“Without risk, there is no gain.” Though this motto is part of every Tiffin University story, the 14,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art Performing Arts Lab (PAL) stands as a visible testament. With two acoustically isolated rehearsal halls, keyboard and production lab, multi-track digital recording studio, practice rooms, teaching studios and outdoor performance space, the building is considered one of the leading college music facilities in the nation, among small private colleges.
But before the shiny new PAL building went up on Miami Street, there were humble beginnings for the TU music department, followed by years of forging ahead against overwhelming odds. Guiding this undertaking has been Brad Rees, Executive Director of Arts Programs, who started his career at TU in the student affairs department in 1995.
TU MUSIC’S EARLY YEARS
Dr. George Kidd, then president of TU, decided to start an extracurricular choir and tapped Rees to direct it. Up in the Air, an a cappella vocal jazz ensemble, soon followed and became a hit, at a time when contemporary a cappella was still in its infancy, long before “The Sing Off ” and “Pitch Perfect.” Next came a pep band to support sports teams, the beginning of a focused effort toward building a music program. Ensembles were built around the talents and interests of TU students, with rock and soul/funk bands filling musical niches not found in other college music programs.
None of this was easy, or comfortable, however. Rehearsals were scattered among various campus facilities, including an old cinderblock garage that had formerly been a locker room, with instruments stored in an area that was once a walk-in shower. When they outgrew these, Osceola Theater, a multipurpose space in the Student Center was built. But because the theatre was used for dozens of other activities, the music department had to set up and tear down two or three times every day, moving instruments in and out of an adjacent office/storage room.
When Paul Marion became president in 2002, resources were finally put into building a formal music program with academic classes. The Hayes Center for the Arts, already under construction, had a second story added for music classes and rehearsals. However, because it wasn’t designed to be soundproofed, the sound transfer throughout the building was a significant challenge, as was the fact that there was no performance space.
Rees remembers, “For fourteen years we hauled everything down a flight of stairs, across the street and into the Osceola Theater, then back across the street and up a flight of stairs, sometimes a couple of times a week in busy seasons.”
With President Marion’s support, the music department partnered with the School of Business to offer an Arts Management concentration. Eventually, the program was moved into the School of Arts and Sciences and the first degrees in Arts Administration were awarded, giving students a deeper body of coursework to draw on.
At the time, there were few college-level programs in popular and commercial music, something TU saw as an opportunity. A commercial Music Performance degree was designed and launched, in anticipation of music facilities that would eventually become the Performing Arts Lab. Since those facilities were still years away from becoming reality, once again the scrappy music department team had to be inventive to support its first music majors. Practice rooms were built into the basement of St. Mary’s School and in available corners of student dormitories.
At last, because of major gifts and pledge commitments from individuals, organizations and foundations, along with scores of gifts from donors throughout northern Ohio and beyond, the $3 million Performing Arts Lab was completed in 2017. Spacious enough for rehearsals, classes, practice sessions, and recording projects the PAL currently serves some 200 students. The conveniently adjacent Marion Center is able to accommodate audiences up to 500.
A VANGUARD PROGRAM
Over the years, TU has become known for its diverse music ensembles. Initially, some of the smaller groups were student-led, with faculty members facilitating. When students approached Rees wanting to form a hip-hop band, he gave them equipment, rehearsal space and help with musical arrangements. As the department started to formulate its academic plan, it became clear that there was an opportunity to meet the educational needs of student musicians who were not being served by other college programs.
Today, TU is on the cutting edge of higher-level music education. Most college programs are still based on the European musical tradition, and largely ignore much of the knowledge needed for successful careers in contemporary performance, recording, songwriting or the many other jobs in the music industry. The TU music department’s intentional focus on hip hop and other contemporary styles is a risk that is already delivering dividends, and the program’s reputation for innovative teaching methods, courses and industry connections continues to grow.
Over 20 extracurricular instrumental and vocal ensembles span a wide variety of styles, from traditional marching and concert music to jazz, rock, pop, gospel, hip-hop, roots and a cappella. A concert production team provides technical, logistical, marketing and promotional support. Students also work together to write and produce original songs in a workshop environment and in the campus recording studio, under the guidance of faculty member Alex Manfredo.
Over nearly a quarter of a century, through the vision of Brad Rees, TU music has continually challenged conventional wisdom, broken new educational ground and set the bar for higher music education in the 21st century. To hear original songs and arrangements created by TU students and staff, go to soundcloud.com/TiffinMusic or soundcloud.com/TiffinMusicStudios.