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Fieldwork Connects Music Students to Local Community

The Whalen Center for Music at Ithaca College is a bustling hotspot for musical engagement and performance. But for the college’s music education majors, meaningful work and learning opportunities are happening off campus through a variety of programs where students give back to the local community.

One of the longest standing partnerships between the School of Music and the local community is the student teaching program at Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception School. For more than 50 years, Ithaca College students have taught music at the school. And while the college has partnerships with other schools, the program at Immaculate Conception is unique in that college students and faculty run the music program in its entirety, instead of the school itself.

Elementary school students involved in the SOAR program. (Photo provided by Julie Carr)


“It’s one thing teaching your peers, who are going to do things correctly the first time. There’s another thing to have different students,” said Dr. Baruch Whitehead, associate professor of music education. “Some are highly motivated; some just can’t stand music. There’s a whole gamut of things, and it would be a very different program if [the students] didn’t get this experience.”

Music education students also gain valuable experience through a partnership with the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services. This program is a semester-long fieldwork requirement that provides an opportunity for music education majors to interact with students who have identified special needs.

“You want to expose the student to a variety of student populations,” said Dr. Radio Cremata, assistant professor of music education. “You give them an opportunity to see how many different ways there are to learn and how many different ways there are to teach. You figure that out by actually doing it. It’s a practice thing. It’s experiential learning. It’s hands-on learning.”

Some students go as far as Cortland to participate in fieldwork with the award-winning Strings Off and Running program (SOAR).

“As a junior student teacher in SOAR last year, I was obviously stressed in the moment,” said senior Gillian Dana. “Looking back, though, wow. I was over-prepared for my senior placement [as a result] and now think back fondly of the year I spent there. There was so much value in learning how to be a teacher with the littlest of kids.”

Building Community Note by Note

While fieldwork is an important part of music students’ education, many in the School of Music also see it as a way to build community. Whitehead, for example, is involved in several volunteer initiatives for students, such as partnerships with the Southside Community Center and the Community Unity Project.

“That’s where my passion is — when students are able to go out and volunteer their services and they’re giving themselves beyond what’s expected just to get a degree,” said Whitehead.

Some programs have started out as volunteer efforts but shifted to official courses at the college in order to allow students to earn college credit for their work. One such program is IC Composing in Schools, in which students co-write music with children in public schools. Started as a volunteer program in 2007 by music school lecturer Sally McCune, the program has developed into an elective course for music composition or music majors with experience in composing.

An Ithaca College student teaches a young girl to play violin. (Photo provided by Julie Carr)


McCune says that the course “provides real-life experiences for IC student composers while providing a valuable service to the greater Ithaca community.”

IC students find the experience rewarding as well.

“I think it's a great opportunity for the composers at IC, not simply because you might get a great recording out of it, but also because I think it's the best way to learn how to deliver clear instruction,” said senior composition major Duncan Krummel. “Accomplished musicians are many times able to 'fill in the gaps' of a score; they have a good idea of what the composer meant. But, when you're working with a school group, no matter how brilliant, you need to strive for a higher level of clarity and directness in your instruction.”

Dorothy Preston, a general music teacher at the Caroline and Beverly J. Martin Elementary schools and an Ithaca College alumna, says that her students are excited to have a piece written just for them.

“A lot of the music that I teach, you can get a YouTube video or a CD,” Preston said. “I think [this program] sends a really positive message to the kids that music is being composed daily. There’s new music always. You don’t have to look at what somebody else has recorded or made a video of.”

New Endeavors

Though there are a variety of fieldwork requirements and current volunteer opportunities in the Ithaca community, the process of building relationships between the college and the city is ongoing.

For example, Music Education Professor Keith Kaiser is currently working on a project to involve IC students with children and the elderly. The Harmony Bridge project focuses on bringing elementary, middle and high school students to senior care centers to share their music with older adults. The music is specifically written for small groups, which helps students to become more involved in their parts and establish leadership roles. Students are also required to interact with the residents following their performance.

Keiser sees the program as a great fit for establishing a new fieldwork opportunity for music education majors, where IC students could teach and assist with Harmony Bridge programs in the Ithaca schools.

“I would like to see us bring Harmony Bridge to campus for the same reason we bring lots of things to campus,” Keiser said. “One is for the education of our students and providing experiential hands-on learning. This program is also community engagement. It’s serving other people.”

Michael Levine, founder of Harmony Bridge, emphasizes the importance of giving back to the community through music, comparing it to learning CPR.

“You don’t learn CPR for your own enjoyment necessarily; you learn it so that you could use it perhaps someday to save a life,” said Levine. “I think that music is like that too.”