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Applied music faculty use real-world experience in teaching

On any given night, Richmond Symphony Principal Cellist Neal Cary can be seen readying the bow of his polished cello, tuning to the key of A. Suddenly, the lights slowly dim, the audience disappears, and a burst of energy flows through the instrument as the first musical piece begins to play.

To be on a stage, among an orchestra, playing for a sold-out audience of thousands of people, may seem like something out of a dream to many. But to Cary, better known around William & Mary as a cello instructor, and the rest of the applied music performing artist faculty, this is just a part of their everyday lives.

Neal Cary (Photo courtesy of the Richmond Symphony)Fifteen members of the William & Mary Department of Music's faculty currently play in local symphonies, including the Virginia Symphony, Richmond Symphony, and the Williamsburg Symphonia. For Judy Zwelling, director of applied music and piano instructor, having a faculty with “real-world” performance experience is only natural.

 “There is no substitute for this kind of training, which also provides inspiration for those who study with them and hear them play,” Zwelling said. “In addition, studying with working professional musicians gives students a connection with the world of professional music-making and shows them the impact that music has on an individual and a community’s life.”

Applied music faculty have used their professional experience to benefit their students at William & Mary.

Jennifer Lawson, flute instructor and assistant principal flute player with the Richmond Symphony said that her performance experience has helped her in teaching and is especially important for any music faculty members to have.

Jennifer Lawson (Photo courtesy of the Richmond Symphony)“I think that any performance experience, whether in an orchestra, chamber ensemble, or as a soloist, can only enhance your teaching abilities,” Lawson said. “Teaching and performing sort of go hand-in-hand for me. The more different kinds of performances I can be exposed to, the more experiences I can use to relate with and draw from during lessons.”

Lawson also said her personal experience with performing allowed her gain a better insight as to how students feel when performing and better prepare them for semester-end juries, solo performances that count toward a student’s final grade.

“Because students are not exposed to as many performance opportunities as a professional musician, nerves often come into play,” she said. “Having taken orchestral auditions and being a performer for many years, I have plenty of experience in how to deal with nerves and am able to pass that information on to my students.”

In addition to nerves, students can also face issues like instrument repairs or forgetting music. Lawson said that her years of experience with performing helped her to better prepare her students for “mishaps” that may occur.

To Cary, the benefit of having professional experience translates directly to his teaching.

“The best music teachers are those that have professional performing experience,” Cary said. “For most instrumental teachers, this means experience performing chamber music, performing symphonic music of all kinds, and experience as a soloist.”

He cited an example in the form of the Beethoven Symphonies. Just knowing all of them by memory is one thing, he said. But to play them for several different professional orchestras under several different conductors gives musicians a depth of understanding that cannot be duplicated by individual research or study.

“It’s perhaps quite odd that in the music field, often, but not always, the most accomplished performers and sometimes the best educators are not those with doctorates, but those who have succeeded without them,” Cary said.

According to Zwelling, having more real-life performance experience only helps to bolster the value of teaching music to students.

“The fact that our faculty are professional artists who love what they do enhances each student’s experience,” Zwelling said. “We have an exceptionally vibrant department, where one-on-one interaction between teachers and students makes learning a joy.”

In the end, combine experience with an exceptionally stable faculty, she said, and you have a department that is highly committed and dedicated to students.

“The ongoing performances such as orchestra, wind symphony, jazz band, Appalachian music ensemble, Middle Eastern ensemble, Indonesian gamelan and a myriad of other ensembles, are outstanding in their variety and range,” Zwelling said. “I think the wider Williamsburg and peninsula community is only recently discovering what a gem they have in the William & Mary Department of Music.”