20th annual Des Lee Fine Arts Festival showcases student musicians and visual artists in the region

A group of young musicians are reading music and taking direction on stage in a performance theater.

High school student musicians rehearse to perform in the 20th annual Des Lee Fine Arts Festival at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Last week, nearly 900 high school and middle school students from over 30 schools from 15 school districts gathered at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis for the 20th annual Des Lee Fine Arts Festival. The festival featured young musicians and visual artists who came together to play, learn and create.

The event, sponsored by the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative, gave students from all over the St. Louis region an opportunity to enhance their skills, perform with other musicians of varying levels of experience and showcase their artwork.

Michael Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Professor in Music Education at UMSL and the director of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative, believes the musical part of the festival provides an opportunity for many student musicians who may be part of smaller school bands and orchestras to have a broader experience.

“It is a powerful opportunity for young musicians and artists to gather with other talented students from other schools to participate in the festival performing in groups and in the visual arts studio,” Smith said.

Student visual artists got the opportunity to work in an unfamiliar medium, using tape to create artwork on the windows of the Touhill lobby.

Students were selected by their music and arts teachers to participate in the two-day festival. Musicians are given sheet music for three or four selections in December to practice their parts on their own or with their school music director. At the festival, the students come together for a rehearsal, led by different practitioners, that culminates in a concert at the end of each day.

In addition to the artwork created on the lobby windows, visual artists’ work was featured in a gallery showing on both days of the festival.

Dave Wacyk, UMSL’s director of instrumental ensembles and an assistant teaching professor of music, was one of the clinicians directing the student orchestra and enjoyed observing where the students were in their music education progression.

“Conducting and making music with high schoolers is really exciting for me because I spend all my time with college students or older, so it’s really fun for me to see where these students are coming from,” he said. “Also, their directors are with them. I get a really good sense of what their ability levels are right now.”

Challenging their current musical knowledge and skills and being in a space to learn from and progress with other young musicians is something students enjoyed.

Students practice choral music at the Des Lee Fine Arts Festival in the Touhill.

Students practice choral music at the Des Lee Fine Arts Festival in the Touhill.

Jazelle Swope is a sophomore at Jennings High School who plays the violin and is aware of her areas of growth. But through the festival experience she found out she’s actually farther along in her musical development than she once thought. That served as a boon to her confidence.

“First, I was very nervous because I was hearing people playing really good,” Swope said. “But then as I started playing, it just felt kind of good. I was actually able to keep up with them, and I was hitting all the right notes. I’m usually really shy and nervous and always put myself down. I don’t get too optimistic. So I’m hoping that I can get more confidence out of this and play better.”

In addition to musicians, visual artists also got opportunities to showcase their work and learn. Jennifer Fisher, an assistant teaching professor and coordinator of art education in UMSL’s Department of Art and Design, assisted with the coordination of the visual arts section of the festival and believes the format allows students to showcase their abilities equitably.

“The visual arts potion of this festival is, to my knowledge, unlike any other experience offered to visual arts students,” she said. “Instead of having students bring in artwork they’ve created at their school to display, we level the playing field and give all student participants a set time frame and media with which they can work. With that equitable approach, we are constantly impressed by the quality and complexity of the student artworks. They have only six or four hours to sketch their visions and bring them to life, and the results never disappoint.”

Visual arts students create artwork on the windows of the Touhill lobby out of tape.

Visual arts students create artwork on the windows of the Touhill lobby out of tape.

Sadie Malks, a senior at University City High School, was one of the visual artists and participated in the festival for the first time. They’d never worked with tape before.

“I’ve learned to kind of work with a new media,” they said, “kind of go with the flow, because the tapes are hard to work with. There’s definitely some challenges.”

But Malks and the other students figured out how to utilize the tape to make artwork. The setup of the space with students working side-by-side created a collaborative environment that was important to Malks, as they wanted to get to know other young artists.

“I’m the only one from my school,” they said, “so I want to talk to other artists because all of the work is really cool.”

Senior Tarik Brisker, who attends McCluer North High School, is the only tenor saxophone player in his school ensemble, which is relatively small. Being able to play with a large orchestra and with other tenor saxophone players provided an illuminating musical experience for him.

“Getting to actually play with the whole ensemble instead of practicing alone and listening to a recording was really amazing,” he said. “Our band, between two classes, is probably 30 students at the most. It was amazing because I didn’t have to rely on myself and play by myself. I knew if I needed to breathe at one point, somebody else was playing. I could do that.”


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