As the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith transitioned classes to online delivery for the Spring 2020 semester, Dr. Tommy Dobbs, instructor of music, called in some favors to make the change a little easier – and more fun – for his students. Instead of traditional online course assignments, Dobbs instead presented a slate of industry professionals to host virtual clinics for his Percussion Studio class.
“I originally planned a completely different set of assignments and activities for the students once we went to online teaching,” he said. “But after the first week, I noticed that the students were getting a bit burnt out with other classwork and assignments. So, I thought it would be nice for them to learn from some world-renowned experts instead of working on lengthy papers and assignments. Basically, I wanted to create the same environment that we would have in person if these artists were actually on campus.”
“When I first heard about classes being moved fully online for the rest of the semester due to COVID-19, one of the firsts things I thought of was how we were going to be able to have percussion ensemble without our instruments and face-to-face meetings,” confessed Darci Wright, a junior music education major who participated in the online clinics. “Though it crossed my mind, I was never scared that I would fall behind. Dr. Dobbs works tirelessly to make sure his students get the best possible education 100% of the time.”
Dobbs called on friends who are established in the field, offering to trade them a clinic led by him for one in return. Six top-tier percussionists responded, each conducting an online clinic this semester for UAFS students. These clinics introduced percussion students (and any UAFS students who were interested in joining the session,) to various instruments and styles not typically taught in the classroom.
“These highly established percussionists are teaching material that we would never have the time or opportunity to cover during normal class time,” said Wright. “These clinicians come from a wide range of places, stretching all the way from California and New York, to being as close as Oklahoma City. The variety of education and networking we are receiving in such a short amount of time is priceless.”
The session leaders also reminded the artists of the value of music during times of stress.
“I want my students first to see one important thing: In times of crisis and fear, musicians (no matter how famous) are here to uplift and bring momentary peace from the world around them,” Dobbs said. “These artists are at the top of their field and do not have to do what they are doing. They inspire on a daily basis, and I wanted my students to see that and be inspired by it.”
Dr. Dobbs also said he hoped the clinics would provide some time for each student to have a break and recharge through their creativity.
“I honestly wanted to give them an hour or two of freedom from the stresses of homework, the news, their jobs, and family problems. It’s important that artists have time to rest and recharge in order to be creative. These students will work themselves to death if I ask them. They are dedicated beyond belief. However, knowing that they will do that means it’s also important to show them that we need a break. We need to be inspired. We need to laugh for no other reason than to laugh.”
“The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith Percussion Studio has something very special and contagious going on,” added Wright. “I’m not aware of any other instructor anywhere that is doing anything like this for their studio and strangers alike. Through this chaotic and uncertain time, Dr. Dobbs has created a sense of normalcy, community, and educational hunger for anyone who is interested.”
Presenting clinicians and topics were:
• Richard Henson, coordinator of percussion studies at Southern Adventist University, presented “Frame Drum Fundamentals: Riq and Tar,” focusing on Middle Eastern tambourines
• Melinda Leoce, instructor of percussion at Graceland University, presented “Introduction to Brazilian Samba Batucada,” focusing on the history of the music, showing musical examples, and teaching us how to perform traditional Samba music
• Jamie Wind Whitmarsh, Oklahoma City University faculty and principal timpanist for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, presented two clinics: “Composition” on how to write music and “How Big is Your Bubble?” on how to make a living as a professional musician.
• Steve Picataggio, New York City freelance musician, presented “Jazz Drumset: Playing the Gig,” explaining how to perform as a working drumset player.
• Dr. Tyler Tolles, senior airman with the United States Air Force Band of the Golden West, “Air Force Band Careers,” exploring life as a working musician in the military.
• Dr. T. Adam Blackstock, associate professor of percussion studies at Troy University, “Marimba: Warmup and Performance,” focusing on marimba fundamentals and performance.
Each clinic was recorded for later viewing by anyone unable to attend, and Dobbs hopes the artistry displayed will remind all aspiring musicians and artists of the innate value art has – especially in times of turmoil.
“Music is truly the light that will shine through anything. Literal darkness, personal sadness, and fear can all be pushed aside with a song, a performance, or a practice session,” Dobbs said. “We, as artists, have the highest calling in times like this. We should be performing, discussing, and providing people with an escape.”
“Whether it’s your favorite Jimmy Buffet tune that reminds you of that last cruise or that Brahms symphony that brought you tears, Music is a light. It has unimaginable power and control over the human mind. In an instant you can be transported to a past memory or push forward to a future that has yet to be written. You can be crushed into a thousand pieces by a lyric and instantly restored with the sound of a guitar lick.”
“We are critical for the human mind, if for no other reason than to provide momentary relief. It is the world’s responsibility to not forget why the abovementioned actions happen when you listen to or perform music. While we are focused so much on band-aids and respirators, let us not forget that when someone is physically healed they might not be emotionally or mentally healed. That’s where we come in. That’s how you sustain a wholly healthy life: With the arts.”
For more information on the UAFS music program, visit: https://class.uafs.edu/humanities, and to join Dobbs and his percussion class on social media, visit: @UAFSPercussion on Facebook and Instagram, and www.tommydobbspercussion.com to see the studio.