The Local Voice

Experience and Opportunity Meet in the University of Mississippi Music Department

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Graduate assistants gain valuable professional skills while developing as musicians

Among the faculty, staff and students at the University of Mississippi Department of Music is a cohort of musicians and music educators who fall into more than one of those categories.

They are graduate assistants, and while they’re pursuing advanced degrees, they also perform important work that pushes the department forward and gives them valuable experience. Graduate assistants, or GAs, play a variety of roles, said Selim Giray, UM director of orchestral studies.

“As part of their work toward a master’s or doctoral degree, our graduate assistants have the chance to take on substantial roles in teaching, performing and managing ensembles and programs,” he said.

Violinist Alex Urbina, a UM doctoral student in music education, performs with the LOU Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Pursuing a doctoral degree in music education, violinist Alex Urbina said that some of his favorite work as a GA involves working with students in the Oxford String Project. The OSP teaches the fundamentals of string instruments to students in third to sixth grades and gives them experience performing within a string ensemble.

Urbina, from San Pedro, Honduras, said that working with OSP reminds him how important it is to give beginning players a fun, quality musical experience as they begin a string instrument. Urbina is also enjoying teaching two sections of Fundamentals of Music Theory to Ole Miss students.

Jiwon Lee, of Oxford, who is working toward a master’s in music performance in both violin and flute, is co-teaching String Methods to UM music education majors. The opportunity to teach has been fulfilling in more than one way, she said.

“Growing up with my parents being college professors, I dreamed of the day when I would have my own students, teaching and grading papers,” she said. 

But teaching has also had unexpected benefits on her own technique, Lee said.

“Seeing non-string players learn how to play the violin or cello helps me think through the questions they ask, even the ones I have never considered before,” she said. “As a performer, I find myself correcting my own bad posture and bad habits. I am so grateful for this opportunity.”

UM doctoral candidate Starkey Morgan teaches and leads the cello section of the LOU Symphony Orchestra.

Doctoral candidate Starkey Morgan, of Ridgeland, has taught String Methods before and is team-teaching this semester’s course with Lee.

“It’s a huge bonus,” he said, reflecting on classroom teaching. “It’s not something I anticipated doing while here, but it has surely helped me grow in numerous ways.”

In the midst of these other opportunities, string GAs continue to develop as musicians. 

One of Morgan’s chief responsibilities is leading the cello section in the LOU Symphony Orchestra. As section leader, he provides cello bowing instructions for all the music and has had opportunities to lead rehearsals and conduct in performance.

“This has helped my conducting and leadership skills grow immensely,” he said.

Urbina is concertmaster for the LOU Symphony, a key leadership position in any orchestra. Like Morgan, he has learned from his opportunities to conduct in both rehearsal and performance settings. He also helps manage the orchestra’s library, creates bow markings for viola and violin parts, and works with students during string sections.

Chengyu Ren, a master’s student from Yantai, China, values her experience working with the orchestra, too.

“My favorite thing about being a GA is coaching the undergraduate quartet rehearsals,” she said, also citing her opportunities to perform and teach with the Oxford String Project as key learning moments. She credits the strength of the department’s graduate program to the quality of its instructors and the range of opportunities available to GAs. 

Urbina appreciates the experience he’s gaining in the music department as he considers his future as both a violinist and a teacher.

“If you are seeking a degree to expand your education experience and opportunity to teach at the college level, UM is the right institution,” he said.

Assistantships help prepare graduate students for many possible paths, Giray said.

“By the time string GAs leave us, they will be ready for professions in several essential areas: performance, teaching, orchestra management and working in community programs like the Oxford String Project,” he said. “This work prepares them for careers in any or all of these areas.”

“Our graduate music programs guarantee opportunities that most schools cannot,” said Nancy Maria Balach, the department’s interim chair. “In addition to amazing GA assignments, our graduate students work closely with top-tier research faculty in courses and on research projects. The mentorship in our department is stellar.”

The Department of Music offers graduate degrees and assistantships in music education, musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, choral conducting and music performance, which includes instrumental, voice and piano.

A new string-area graduate assistantship starts in January 2021. Potential applicants can contact Giray at sgiray@olemiss.edu for information.

By Lynn Adams Wilkins

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