Austin High School
Building Community through Music
By Ron Freiheit, sponsored by Wenger
The music program at Austin High School (AHS) in Austin, Minnesota, was growing. By 2018, it was serving a staggering 1,450 students in grades 9–12 each year. It also hosted MacPhail Center for Music programs, an innovative partnership that reached 1,500 students of all ages, including adults.
To continue expanding the reach of their successful music programs, and to better serve their existing students, AHS needed to completely reimagine their facility, improve their practice and rehearsal spaces, and add the latest technology available to enhance music education.
“We wanted a space that allowed MacPhail and our school to reach more people through music,” said Cheryl Berglund, Austin Site Director for MacPhail. “We already had excellent music programs, we just needed room to grow and the technology to flourish.”
Fortunately, Austin Public Schools was able to completely renovate this 1940s building housing the band, orchestra, and choir rooms at AHS. It all started with a partnership with the MacPhail Center for Music and the Hormel Foundation.
Reaching More People through Music
The “MacPhail project” began with a feasibility study that revealed a community desire to partner with MacPhail. The Hormel Foundation, known for its community involvement, provided additional funding to make the project possible.
The final $14.5 million MacPhail project included:
- A renovation of the existing building
- A music library
- Practice and storage rooms
- A second-floor addition for new band, choir, and orchestra rehearsal rooms
- Upgraded technology to enhance the teaching and learning experience
In the past, MacPhail had also rented space at a local community college. This new project enabled them to move into this facility to operate their student and adult music education programs.
“We do a lot of work with schools throughout the state, but this is the only location where we’re fully integrated with the entire district. It’s the first site MacPhail has ever developed outside of the metro area, and it is unique in the country to have a community music school housed inside a high school music site,” said Paul Babcock, MacPhail President and Chief Operating Officer. “Together, we created something really special for the students and surrounding community.”
Creating Room to Grow with the Technology to Flourish
It took a village to make this vision a reality. The project team included AHS administration, architect ATS+R and construction partner, The Joseph Company, who created a plan to renovate and renew the school’s music program. The team also chose to partner with nearby Wenger Corporation to refresh and reinvigorate the entire music program with world-class acoustic upgrades and technology to enhance music learning.
One big problem they had to tackle was the new choir room that would be on the building’s main floor. It had a shallow, 8-foot high ceiling, which didn’t provide enough cubic volume to be an effective space. Architect ATS+R suggested digging a hole in the center of the room to create more volume.
“Lowering the floor helped create more cubic volume. A combination of acoustically transparent and absorptive ceiling tiles helped to further control sound levels in this room,” said Matt Hildebrand, Acoustics Product Manager at Wenger Corporation.
AHS staff had also been considering an active acoustic system. Wenger Corporation invited the team to Owatonna to experience active acoustics and learn more about the technology benefits of virtual acoustics for practice and performance.
“They showed us this fantastic technology that can make our practice rooms sound like Knowlton Auditorium, our performance space at the high school,” Berglund said. “That kind of technology makes such a difference in the way we practice and perform. There’s never enough time to practice in the actual performance hall, so this is a great alternative.”
Adding Energy to a Room with Virtual Acoustic Environment (VAE®) Systems
The VAE Rehearsal Systems include an array of microphones and speakers that can mimic the acoustics of a broad range of performance venues—from a large recital hall to a cathedral to a small auditorium. This helps prepare performers for the acoustics in venues where they will perform and teaches them to make adjustments based on the acoustics in those spaces.
“The system adds acoustic energy back into the room and provides a truly unique teaching tool for the instructor,” Hildebrand said. “When the system is off, the classroom is quiet and ideal for spoken instruction or teaching music theory.”
The original plan called only for a single VAE system in the band room. However, as the project progressed, school district officials decided to dip into a contingency fund to finance additional VAE Rehearsal Systems for the choir and orchestra. They also outfitted four practice rooms near the rehearsal rooms with Studio VAE® Systems, which offers the same acoustic technology for practice. The thought is that having this technology available throughout the facility creates continuity among all programs.
“For singers, the acoustics of a room are like the body of our instrument: We need it to help us sound our best,” explained Kalle Akkerman, AHS Choir Director. “When the music sounds good, it makes us feel good. It brings us a sense of togetherness that we never really got—aurally—in our old choir room.”
Akkerman said students tell him that they can now hear all of the parts in the chorus, compared to the old space, where they couldn’t.
“When we can hear each other, we can fine tune our sound and evolve into more focused music-making,” Akkerman said.
“When we can hear each other, we can fine tune our sound and evolve into more focused music-making.”
VAE also allows the musicians to record and play back their practice sessions, helping them adapt and improve their performance. Those recordings can also be downloaded to other devices to share or perform accompaniments or, in Akkerman’s case, to submit for state competitions.
“I will often record rehearsal, and then play it back for my own personal teaching reflection. I can also record the choir singing something two different ways, allow them to hear both examples and make a decision about how they want to perform it.”
A Music Experience for the Entire Community
By fall of 2020, renovations and the upper addition were complete, and the new and improved music annex was fully operational.
The MacPhail Center for Music moved into the former orchestra and band rooms on the main floor. This year, they complete their fifth year of operations in Austin. To date, they have reached 1,500 students per year out of 25,000 total residents.
MacPhail also shares common spaces with AHS, like a centrally located gathering/performance area that opens into a large “learning staircase.” This staircase serves as both an area for students to congregate and a place to listen to performances.
“I love that they now have this wonderful place to hang out,” Berglund adds. “They’re going to be there to collaborate more around music.”
Additional practice rooms of different sizes and four more VAE Studio systems were installed on the second floor for individual private lessons and ensemble training. Rounding out the space is an area for music therapy, early childhood music classes and staff offices.
“This facility is a focal point and enabler for an entire community to experience music.”
“People love hearing about this partnership,” Babcock says. “It’s a really fun story to be part of and a wonderful project that will benefit this community for years.”
“This facility is a focal point and enabler for an entire community to experience music,” Babcock said.
Learn more about the project, see images and videos, or take a virtual tour by visiting our Austin High School page.
About the author:
Ron Freiheit, FASA, is Director Product Development and Acoustics at Wenger. He is a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and has presented at ASA meetings nationally and internationally. Freiheit is also a member of the Audio Engineering Society, the Institute of Noise Control Engineers, and the Recording Academy. Freiheit, who joined Wenger in 1991, was granted a U.S. patent (#5,525,765) for Acoustical Virtual Environment. Earlier Freiheit managed Wenger’s acoustic products. Freiheit holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Polytechnic Institute and completed graduate studies in acoustics at Penn State. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
November 12, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)