Tubist takes top prize

Running Start Competition winner commissions composers of color.

While College of Music students and faculty work together remotely to complete their studies, we feel it is important during these trying times to be reminded of the power of music, outreach, and innovation. It is in this spirit that we continue to share our stories.

MSU graduate student Jasmine Pigott loves playing the tuba, and it showed during her Running Start Competition presentation.

Jasmine “Jazzie” Pigott said her world changed the day she discovered a classical musician who was female, black and making it in the solo world as a prominent tubist. Today, the MSU master’s student in tuba performance looks to inspire the next generation of black girls by creating a tuba album written by young composers of color.

Pigott’s project to bridge gaps in representation and musical styles recently received top prize from the annual Running Start Competition through the MSU College of Music. She’s commissioned four composers to write three- to five-minute pieces with black music styles including funk, hip-hop, soul, R&B and the spoken word. Marketing-wise, she looks to target groups through social media, churches and schools, and to encourage K-12 students of color to join and thrive within their school’s classical music programs.

“I remember that moment in 10th grade when I went home, opened my computer and saw Velvet Brown—a black woman—playing tuba on my screen,” said Pigott. “My goal is to reach black girls and students of color who will have a moment like that and say, ‘Hey, this looks like me. This is something I can do,’ and want to play tuba and join their school’s music program, too.”

Jasmine Pigott receives her grand prize award in the 2020 College of Music Running Start Competition.

Seeking inclusion

Pigott was drawn to play the tuba as a preschooler watching cartoons. She had seen Larry the Cucumber from VeggieTales play oompah-style pieces on the tuba, and thought it looked like fun to play an instrument that “wrapped around her.” When it came time to sign-up for band in school, she picked trombone, mistaking it for the tuba. She played that for a year, then switched, circling back to her dream.

Pigott exceled. At first, she didn’t think about being one of a few blacks in her high school band since she attended a majority white school on Long Island. But after noticing she was the only black person in her 2013 All-County high school band, she began thinking more about representation in classical music. Heading off to college, she became involved in diversity and inclusion groups as an undergraduate, and later founded an organization for Ithaca College Musicians of Color.

“Aside from some socioeconomic differences, students in diverse populations are less likely to pursue and listen to classical music because of lack of representation in artists and styles,” she said. “I wanted to figure out a solution.”

MSU Professor of Tuba and Euphonium Phil Sinder met Pigott when she was a finalist for the Leonard Falcone International Euphonium and Tuba Festival Competition in 2016. He noticed her drive and tenacity, and her ability to perform under pressure, and talked with her about coming to MSU for graduate studies.

“Jazzie has a beautiful lyrical approach to the instrument, and couples that with strong range and technique,” he said. “It is no surprise that there are very few black female professional tubists, but Jazzie has the talent and the confidence to make an impact in the field, and to stand as a mentor and leader for the coming generation.”

Pigott started her master’s at MSU in 2019. Interested in showcasing the tuba’s versatility, she began exploring ways to incorporate black music styles into tuba repertoire. Her research led to her planning a presentation for the 2020 Northeast Regional Tuba/Euphonium Conference at Ithaca College, as well as her entry into the 2020 Running Start Competition.

“The virtuosity of the tuba is hidden except to tuba players,” she said. “This recording will allow people to see this instrument as really cool, get students of color interested in classical music, and create a movement for other styles, too.”

Pigott said her four composers are on track to complete their pieces by May. Composers include MSU College of Music students Jordyn Davis and Daijana Wallace, and Ithaca College’s Malachi Brown and Keeghan Fountain. Once the pieces are written, Pigott plans to pique interest by touring schools and churches in predominantly black communities this summer. She will look ahead to recording the four compositions in New York City, pressing a limited number of CDs, and streaming pieces through Spotify or Apple Music after lining up additional support and collaborators.

“Ultimately, my goal with this project is to reach students of color who will hear these compositions and want to play classical music or participate in their school music programs,” she said.

All of the 2020 winners posed at the end of the live pitch with representatives from the MSUFCU and the College of Music.

A testament to entrepreneurship

Christine Beamer coordinates the Running Start program and competition as the director of career services and music entrepreneurship in the College of Music. She said Pigott’s entry was reflective of the number of students presenting concepts that addressed representation in music.

“Students are thinking more and more about who is being represented and who is not and how we can advance diversity, equity, and inclusion through our work,” Beamer said. “The music industry will only change if we stand up and start changing it, and that is what these students are challenging all of us to do.”

Seventeen proposals were submitted for the seventh annual competition that gives College of Music students the opportunity to design a project or business that features creative content, uses a unique model or approach, reaches a new audience, or does something better in the world of music. Of those proposals, eight finalists were selected to pitch their idea to a panel of judges and compete for awards of up to $2,500.

Beamer noted that the event was more competitive this year. Students submitted a wide range of projects from in-person concerts, commissions, albums, new products and start-ups. Undergraduates, graduates, international students and even a consortium of student organizations were among those entering. Also in the mix were groups that had founded their own LLCs or non-profits, or previous award-winners pitching new concepts and ventures.

“The best testimony to the growth of entrepreneurship at the College of Music is watching students get better every year in their pitches,” Beamer said. “It’s wonderful to see their passion, and their ability to clearly and persuasively communicate their ideas so others see the importance of their ventures. That is truly a skill that will serve them both on and off the stage in the future.”

Beamer said that while all finalists participating in the Live Pitch event walked away with experience and some financial support, winning the grand prize was key for Pigott to move on to the next phase of her project.

“Jasmine is a persuasive and articulate speaker, an excellent musician, and has clear, innovative ideas,” Beamer said. “She is using the Running Start grant as a steppingstone to additional opportunities, and I can’t wait to see where her career goes next .”

College of Music students pitched their concepts to a panel of five judges, a live audience, and to the public via Livestream. The event was held in early February in Hollander Hall in the Music Building on campus. In addition to Jazzie Pigott winning the grand prize, seven other presentations from College of Music students during the 2020 Running Start Competition earned cash awards to help their projects move forward. Here are their presentations.

$1,000 - Sofia Rabiela and Leah Racine: Women in Jazz


$1,000 - James Brinkmann: El-evating Art


$1,000 - Colton Wansitler, Nick Schumacher, and Natalie Law: Woodwind Quintet Method Book


$1,000 - Belle Coty: Concert Convoy


$750 - Wei Jia: Bailu Concert Series


$500 - Hannah Boissenault: Tastes Like Honey album


$500 - Nick Culver, Tyler Stump, Katie Huizinga, and Theo Van Egeren: TBS, KKP, SAI, PMA commission

Sponsors of the 2020 Running Start Competition were lead sponsor MSU Federal Credit Union, Joe Zenas, Withrow Career Building Endowment, Joe Ballanca in memory of his father, and the Give Green Day 2019 contributors. Judges were Joe Zenas, Thinkwell Group; Ann Ruffley, ArtOps Detroit; John Churchville, music education consultant; Joe Guarr, Hartland Middle School, and Ashlee Willis, Michigan Premier Events.

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