UM-Flint Music Outreach Program Brings Opera to Area Schools

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Interacting with students after their debut performance at UM-Flint's Early Childhood Development Center.
Interacting with students after their debut performance at UM-Flint's Early Childhood Development Center.

The sound of the arriving children was half buzz-saw and half beehive. Several hundred children eagerly bounced into the music room at The Chatfield School in Lapeer on a recent afternoon.

The kindergarten through fifth grade crowd came to watch an operatic performance of The Three Little Pigs by students of the University of Michigan-Flint music department. As show time approached, youthful excitement completely filled the room with sound.

Yet, once the story began, the students fell completely silent. Their animated gazes stayed squarely on the performers.

"They were dead silent, which is not really typical for elementary students," said the school's music teacher Keith Corbett. "They were definitely very much engaged in it, which was great to see."

The 5th-grade class at Chatfield also participated in the piece, with an opening song and dance routine, which they practiced and learned earlier in the week with the university students.

UM-Flint students mixed the theatrical tale, with operatic arias from Mozart. Frank Pitts, a UM-Flint lecturer in music, played the piano accompaniment for this production. The one act opera, arranged by John Davies, touched on topics such as bullying and literacy.

UM-Flint music students perform at Chatfield Elementary School.
UM-Flint music students perform at Chatfield Elementary School.

The show was on a Friday but several students excitedly talked about it with Corbett the following Monday.

"They were all saying how much they liked it, without me prompting them," he said.

The production is part of an ongoing UM-Flint opera outreach series. It includes nine performances at area schools and venues for K-5 students, with the final show May 1 at the Flint Public Library. Also, eight UM-Flint students are teaching music education within these same schools. These students are from a chapter of National Association for Music Education (UM-Flint, via its music department, is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music) and teach how music intersects with other fields such as geography, language, and math.

Dr. Joshua May, a lecturer in applied voice and instructor of the opera workshop at UM-Flint, started and directs the two-pronged outreach program. The initiative creates a multitude of benefits, May said. It introduces music education and opera to area schools. It gives 5th graders a chance to perform with young professional artists from their community.

"We are introducing the elementary school students to all of the elements of opera, while the university student performers are developing their skill set for professional work, May said.

It provides an avenue for UM-Flint students to hone their acting, stage, and musical skills.

"It is rare as an undergraduate singer to get this kind of valuable performance experience," he said.

The music education students teach for two hours, in 30 minute segments, at each school. They delve into topics like the math of conducting and foreign language words used in musical scores and operas.

UM-Flint student, Felicia Hall, is both teaching in the schools and performing in the opera as one of the pigs. The teaching helps her prepare for the stage and vice versa, Hall said as she prepared for the Chatfield School show. And the project overall creates arts awareness for young students.

Kevin Starnes, who plays the wolf, has performed operas since 2002, including several times at the Detroit Opera House. Starnes, a master's student in arts administration at UM-Flint, said children are "more terrifying" than adults paying for tickets at professional venues.

"Kids are very honest," said Starnes.

He lauded the program for introducing young students to music and theater and showing them opportunities exist.

"When you see someone performing, it makes a huge difference," he said.

Kevin Starnes and Desmond Sheppard at Chatfield Elementary.
Kevin Starnes and Desmond Sheppard at Chatfield Elementary.

The UM-Flint programs' upcoming lineup includes Rankin Elementary, Durant Tuuri-Mott Elementary, Dailey Elementary and Tucker Elementary, Mason Elementary and Cook Elementary, and with the finale at the Flint Public Library.

Corbett, the Chatfield School music teacher, is glad UM-Flint is taking this to younger students, who many have never hear opera.

"That in itself is important, that exposure. I'm not going to say everyone likes opera, not everyone does, but there is no way to make that choice if they haven't heard it," Corbett said. "The only way they can choose is if they hear everything."

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