Providing spaces for performance and practice

Alumni finding ways to help students prepare for their careers.

MSU Jazz Studies students perform at the Beacon Hill Community House Auditorium in the first concert of a new series.

One of the primary goals of the College of Music at Michigan State University is to supply music students with a variety of opportunities, and the physical spaces that those opportunities happen are a critical part of the student experience.

Performance majors, for example, require ample stage time for their growth and development as professionals. As the old saying goes, one gig is worth ten rehearsals. But as important as getting gigs is having a diversity of places where young musicians perform, having a diversity of audiences they are challenged to impress, and having rehearsal spaces that help them prepare in the best environment possible.

Luckily for College of Music students, there are people who recognize these needs and find ways to help. Case in point is the new Beacon Hill Music Series that premiered in spring 2018.

The Beacon Hill Community House Auditorium is a small but professionally designed performance space created for residents of the Beacon Hill retirement community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Among its residents are Chuck and Philippa Webb, both alumni and retirees of Michigan State University. Philippa Webb explained that there is a good sized Spartan population in this particular west Michigan residential area, and with MSU student musicians they saw an opportunity to bring spirited young performers to the stage while also giving those performers some valuable experience.

The MSU Kynetic Saxophone Quartet with Philippa and Chuck Webb, Beacon Hill residents, MSU alumni and MSU retirees who spearheaded the new series in Grand Rapids.

“We spoke with Dean Jim Forger at one point, and we were delighted that he was eager to work with us to create a new concert series here in Grand Rapids,” Philippa Webb said. “Chuck and I helped to make the connection, which resulted in four exceptional student performances that drew some of our largest crowds.”

The new series kicked off in January with a jazz quartet and continued in February with Kynetic, an MSU saxophone quartet. Presented in April was the MSU Piano Potpourri featuring piano 4-hands, and in May the MSU Voice Area was featured. The Webbs said the feedback from residents was great, and the students also carried themselves well as public speakers during their interactions with audience members.

Beacon Hill resident Dorothy Zoellner agreed. Six of her seven children are MSU alumni, so she was quite proud of how the student performers handled themselves.

“Those of us who live here were very enthusiastic about the programs the students were bringing,” Zoellner said. “What they were delivering was perfect for us. People here were receptive, and it was nice to see their personalities come out on stage.”

Having the chance to impress a new audience in a new venue and town is invaluable for student performers, but so is having adequate spaces to rehearse for performances such as those at Beacon Hill. Alumni of the college surely recall the challenges students face given the current practice room situation – there aren’t enough of them, most are far too small for any of the larger instruments, and there isn’t enough sound proofing or acoustic protection for student’s ears.

Those issues are being addressed through the new MSU Music Pavilion project, a 35,000 square foot addition plus 8,500 square feet of renovated space that will transform the College of Music. The MSU Board of Trustees granted approval to proceed, and plans are underway for a fall groundbreaking.

“I worked at the university for a number of years, and the facilities needs of the College of Music have been known for a long time,” explained Chuck Webb. “As I understand it, an expansion and improvement of practice spaces for students is one of the top priorities of the new building project, and I and many of my fellow alumni are fully supportive of that goal. Anyone who has the pleasure of seeing and hearing MSU student musicians like the ones who performed this year at our new Beacon Hill series would agree that these talented young people deserve to have practice spaces that match their high quality and professionalism.”

Liany Mateo is a jazz bass major who played in the jazz quartet in January. She had a great experience at Beacon Hill and appreciates the MSU alumni there who recognize the need to help her and other students have better practice spaces.

“The people at Beacon Hill were really great to us, it was definitely one of the better gigs that we’ve done this year. They allowed us to explore artistically,” Mateo said.

Students like Mateo take their professional preparation seriously and recognize the importance of alumni support for improved practice spaces.

“The help we get from alumni is amazing. The practice rooms are kind of like our office as musicians, because that’s where we get all of our work done,” Mateo said. “I’m really excited for them to be more welcoming, more encouraging and really nice for us so we can just focus on making music.”

If you would like more information about naming opportunities in the Music Pavilion, please contact Senior Director of Development Rebecca Surian at or (517) 353-9872.

Chuck and Philippa Webb at Beacon Hill Auditorium with MSU Vocal Area faculty and students as well as others including Dee and Byron Cook and Dean James Forger.

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