Alumni Bring International Scholarship to the Teaching of Music

Alumni Bring International Scholarship to the Teaching of Music

Since its origins, the Fulbright Program has played a critical role in developing the global competencies of U.S. educators. International education broadens a teacher’s own horizons, giving them a deeper understanding of the world to impart to their students. Fulbrighters Hollis Thoms and Cynthia Smith are both educators and musical scholars whose experiences working and studying abroad have impacted the way they approach creating art and teaching their students.

Cynthia Smith

Cynthia Smith received a 2013 Fulbright grant to support her research in musicology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Studying under Dr. Jacques Picard, she immersed herself in research on the music of the Holocaust, particularly focusing on the works of Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann. This was a topic she grew interested in after reading her great-uncle’s journals, which detailed his horrific experiences as a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp. Her Fulbright gave her the opportunity to pursue this research and to travel around Europe to visit music archives containing the most famous pieces that came out of the Holocaust. While in Switzerland, Smith also gave lectures of her own and completed her doctoral dissertation research. A year later, she received her doctorate in vocal performance from Ball State University.

Finding that her Fulbright experience made her want to continue her career in international music, Smith moved to India to teach at the collegiate level while engaging her sense of adventure. She currently teaches Western-classical voice, music history, and music theory at the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai, where she also directs various performance ensembles and serves as Foundation Program Leader. She has also participated in a learning exchange with a Hindustani-classical singer, through which both musicians attended each other’s lectures to further their own understanding of how different musical perspectives from around the world converge and diverge.

Smith has also had the unique experience of teaching her Indian students about the music of the Holocaust. Smith has noticed that learning about the story of the Holocaust through the music created by its survivors helps her Indian students understand a tragedy that may otherwise seem to be far removed from their own history. “Teaching outside of the United States and the Western Hemisphere has refined my ideas about what can be considered common knowledge, and how much stock teachers can put in the assumption of knowledge,” she reflected.

Hollis Thoms

Hollis Thoms, a teacher and composer based in Maryland, was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher from 1986 to 1987. He and his family relocated to to Airdrie, Scotland, where he taught music and English at both the middle school and high school levels. He shared that one of the most memorable takeaways from his time there was how deeply the nation’s cultural and poetic history seemed to be embedded in Scottish society, noting how everyone, from the school children he taught to a tailor he once visited, was able to quote celebrated poet Robert Burns, as though knowing his poetry was an unspoken national requirement. This later influenced his own artistic work: he composed a song cycle based on Burns’ poems, as well as an orchestral piece titled “Postcards,” which was inspired by the relationship between Scotland’s sparse landscape and vast seascape and incorporates some of Burns’ melodies.

Thoms’ international experience also influenced the curricula he developed during his long tenure as a music and English teacher and the dozens of scholarly articles on education that he has authored over the course of his career. “The Fulbright experience was probably the most significant element in my creative life,” he noted. “My kids, as professional musicians, are interested in international experiences, so the effect that my Fulbright experience had on me has definitely seeped over to the next generation.”

As a longtime board member of the National Capital Area Chapter of the Fulbright Association, Thoms has also organized nearly 40 alumni events, many of which have involved sharing his musical and cultural interests and talents with fellow Fulbrighters. One such event was held at the Naval Academy in Maryland and included a showcase of Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which Thoms set to music for singers and instrumentalists to perform. Others have included Fulbright alumni outings to the premieres of Thoms’ original works, and a speaker event where the conductor of the Annapolis symphony discussed his time as a professional musician.

Both Smith and Thoms’ careers reflect the impact that international experiences can have on shaping educators, and the ripple effect that reaches those they teach. Because of their time abroad and exposure to diverse musical traditions, Smith and Thoms are appreciative students, willing teachers, and worldly artists whose work is a credit to the ideals of the Fulbright Program.

—Noor Dabbas

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