Students encouraged to take creative risks at vocal festival

Thirteen students, ranging from high school students to those who are enrolled in university graduate courses, are taking part in the second annual South Dakota Vocal Arts Festival, being held at the Warren M. Lee Center for the Fine Arts on the University of South Dakota campus.

The festival began June 18, and will conclude this weekend, with performances on Saturday, June 26 and Sunday, June 27 at 2 p.m. in Colton Recital Hall at the arts center.

Saturday's performance is a show for a children's audience, featuring songs from Disney movies and lighthearted scenes from musicals while the Sunday, June 27 performance includes scenes from opera and musical theatre.

 Admission is free.

"Most of them songs are in English," said Dr. Tracelyn Gesteland, referring to the June 27 performance. "There are a couple of short songs that are in a foreign language, just to get the taste of a grand opera, but it is very accessible to audiences. The Saturday show is intended for children specifically."

One of the goals of the 10-day festival is to provide unique opportunity for all of its participants. The activities, Gesteland said, may be new experiences for some students, especially those who come from smaller communities.

"When you come from a smaller community that doesn't have a lot of cultural opportunities, necessarily, I think it's important to try to expose young people to as many of the arts as possible," she said. "I think opera and musical theatre are great ones because they include so many facets of the arts – you have the music and the visual element, and dancing and the instrumental music.

"It all culminates in a really wonderful experience," she said.

The festival, she added, is a young artists' training program for people interested in singing as soloists. "I think there are a lot of wonderful choral opportunities in the area, so we wanted to have something that would speak to the solo singer as well," Gesteland said. "We also saw a need in this particular region. There are training programs available around the country, but nothing accessible to students in this area."

The experiences that older students' receive at the festival help them be more competitive when it becomes time for them to seek a career in music.

"For the younger students, I think it helps them see if they truly want to pursue a career in music – whether that's performing, or music education – and to just improve their all-around performance ability," Gesteland said.

Each student chosen to participant in the festival either had to audition live, or submit an audition recording. "We wanted to keep a balance between the high school students and the collegiate students; we wanted some of each so that the younger students could get the experience and be mentored by the older ones," she said. "We were able to get a really nice balance of ages and abilities, so that everyone can learn from everyone else."

Providing instruction is Professor Rick Piersall, serving as co-director of the festival with Gesteland. The head coach/accompanist is Dr. Kristine Bengtson of Madison, WI, and USD students Scott Arens and Adrian Ries are apprentice accompanists.

"In addition to teaching and directing scenes, and presenting those to the public, the students are also receiving individual voice lessons," Gesteland said. "They are also taking classes in acting for singers. They are attending workshops on audition skills, and music business, and we're also doing some fun activities. It is sort of an opera boot camp, but we aim to have fun, too."

The timing of the festival adds to its effectiveness, she said.

"A lot of times, during the school year, we're always under pressure to get everything ready for the next performance, and sometimes, we don't have enough time to teach the rudiments of performing the way we'd like to," Gesteland said. "This is a chance to really delve in deeper than we are sometimes able to during the school year, and give the students a broader background in performance skills.

"We can rehearse all day instead of for a one hour block like during the school year, when students have to then run on to their next class," she said.

Gesteland said this year's participants are achieving the goals laid out when the annual festival was launched a year ago.

"We definitely want them to come away with greater confidence in their abilities as artists, and a greater appreciation for the art form," she said. "I think the instructors are having just as much fun with the process as the singers are. There's nothing like seeing a student go from the unknown to the 'a ha' moment when they learn something new.

"It's happening in every rehearsal. The students are improving vocally, and they are taking chances with their characters, and I think because they know this is a safe environment, and we're encouraging them to think as artists, to take creative risks, and to allow themselves to be vulnerable on stage," Gesteland said. "That's a hard thing for young performers to learn, but as an audience member, you want to feel genuinely moved, and the only way for that to happen is for the performer to be genuine, and to really open themselves up, and to be human."

"It's a great opportunity for students to get more performance experience, and this is nice because it's local, and there's always more information to gain from working with Dr. Gesteland and Mr. Piersall," said Susanne Harmon, Sioux Falls, a second year graduate vocal performance student at USD who took part in last year's festival, and came back to receive additional experience at this year's event.

"We get the opportunity to work individually with a vocal coach," she said, "and this is concentrated completely on the performance aspect, and things closely related to performance. During the school year, you're spread a bit thinner because naturally you're involved with other classes … this is kind of like a boot camp, so to speak. You wake up and eat and sleep and breathe opera, and you definitely get to focus all of your energies on singing and performing during the time that you are here."

Gesteland said she has been telling students all week to strive for excellence, but not perfection. "There's no such thing as perfection, and I think a lot of times the younger students get all tangled up in knots because it's not perfect.

"We give them permission to try something new and fail and then try something else," she said.

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