On February 17, seven standout American University music majors received Koster Foundation Summer Study Grants to pursue their musical ambitions. Now, because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, their travel plans are suddenly very uncertain. But these talented students remain hopeful and thankful—and completely focused on accomplishing their dreams, one way or another.
This is the fourth year that AU’s Music Program has received these generous grants from the Marinus and Minna B. Koster Foundation. Each year, they have supported life-changing summer music study opportunities for AU students. “The American University Music Program is deeply grateful to the foundation for what they have made possible,” says AU Music Program senior faculty member and grant custodian Nancy Jo Snider. “The range of musical activities has been broad, and our best students, who otherwise would not have had the resources, have been able to pursue their dreams and vastly expand their musical horizons.”
Snider points out that this year’s Koster Summer Study Grant Fellows are, like the rest of us, facing uncertainty due to the pandemic. “Their continued optimism, creative flexibility, and unwavering commitment to their music is an inspiration for all of us,” she says. She and other members of AU’s Music Program faculty are working closely with each fellow to revise their plans and proposals as necessary during this very fluid situation.
A Change of Plans
Oliver Hunter (SIS and music ’20) received a Koster grant to travel to Old Crow, Yukon, to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with elders and other indigenous musicians at the Caribou Days Cultural Festival this summer.
Although he had to cancel these plans, Hunter has come up with an alternative project that he can do from home. “Now I am working on a video essay that explores the topic of public ethnomusicology. For this, I will be focusing on institutions in DC like the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,” he explains.
This is Hunter’s third Koster grant, and he credits it for helping him discover his passion for ethnomusicology. “I've been able to develop important skills that will help me as I pursue a PhD in ethnomusicology,” he says. “The grant further allowed me to submit competitive applications to other grants and academic programs. I was recently named a Fulbright semi-finalist and will hear back about the final results in less than a week!”
Lighting Up a Path
Emily Sherman (BA music ’20) has been accepted into the Miami Classical Music Festival’s Opera Institute for the month of June. She has been planning on performing in the opera Cendrillon and in opera scene recitals. Voice lessons and coaching are part of her grant.
Sherman says this opportunity would mean the world to her. “Being given such a huge, supportive offering has allowed me to pursue my dreams without so much of a financial burden, as these summer programs cost exorbitant amounts of money that I simply couldn’t pay comfortably otherwise,” she explains. “Because this program will change me as an artist for the better and put me on a clearer path to my future as a musician and performer, I believe the Koster Foundation has offered me more than I can ever repay.”
For now, Sherman still plans on attending the Miami Classical Music Festival, although its fate is uncertain. “I am just waiting for them to make a decision, and I am preparing for anything at this point,” she says. “I’m hoping for the best and trying to stay positive. I hope that even if the festival is canceled, I will have learned a great role, and I will have time to learn a lot more music when stuck at home!”
Committed to Dreams
Gabe Simerson (BA political science and music ’20) received a Koster Foundation grant to return to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied abroad in fall 2019. His plans were to study harpsichord performance practice with John Kitchen, a Scottish organist, conductor, and educator. Kitchen is known as one of Britain’s most prominent figures in the study and performance of early keyboard repertoire, particularly in the French harpsichord canon. He also serves as the Edinburgh City Organist and the Edinburgh University Organist.
Simerson says his grant would been particularly meaningful because they would have made it possible for him to return to one of his favorite places. But he was also thrilled at the opportunity to study with Kitchen. “I had the privilege of running into a true artist and authority on this subject, and one who’d be more than willing to teach me,” he says. “Any time with him would have been very valuable.”
Simerson was not always a music student, and he credits AU’s Department of Performing Arts (DPA) for helping him find his calling. “I’m a very late arrival to this music major, having deluded myself for years into thinking I could just ignore the musical element of my life in terms of professional trajectory,” he says. “Yet the Department of Performing Arts has been unbelievably committed to helping me figure out how to ‘turn myself around.’ This grant was just the latest of many ways in which the DPA has showed faith in me as a late-stage, fledgling major.”
Simerson says that the grant is more than just a trip to him. “It’s a commitment to a student’s dreams. That’s something the faculty of the DPA do very well, and comparatively quietly.”
He is beginning to think about domestic alternatives to Scotland. “There are many quality educators and programs in the United States, but it’s up in the air as to which ones will be able to function in a few months’ time. On the bright side, domestic travel will be cheaper, and so the hunt for alternatives may actually turn up a greater selection...but that’s all to be determined.”
Believing in Students
Sylvie Wickwire (BA music, marketing minor ’22) received a grant to attend the New York Lyric Opera Company Summer Program in New York City. The program gives young classical singers a chance to participate in operas, and to take classes on performance etiquette, personal marketing, and stage acting.
Like her peers, Wickwire talks about gratitude. “This grant means an incredible amount to me because it shows that this program believes in me enough to fund outside training to help further my future career, and I couldn’t be more grateful for their trust.”
The complete list of 2020 Koster Summer Study Grant Fellows:
- Emily Sherman: Miami Music Festival
- Sylvie Wickwire: New York Lyric Opera Summer Program
- Sabrina Ortiz Vazquez: Puerto Rico Ethnomusicology Project
- Gabriel Simerson: Harpsichord study in Edinburgh with Dr. John Kitchen MBE
- Zachary Mills: Welsh Fiddle Archival Recording Project
- Oliver Hunter: “Hearing A Caribou People: Intersections of Music, Indigeneity and Political Ecology in the Old Crow, Yukon”
- Anna Evans: Summer performance program (piano)