Development News

Tennessee Tech music students say donor-funded travel opportunities are life-changing

Students at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Tennessee Tech’s School of Music is offering additional student travel opportunities to festivals, symphonies, auditions and symposiums, thanks to a generous gift from a Tech alumna.

Kathy Whitaker (`80 civil engineering) and her husband, Everett, recently made a gift to Tech’s School of Music to fund value-added experiences for students.

“It’s so important for musicians to hear live music,” said Jennifer Shank, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “We do a good job of bringing musicians here, but taking students to hear a top-notch orchestra is a big deal.”  

Colin Hill, director of the School of Music, added, “Any time students attend national symposiums, it validates what they are doing and inspires and invigorates them. It’s unlike anything else.”

Students at a percussion studioWhitaker’s gift has allowed the School of Music to send students to the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest in Denver, Colo.; the Frederick L. Hemke Saxophone Institute in Sidney, Maine; the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Ind., the Knoxville Symphony to hear William Leathers perform the “Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto” and the Nashville Symphony to hear Joseph Alessi perform the “Chick Corea Trombone Concerto,” just to name a few.

When Hannah Eitzen, a senior music education major, received an invitation to audition for the United States Air Force Concert and Ceremonial Band in Washington, D.C., Whitaker’s gift helped fund her travel.

“An opportunity like that, before you graduate from college, never comes along,” Shank said. “It’s a huge honor to even be invited to audition.”

Eitzen says it can be difficult to navigate the financial aspect of professional development opportunities outside of school, and she is grateful for Whitaker’s support.

“Preparing for this audition was a huge catalyst for musical and personal growth and taught me so much about the military band audition process and how my mind and body react in a high-pressure audition,” Eitzen said. “I’m incredibly grateful for the support of Tennessee Tech music faculty and people like Ms. Whitaker who help make experiences like mine possible.”

Part of Whitaker’s gift is intended for outreach, and the School of Music plans to present concerts at local middle and high schools. Shank and Hill say they hope to visit Morgan’s County’s Petros-Joyner School, which doesn’t have a band or music program of any kind, and Tech’s drum line plans to host a two-hour session at Algood Elementary School.

Whitaker says the purpose of these outreach opportunities is twofold: One, introduce music programs to middle and high school students who don’t have access to music education and two, give Tech students the opportunity to play for an audience.

“This helps Tech students give back to other communities, and that’s a real benefit,” Whitaker said. “Not only do I think it prepares students to be better world citizens, but it also teaches them what it’s like to help other people.”

Hill added, “We do things in our bubble but to be successful, we need an audience. This is practice for our students. They get to stand in front of a room and explain what they do. Students work really, really hard in the practice room. When they get on stage and perform, it’s validation for their hard work.”

While Whitaker majored in engineering – not music – at Tech and enjoyed a successful career as an engineer for Tennessee Valley Authority and the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) Inc., she has always had a love for music and credits her father, who played guitar, for inspiring her. Whitaker plays clarinet in Chattanooga’s community band.

“I’ve never been an exceptional musician, but I love it,” Whitaker said. “I love the sense that when I go into music rehearsals, there’s a community. I’m part of a group. You can set aside what’s happening outside of the band room. It also gives me a connection to my dad.”

Whitaker, now retired, says she is focused on giving back.

“I absolutely loved Tech,” Whitaker said. “I loved being a female engineer here. I feel gratitude for what Tech gave me: a great education that allowed me to have a wonderful career.”

Students have used the words “transformative” and “life-changing” to describe the travel experiences Whitaker helped fund.

Students on a trip“Most of our students receive some type of financial aid, so being able to go on these trips is not in their finances,” Shank said. “Most of our students have never been past the Mississippi River. Some have never been on an airplane. Kathy Whitaker’s gift has absolutely changed how we can help our students have a bigger, better experience. Our students are so appreciative. They have so much joy. And they are certainly aware that it takes people like Kathy to make this happen.”

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