The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center buzzed with excitement last week as strains of orchestral compositions echoed from Whitaker Hall and vocal harmonies from the Lee Theater hung in the air. The bouts of classical music were punctuated with the chatter of young musicians and artists bonding in the lobby.
The bustling atmosphere was due to the annual Des Lee Fine Arts Festival at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Nearly 1,000 high school and middle school students from 15 school districts and more than 40 schools descended upon the Touhill over two days to take part in the event.
The festival, organized by the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative, provided an opportunity for students from across the St. Louis region to sharpen their fine arts skills, perform with fellow burgeoning musicians and showcase their artwork.
“Coming together with students from other parts of the city, they really do interact with people that they probably wouldn’t meet otherwise,” said Michael V. Smith, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Music Education at UMSL who serves as the director of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative. “Meeting while they’re making music in an ensemble for a common purpose, with a common culminating concert in mind, really knits them together in a nice way that I think only making art and making music can do.”
Smith added that he loves to see the faces of students – particularly middle schoolers – as they walk into the Touhill for the first time and take in the grand surroundings.
“It really rather elevates their thoughts about what they’re doing and how important it is,” he said.
Last Tuesday’s festivities catered to high school students, while Wednesday was reserved for middle school students. Music and art educators selected students to participate, and Smith noted there was a record number of applications to take part in this year’s event.
Both days featured clinics and rehearsals for students throughout the day in preparation for an evening concert and visual arts gallery. Students in the band, choir and orchestra ensembles received sheet music for three to four pieces of music in advance of the festival and then worked all day to perfect them under the direction of clinician conductors.
Tyler Belliston, band director at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, brought four students to play in the festival band. Belliston said they were a bit in awe at first but quickly became inspired by the venue and the caliber of their fellow musicians.
“None of my students have done this before, so none of them knew what to expect,” he said. “I think it was a little bit sobering when they walked into the auditorium and saw how nice it was. I’m really excited for them to go back and talk to the other students about it. I’m hoping to create a buzz that this happens, so we could do this every year.”
Ebony Burgess, a junior at Central Visual and Performing Arts who plays bass clarinet, said it was a challenge to learn several pieces in such a short period of time, but it was one she was able to meet.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I feel like I improved a lot. I got it really fast, and it helped to have a big band and a good director.”
Smith said that’s part of the festival’s magic.
“Many students don’t have full ensembles in their school,” he said. “But when they come and are part of a large ensemble and in a beautiful large place with a really fine clinician conductor, it sets the tone and sets hearts and minds to memories that last for a long time.”
Jennifer Fisher, an associate teaching professor and coordinator of art education in UMSL’s Department of Art and Design, oversaw the visual arts section of the festival. The theme of this year’s high school project was “Before the Dawn.”
Students worked for about five hours with an array of materials to complete collages that reflected the theme. Fisher said some students interpreted the project literally while others took more abstract approaches.
“It’s something that not a lot of programs focus on for a long period of time,” she said, explaining the decision to work in collage. “Instead of starting them with drawing, which they’re all generally pretty familiar with, or painting, which they’re all pretty familiar with, we tried to choose mediums that are different than what they might be doing in their home schools.”
Mondis Doyle, a senior at University City High School, enjoyed being surrounded by other artists who worked in a variety of styles and felt accomplished with his work. He created a piece called “Prismatic Awakening,” which featured colorful geometric patterns coming together to form a face.
“I was just feeling colorful today, and in all my art, I pay homage to African people with certain features,” he said.
Smith feels that the festival embodies the overarching mission of the Des Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative and also celebrates it as a way to expose students to higher-education opportunities.
“The high school kids in particular are aware of the fact that they can come to the University of Missouri–St. Louis next year or the following year and be a part of our ensembles, whether they’re a music major or not,” he said. “It’s not just a vocational activity. It’s not something where we think they’re all going to become active professional musicians. Rather, music is a fundamental human activity that all of them will continue to experience and take part in for the rest of their lives, hopefully. We want to encourage them to continue to sing and continue to play and continue to make art long after they leave high school.”