Against what many may believe are all odds, the College of Fine Arts Schools of Music and Theater have found a silver lining in virtual learning this fall.
The new normal of meeting virtually has allowed both schools to broaden their hiring search for vocal instructors and, as a result, have welcomed world-class Broadway actors-vocalists to their ranks. New Artists Coaches of Musical Theater, Michele Ragusa, T. Oliver Reid, and Senobia Smith West are helping students find their voices through remote instruction.
Remote instruction has allowed Ragusa, Reid, and West to join both schools’ communities. All three are committed to helping students find their authentic use of self and reflecting that in their work virtually.
“We saw this as an opportunity to increase the diversity of voices that are in our schools and also get our students in touch with working professionals and experts in the field,” says Alan Kenny, assistant professor and head of Musical Theater.
Michele Ragusa took a detour from business school to pursue a career in the arts and has not looked back. Based in New York City for 32 years, Ragusa is in her seventh Broadway show, Flying Over Sunset. While her extensive work experience brings endless knowledge and skills to share with students, Ragusa says she is creating a safe space for students to learn and grow.
“My mantra is confidence versus competence,” Ragusa says. “I have seen people say they cannot do something because they are not confident; in reality, they do not have the competence. My goal is to have these students walk away with a toolbox [of skills] that they can carry with them throughout their career. I want to help students gain competence so they can then be confident.”
T. Oliver Reid began working professionally three days after graduating from college. Reid is the co-founder of [the] Black Theater Coalition and currently performs in Hadestown, an eight-time Tony Award™ -winner, including Best Musical. Joining the faculty for the Schools of Music and Theater has allowed Reid to help young performers fully embrace their artistry and vocal abilities.
“I hope students walk away with a keen understanding of their instruments and how to use every inch of their voices,” Reid says. “To be a singer of many genres…to know how to take care of their voices when not in a controlled environment like school. It is about longevity in singing.”
Senobia Smith West began teaching voice while in college. She launched her professional music career as a vocalist within the Armed Forces while serving in the United States Army. West has performed in a variety of musical groups from classical to pop/rock, and jazz. West currently collaborates with local organizations and schools to bring vocal health awareness to her community while also training aspiring vocalist. Being a professor has been a lifelong dream for West and in that role, she provides students with the tools for holistic self-development.
“My diverse background has allowed me to meet various artists and see the different paths that students can decide to take,” West says. “These experiences and failures have helped me to grow and come to where I am today. Now I can share them with my students to help them find their own pathway, whatever that might be.”
Christopher Fisher, director of the School of Music, says the artists’ combined expertise will impact student learning.
“We are excited for our students who will greatly benefit from the expertise and collective years of distinguished professional experience of these wonderful new faculty,” he says.
Merri Biechler, director of the School of Theater, says remote instruction by stage artists of this caliber is a safe and strategic path for the school during the pandemic.
“Students are eager to be back rehearsing in studios and performing on stages, but until we can do that safely, remote instruction is an excellent solution,” Biechler says. “Artists are at the forefront of problem solving during this crisis. We know how to work with what we have and make it better.”