Wednesday, July 10, 2013

ReMixing New Music with Musiqa's Resident Artist Karol Bennett

Karol Bennett Performing Around the World with Musiqa
It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but an inevitable truth that during these tightened economic times, art programs are usually the first to be removed from the public school curriculum. However, supportive of artistic efforts, the Houston area is filled with organizations fighting to place the arts back into schools. Locally, nationally, and internationally, Musiqa has gained a lot of respect for its artistic vision and emphasis on education. Musiqa’s resident artist Karol Bennett seized the opportunity to be a part of these inspiring programs.

As the face of Musiqa’s educational programs, soprano Karol Bennett strives to give new music a venue of its own, especially in an environment where folk songs and contemporary classical music may not be exposed. Winner of six consecutive awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Musiqa’s educational programs give inner city school children an opportunity to visit theatre halls in Downtown Houston, learn about various composers and how they create music, and folk songs from around the world.

Musiqa’s two educational programs are offered to public school children at no cost to schools, including an in-school workshop, teacher study materials, school bus transportation and the downtown performance. Musiqa’s programs have served almost 30,000 students from over 75-area public schools, nearly all Title I qualified. Title I, which ensures that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education, aims to improve the academic achievement of the disadvantaged. Musiqa also offers semester and year-long residencies at area public schools that integrate arts enrichment into the curriculum.

Around the World with Musiqa, for grades 2-4, is an interactive program that introduces students to folk songs from around the world, demonstrating how composers take the shared songs of a culture and make them come alive in an imaginative way. Musiqa ReMix, for grades 4-7, takes the students inside pieces of music to show how they are created. Both programs are highly interactive, feature a stellar cast of performers, include surtitles to help the students follow along, lighting and props for a full experience. These programs require no previous musical experience, and a CD and DVD are included for every classroom. 

Ms. Bennett grew up in Kansas where she began singing at a very young age. Whether she was humming along with the radio during family road trips or singing with her school choir, it was evident she possessed a special talent that needed to be shared.
Karol Bennett (left) Performing in Another Musiqa ReMix Performance
Coincidentally, the vice principal of her high school was a singer as well. “I was called to the principal’s office!” Bennett admitted. “He wanted to talk to me about my singing. He told me I had a beautiful voice and a lot of talent.” 

A teacher at the University of Kansas City-Missouri Conservatory got word of Bennett’s talent through her vice principal. Bennett began studying at the Conservatory from age 15 through college, where she was honored as the Kansas City Conservatory’s “Alumna of the Year” in 1996. She also studied at the Yale School of Music, where she sang with a plethora of composers. From then, her repertoire significantly expanded, ranging from Baroque music to numerous contemporary works, many written especially for her. Her oratorio and orchestral appearances include works by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, FaurĂ©, Verdi, Mahler, Barber, Orff and Bernstein.

The New York Times hails Bennett for her “sumptuous sound, wrenching poignancy, and faultless musicianship.” Her honors include the Pro Musicis International Award, a fellowship from the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, a Duo Recitalists Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Artistic Ambassadorship, where she sang in Taiwan and South Korea. She has taught master classes in Russia, Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, and at many universities in the United States. During her time abroad, she gathered folk songs from different countries, and saw the impact of how international folk music brings communities closer together. This sparked the beginning of Bennett’s passion for folk music, a genre she believes to carry strong messages.

Bennett implements her folk fascination into Around the World with Musiqa, in which she gives young students a chance to recognize and express their voices. The education programs teach the students what folk songs are about, as well as where they originated. “We provide emotional support and a connection,” Bennett said. “When you feel a connection with a song, you can sing very well.”

Full body singing is one aspect Bennett repeatedly emphasizes throughout the programs. Through this particular technique, the students learn to escape their self-doubt and release the songs with ease.

“You learn to sing out and stand up for yourself,” Bennett explains. 

“By standing tall, breathing, and singing in full body, that’s how you have courage and the ability to express it.”

Bennett proudly tells the students “our voice is a vote, and your voice matters.” The programs aren’t simply about singing in tune, but singing together to form a choir. She loves telling the students to exclaim, ‘I can sing, and I have a beautiful voice!’

Karol Bennett Performing Musiqa Remix
“I feel so connected to the students and the teachers. We all support each other.” Bennett addresses the long-term impact a fine arts education makes on the students. She says they are genuinely excited to be a part of the programs.

“It’s an hour of release and therapy for them,” Bennett said. “It’s really healthy.”

The teachers also engage in ‘musical therapy.’ Ms. Monica Harris, an elementary and middle school music and choir teacher, opened up to her students at Billy Reagan K-8 Educational Center about her love for singing. Harris taught herself to play piano and was always self-motivated. She practiced singing in her garage and auditioned for the renowned High School for the Performing Arts in Houston, where she was accepted, even though she had no formal training. She wanted her students to understand the importance of following their dreams no matter what. “She sang for her students from the back of the hall,” Bennett said. “It was moving how beautiful her voice was.”

Having the privilege of sharing their voices and expressing their desire to sing is what makes these programs so inspiring to the students. “In this culture, there seems to be no time, no chance,” Bennett said. “People just don’t sing anymore, especially without a microphone.”

Bennett wants to give the teachers and students a chance to perform in the programs’ concerts. She feels it’s the best next step for the programs. “When they sing, they sing loud and full,” she explained. “It’s like they’re singing for me.” Such a feeling brings great joy to her heart-- A joy that she truly appreciates and wants to continue to share. 

Karol Bennett Performing Around the World with Musiqa

“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me feel,” Bennett expressed. “It really is a blessing.”
This summer, Bennett will be singing in Maine with a string quartet. She’ll also be performing internationally and doing community service concerts through Pro Musicis, a non-denominational organization in France founded by Father Eugene Merlet, for the international exchange and career development of concert artists.

As winner of the Pro Musicis Award in 1993, she has performed at nursing homes, hospitals, day care centers and a woman's prison. She’ll be performing another series of community service concerts this summer. “It’s an incredible opportunity to remember why you’re doing this,” Bennett said. “That’s what keeps it real.”

“Musicians of the highest caliber perform for people who wouldn’t normally get to hear it,” Bennett said. “It’s not only important for people hearing it, but also for the people doing it.”

Bennett plans to continue sharing her powerful gift in concerts around the world and will continue her activities with Musiqa’s education programs next fall.

Written by Mia M. Smith