posted February 16, 2004

VoxBook Offers New Way to Learn Music

Dr. Margaret Kennedy-Dygas of the Hope College music faculty is hoping to change the way that students learn about singing, first on her own campus and then nationwide.

Kennedy-Dygas is the editor and chief author of "VoxBook," an online interactive "textbook" for students of vocal music that features not only information about composers and their works but also printed musical scores and - most significantly - recordings of the songs themselves.

It's a combination that as a teacher of music she thought seemed ideal but hadn't seen anywhere else. So she developed the approach herself.

"To my knowledge, there is no other resource like the VoxBook," said Kennedy-Dygas, a professor of music. "I think the strength of the project and the uniqueness of the project lies in the combination of elements that are assembled in one place."

She will make a presentation concerning the project on Thursday, Feb. 26, at 11 a.m. in Wichers Auditorium of Nykerk Hall of Music, located between College and Columbia avenues along the former 12th Street. The public is invited, and admission is free.

Kennedy-Dygas had considered writing a textbook about vocal music for several years, but was frustrated by the problems involved with providing students with audio versions of songs. For example, she felt that including compact discs with the volume of material she envisioned would make the book too expensive.

Conversations with the college's Office of Computing and Information Technology helped her identify another way: put everything online and let students come to it. The computer technology also enabled her to make the material interactive, which she believes makes it much more useful.

"This is a way to get the students back in touch with, really, some of the greatest voice literature ever written," she said. "I've tried to provide them with everything that will assist them to become deeply familiar with the song that they're working with. That's the goal."

Students can search for works based on criteria such as era or composer. They can play a song while looking at its musical score at the same time. They can call up biographical information about the composer, or commentary about the work, or background such as the original poems upon which some of the works were based.

A pilot version of VoxBook debuted on the college's internal Web site on Tuesday, Feb. 10, with 92 songs. Kennedy-Dygas plans to have 200 songs available by the end of the semester, and 500 by the end of the summer.Many of the recordings are from performances that took place at Hope, and include current and former faculty colleagues as well as a variety of guest artists. Several are also from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where Kennedy-Dygas has already found others interested in the VoxBook concept.

Kennedy-Dygas credits the late Joyce Morrison, a long-time Hope voice professor who retired in 1997, for having emphasized bringing in a diverse array of guest recitalists to complement the college's faculty vocalists. "We have a rich array of singers," she said.

Kennedy-Dygas has been contacting the former recitalists to seek permission to include their work. She has appreciated the way they've responded. The Dutch soprano Ank Reinders, who had presented a guest recital in 1974 accompanied by Ruth Rus of Calvin College, not only granted permission to use the Hope concert but sent a compact disc with additional material for the project.

Kennedy-Dygas will use VoxBook as the text for a course she's teaching at Hope in the fall, but even at that point the project won't be done. She hopes to keep expanding it, and ultimately to make it available for use by instructors across the country.

"My dream is in about three to four years time to have it built into about 3,000 selections," Kennedy-Dygas said. "I think when the literature in the holdings becomes big enough, it will become very attractive as a teaching tool to other departments."

"It's a thrill to see that in the future, and also to be connected to what's happened in the past," she said. "I get to sit in on a lot of recitals that I missed."