve as practice rooms were the large art rooms at the top of the building. The rooms are fitted with large windows originally designed to let in ample natural light; unfortunately, the large expanses of glass also wreak havoc with acoustics in those spaces.
The UMHB opera program has become a hallmark of the university.
The program has earned a reputation for producing skilled vocalists who go on to sing at recognized venues, and it draws talented young people from all over the country to study at UMHB. However, the highly professional opera and musical theater productions staged by the program must be presented 20 miles from campus, because the university does not have a performance hall with a proscenium stage that can accommodate a standard theatrical production.
The success of the university's Conservatory of Music has created additional need for a performance venue.
Founded in 1996, the Conservatory program offers group and individual music instruction for children ages 2 to 18, using UMHB professors and others to give the children lessons in piano, voice, violin, and a variety of orchestral instruments. More than 500 children come to Presser Hall to study music each week, but their programs must often be presented off campus, because the stage in Hughes Recital Hall is too small to accommodate the choirs.
UMHB's new core curriculum is involving more students than ever before in the arts.
Beginning in fall 2012, all students will be required to complete 3 hours of fine arts credit. They must also attend at least one art exhibit, theatrical production, or music performance each semester to meet the requirements of the new Fine Arts Experience, which is part of the new core curriculum. "We expect the new Fine Arts Experience requirement will bring more students out to performances than ever before, increasing our need for a performance hall that can seat about 600 people," says the university's provost, Dr. Steve Oldham.
Faculty and administrators are excited about these many ways the music programs at UMHB have changed and grown, and they foresee even greater activities on the horizon. With a strong committed faculty and growing interest among all students, the university now must expand the facilities for performing arts, to keep the momentum going.