Every semester begins with the same pit-in-the-stomach feeling for Music Professor John Anderson.
Between spring and summer, summer and fall, fall and spring, students graduate and new students enroll. At an institution where most students are getting their associate’s degrees, the changeover happens quickly and constantly.
To liken his challenge to sports, Anderson has no idea from season to season who will be “playing on his team.”
Yet, each semester, no matter how nervous Anderson is at the beginning, it all comes together for Polk State Music. The students — even those who’ve never sung a note — thrive under the rigor of the program. They grow, improve, and receive rave reviews from the audiences. Many even move on to study at prestigious four-year programs.
This ability to get students ready — for the stage, for their future — and in practically no time, has come to be one of the defining characteristics of the Music program, and one of Anderson’s greatest points of pride.
“We’re an open-access institution, and an open-access program,” Anderson said. “It is our job to take any student who wants to study music and give him or her that chance. We believe in not just doing our job by giving them that chance, but by pushing them to levels they may not have thought possible the first day they walked into our classrooms.”
Anderson and company — including Professor Michelle Manzi, Band Director Don West, and a handful of long-serving adjunct instructors — achieve their quick results through their music “boot camp.”
Students participate in at least one ensemble — be it choir, jazz band, or one of the new groups that often form within the department — and are expected to meet high expectations of the program.
Polk State Music professors impress upon the students that they aren’t in high school anymore. They’re part of a professional-grade program and they’re expected to do whatever it takes to represent it well — even if it means investing lots of their own time.
“Most students respond with something like, ‘this isn’t high school anymore,’” Anderson said. “Where most high school bands and choirs depend on after-class rehearsals, plus after-school and night practice, we have an hour and 15 minutes twice a week to prepare just as much music, yet at a collegiate level.”
Each semester, Manzi said, students rise to the program’s high expectations. It’s not uncommon to see lights on in Polk State Music classrooms early in the morning, or late at night, or over the weekend, while students put in the time to perfect their performances.
Recently, Manzi said, members of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble gathered early to practice in the parking lot of the venue where they were scheduled to perform.
“Our students know they are expected to be polished and perfected. There’s a sense of pride within the program and the students don’t want to disappoint each other or the program as a whole,” Manzi said.
“In sports, they call it ‘teamwork.’ In music, we call it ‘ensemble.’ Whatever you call it, it’s the Holy Grail for musicians. Each semester, we somehow find the ‘ensemble mindset’ with a whole new group of musicians, and we do it quickly.”
The payoff of high expectations and hard work comes in two forms: The fact that Polk State Music is constantly in demand to perform, and the success its alumni have in moving on to university programs.
As proof of the former, consider the typical performance schedule for the program. Each semester includes a pair of two-hour concerts at the Winter Haven Fine Arts Theatre, where hundreds of members of the community turn out to be entertained. There are also numerous performances at College and community events, be it the Polk State College Foundation’s annual Wine for Wisdom, city prayer breakfasts, or engagements with nonprofit organizations.
All total, Anderson said, students do about 50 performances a year in every corner of the county.
As proof of the success Polk State Music students have in moving on to the next level, take for example AJ Stillabower.
Stillabower, 23, a resident of Winter Haven, couldn’t read the first note of music when he started taking Polk State Music classes.
“I liked the sound of heavy metal and I liked to be loud,” he said.
Anderson and his colleagues saw Stillabower’s potential, and encouraged him to concentrate on his music studies, even when Stillabower doubted himself.
“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, but they made a very inspiring atmosphere for me,” he said. “They were very encouraging and they shaped me from scratch.”
After graduating from Polk in 2010, Stillabower moved on to Florida State University on a music scholarship. Now in his senior year, he’s preparing to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in Music Composition, and he has his sights set pretty high for his graduate studies. He just passed the pre-screen for an interview at The Juilliard School in New York City.
“Polk State Music didn’t just help me in my career in music, it gave me a career in music,” he said.
While high notes have nothing to do with home runs, Polk State Music’s ability to quickly get students performance-ready hasn’t gone unnoticed by head baseball coach Al Corbeil.
He too struggles with an ever-changing roster, and he and his assistants have also developed a rigorous training regimen to ready even the least experienced players for opening day. In their four years at the College, Corbeil and his staff have stacked the College’s trophy case and earned a first-ever bid to the NJCAA JuCo World Series.
“It’s all about practice and repetition, and there’s no substitute for hard work,” he said. “It’s a simple philosophy, but it works for the baseball team, and obviously it’s working for Music, too. I’ve heard their students sing, and they’re awesome.”
Polk State Music’s 2013-2014 performance schedule continues in March, including:
Polk State Winter Haven Fine Arts Theatre
Polk State Winter Haven Fine Arts Theatre
Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Haines City