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Arts, Sports & Culture

New Residency Program Aims To Boost Pittsburgh's Black Music Teaching Artists

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Brittany Trotter is one of two inaugural artists in the program.

It’s a kind of open secret: Very few artists make a living solely from their creative work. The vast majority of painters, poets, dancers, and actors hold down day jobs. The same goes for most musicians – and perhaps especially Black composers and musicians, who often lack the institutional support given to their white peers.

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Denele D. Biggs
Kendra Ross, of ACT3 Consulting, co-created the residency program.

That's the problem the Black Teaching Artist-in-Residence Program hopes to address. In February, this initiative of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit UniSound – a collaborative of some three dozen area organizations that helps kids create music – welcomed its inaugural class of two artists.

For seven months, multidisciplinary performance artist and educator Lyn Starr and performer and educator Brittany Trotter will receive monthly stipends of $1,000, plus up to $2,000 in additional assistance. They’ll also receive professional development help from ACT3 Consulting, the company that created the program with UniSound. This year's residency is already underway, and runs through August.

The goal is to make Pittsburgh’s music ecosystem more diverse and equitable.

“At first we were thinking on the nationwide level, but we thought, there’s so many amazing Black musicians and teaching artists in Pittsburgh who are not able first of all practice their art as much as they would like, because there are not that many opportunities for them to do so, right?” said ACT3’s Kendra Ross, a musician and former executive with Universal Music Group who now teaches at Point Park University.

“We believe that artists are going to be that much more powerful in the classroom, if they themselves are able to invest time in their own art and their own practice,” added Ross, who developed the residency with her partners Denele Biggs and Tanika Harris.

"The key thing is having more time to work on my own artistry"

Starr grew up on the North Side, attended Pittsburgh’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and went on to study vocal performance at St. Vincent College. He works in both classical and hip hop music, with a resume that includes opening for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at Mr. Smalls. But he pays the bills mostly by teaching, including gigs with Alumni Theater Company of Pittsburgh and Opera Tots, a Pittsburgh Festival Opera program for pre-K and kindergarten students, lately conducted via Zoom.

Starr, 25, likes teaching, but wishes he didn’t have to do quite so much of it to earn a living. So when he heard about the residency, he applied right away.

“The key thing is having more time to work on my own artistry, because that’s something that the Black teaching-artist residency offers is, a budget in order for you to just live and thrive, without actually having to constantly work and constantly contract yourself as a teaching artist, which is awesome,” he said.

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Bill O'Driscoll
Brittany Trotter teaches flute students at Dickinson College via Zoom.

The program asks participants to work on long-term projects. One of Starr's involves hitting the road.

“I would love to tour nationally,” said Starr. “I would love to actually leave the city with my art and actually just go somewhere and show people what I’m capable of.”

He also hopes to eventually create an “art trade school” to teach kids all aspects of the arts business, from performance skills to the business side.

The residency program's other artist is Brittany Trotter, a professional flutist. Trotter, 30, grew up in Laurel, Miss., and was inspired by her high school’s band director.

“She was a Black woman, and just seeing her just do all these cool things really inspired me to continue on with my musical training,” said Trotter. “I was in all-state band, and that was one of the first times I got to travel outside of Mississippi. And it was like, ‘Man, I want a career where I can just get out of Mississippi and travel and go to these cool places like New York and Chicago.’”

"Why not get information directly from the Black teaching artists?"

Trotter holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from West Virginia University and a Master of Music degree from the University of Wyoming. She teaches private lessons in woodwinds, like clarinet and saxophone, and also instructs at the college level at West Virginia Wesleyan College and Dickinson College. At Duquesne University, Trotter teaches a course in the history of hip hop. She’s played with groups including the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra and Alia Musica, a contemporary music ensemble in Pittsburgh.

Her residency goals include creating a visual album, a la Beyoncé, of her performances. She also wants to develop a hybrid lecture and recital that incorporates elements of hip hop into classical music. And she plans to update her field’s standard teaching materials. Take flute-method books: They’re full of folk tunes, which most of her students don’t know.

“It’s not in their musical vocabulary growing up and they can’t really relate to it. And so I wanted to bring in music that they can relate to and that they listen to,” said Trotter. She plans to incorporate popular hip hop and R&B songs into the curriculum.

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Sarah Bader
Lyn Starr is a Pittsburgh-based vocalist and educator.

ACT3’s Ross said the program is meant to help both the resident artists and Pittsburgh's wider community of music organizations, by developing talents who can move education into the future.

“Why not get information directly from the Black teaching artists, all kinds of teaching artists about what students need, what students want in terms of instruction?” Ross said. “They should be at the front of the table early on, not just kind of after the fact when we’re ready to do programming. They should help shape the programming that we need.”

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