The Award-Winning Vocal Music Virtual Exchanges of Professor Timothy Cheek

The extraordinary educational experiences described below were recognized at U-M with a Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize in the spring of 2022. Our congratulations go out to Professor Cheek and to all of his partners in these courses, performances, and festivals!

In February 2020, the Virtual Exchange Initiative opened a call for proposals for new exchanges that we could help bring forward for University of Michigan students with funding from the Office of the Vice Provost for Global and Engaged Education. One of those who responded, weeks before the University went fully virtual, was Timothy Cheek, Clinical Professor of Music in Vocal Music at the U-M School of Music, Theater, and Dance (SMTD). Tim’s proposal was to connect his U-M Italian Lyric Diction class with the English Diction class of his long-time friend Leonardo De Lisi, vice director of the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence. 

Leonardo and Tim worked with the support of the Virtual Exchange Initiative to craft a course, first held in the Fall 2020 semester, that met their learning goals for their students with regard to expanding their knowledge of and skills in singing their respective target languages while at the same time seizing the opportunity to expand experience with the less-well-known repertoire of African-American art songs. In addition to crafting an effective syllabus and plan for this shared course, the exchange needed to effectively address technical hurdles stemming from pandemic restrictions on physical proximity and contact involved in capturing and sharing audio of sufficient quality to make the exchange pedagogically worthwhile.

By incorporating African-American art songs with classical Italian opera, both groups of students had an opportunity to explore an extensive repertoire of music by American composers that is not well-known.

Early sessions of the courses met alone prior to the exchange in order to receive grounding in the fundamentals of pronunciation of the partner language, the five participating students from each institution were paired with peers from the partner institution for an exchange of one-on-one coaching and practice in the target language with the chosen repertoire. These sessions were followed by group sessions in the format of master classes, where performances by the students were critiqued by the two lead faculty and also by SMTD’s Professor Louise Toppin, an expert in African-American art music and an experienced and renowned performer in both opera and concert settings.

As pandemic restrictions began to lift around the world, Professors Cheek and Toppin were able to travel with two of his students to Italy in November 2022 to meet their counterparts face-to-face where they performed in the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini’s first African American Music Festival. During the visit, U-M students studied Italian lyric diction directly with Professor De Lisi as Conservatorio students enjoyed master classes in African-American Art song with Professors Toppin and Cheek.

Tim’s Virtual Exchanges with Florence have spawned an ongoing series of additional such courses including with Professor Suzanne Kelling at the Hochschule für Musik Nürnberg in Germany for German Diction courses, and with the Czech Republic through Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, where U-M students of Czech Vocal Literature are partnering with the students of Dr. Ivana Mikesková for an exchange centered around the works of Antonin Dvořák and Harry T. Burleigh, composers who knew and influenced one another during their lifetimes.

Professor Cheek has published a book on his experience teaching these virtual exchange courses, now available from Routledge, entitled “Reimagining Lyric Diction Courses: Leading Change in the Classroom and Beyond”.

Read articles from SMTD on Tim’s initial Virtual Exchange course and the subsequent trip to Florence.