Music is a growing part of life at RIT
When Steve Haber came to RIT, he didn’t know many other students.
He joined RIT Singers, then auditioned for and was accepted into Eight Beat Measure men’s a cappella vocal ensemble.
“Eight Beat has been my support system,” says Haber ’09 (information technology). “It’s been a big part of my RIT life.”
Haber is among 400 to 500 students who participate in RIT’s growing music program headquartered in the Fine Arts Department of the College of Liberal Arts. That number includes members of 11 performing groups as well as students taking academic classes ranging from music theory and music history to Bach and the Baroque and The Blues as Personal and Social Commentary.
Students from all colleges sign up for classes, and more than 200 students are pursuing music concentrations and minors.
In the coming school year, a new music minor is being rolled out: Music and Technology. It’s a logical step for RIT, says Carl Atkins, director of the music program. Music plays a part in film and animation, multi-media, digital recording, electronic games and a host of technological devices and systems.
“We talked to people in several of RIT’s other colleges, and there’s a lot of synergy,” says Atkins. “The program will be multidisciplinary.” To complete the minor, students will take eight credits in required courses plus 12 credits in electives. Down the road, Atkins hopes Music and Technology will become RIT’s first music major.
It’s part of the goal of developing what Atkins calls “a music program that’s right for RIT and right for music.”
Music has some history at RIT. Going back to the early 20th century, there was a “glee club,” and NTID had a very active music program in the 1970s and ’80s. The NTID groups included the NTID Combo (consisting of four to six deaf and hard-of-hearing students), the RIT Timestompers (hearing and deaf students), and a concert band.
When Associate Professor of Music Edward Schell arrived in 1982, music at RIT consisted of a few performing groups (including NTID groups) and a handful of music appreciation and music history courses. The music room in the Student Alumni Union didn’t exist; the only rehearsal space was in the lower level of the College of Liberal Arts building.
RIT Singers had 17 members; by comparison, the group today comprises 80 to 100 students.
“We began to develop an academic curriculum,” says Schell. “It took time. We had to persuade people that there was a need. We’re not trying to become a music conservatory, but many students are interested in music and one of our goals is to help them grow their abilities and also give them the tools to appreciate music on a deeper level.
“You know we had that saying, at RIT you learn how to earn a living, live a life,” Schell notes. “Music is part of living a life.”
By the time Atkins arrived in 2002, the evolution of the program was underway, but music was still considered by many to be “more of a recreational activity,” he says.
“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach music in a technical school,” says Atkins, an accomplished musician who was teaching at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. The former director of Rochester’s Hochstein School of Music, and former president of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Atkins has a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music in conducting and music theory.
“I was impressed with the administration’s commitment to make this a comprehensive university,” says Atkins, explaining his decision to join the music faculty. “Music and performing arts are part of providing a comprehensive education. As professional musicians, we take it very seriously.
“It’s unfair to the students to go into it in any other way.”
Today, there are four full-time music faculty members and eight adjuncts. The performing groups include RIT Singers, Chamber Singers, four a capella groups, RIT Orchestra, RIT Concert Band, Jazz Ensemble and World Music Ensemble. The groups perform regularly at RIT and at Rochester community venues and participate in collegiate competitions and festivals. In addition, several student-led groups are supported by the music program.
Students can receive academic credit for participating in the ensembles, and also have the opportunity to take private lessons. Currently, clarinet, saxophone, flute, violin, viola, tuba, trombone, piano, percussion and voice lessons are offered.
“Many students have had lessons right up until they arrive at RIT, and they’re playing at a high level,” says Atkins. “But without one-on-one instruction, they begin to lose that edge. The lessons have really enhanced the ensembles.”
Luke Auburn ’09 (professional and technical communications) agrees. He played cello in the RIT Orchestra throughout his four years at RIT. Auburn says the orchestra has improved dramatically in that time, due to the private lessons. (His brother Zeke, a third-year public policy major, plays viola in the orchestra and takes lessons.)
Being involved in music “keeps me mentally balanced,” says Auburn. “I use different parts of my brain when I play music. It’s therapeutic.
“It’s a constant struggle to find the time,” he adds. “But I would have been sad to put down the cello.”
Many students seem to have that need to feed both sides of their brains.
That was the situation for Paul Melnychuck ’83, ’84 (chemistry, imaging science). He started to play the piano and violin at age 9. He also loved photography.
He continued his love of music at RIT, becoming the first concertmaster of the RIT Philharmonia and also singing in RIT Singers. He began his career at the Kodak Research Labs in 1981 and left in 1998 as founder and senior vice president, Kodak Recording Products. Subsequent positions continued to combine music and technology.
Today, as co-founder of Too Far Independent Media in San Francisco, he works as a music producer. He also pursues his own creative projects, and has a CD in the works.
Melnychuck visited RIT in 2003, when he was named Distinguished Alumnus for the College of Science. “I was so impressed with how the music program has grown,” he says. “In my speech, I talked about my education being grounded in science and technology. But at RIT I also learned how to bow a Beethoven symphony, the nuances. I would say the music program had a profound affect on me.”
Pam Feldman Munn ’00 (hospitality and service management) remembers the friends she made as a member of RIT Singers, Encore a cappella ensemble and participating in musicals.
“You meet people from other parts of RIT, outside of your major and college. I ended up being roommates with women I met through music,” says Munn, now a salesperson for Unisource Worldwide, a distributor of paper and packaging.
“It is a time commitment, but rehearsals are a break from classes and studying,” she says. “I really looked forward to Thursday night.”