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Christina Howell of NVC emphasizes community at community college

Christina Howell

Christina Howell had just a little bit of time under “normal” conditions at Napa Valley College before the coronavirus pandemic forced her — and the campus as a whole — to pivot to online instruction.

While some class subjects were easier to translate to this method, teaching music through a computer screen proved challenging for Howell, who serves as the college’s coordinator of music and director of vocal studies. However, the campus closure did spark some creative approaches to musical instruction.

Howell highlighted the “car choir” that met in the NVC parking lot in 2021. Zoom rehearsals proved unsuccessful during online instruction due to delays in sound. Because of the audio latency, Howell told the Register previously that musicians were not able to rehearse “in a way that we could hear each other.” She added: “This was not only very difficult but also misses the point of why people want to be in a chorale in the first place: the connection they feel with other singers.”

The necessity to rehearse in person became clear – and some pieces of arguably more antiquated technology held the answer.

“We had an FM transmitter, so we had our microphone so they could hear each other through their car radio,” Howell recalled during a recent interview on the NVC campus. “We did a lot of innovative things to continue our musical instruction and of course we were able to come back with masks, and now we’re kind of back to more of a normal instructional model.”

Howell noted that the downside to the pandemic — besides the obvious lack of interaction with students — was that “I think people forgot that we’re here and that we have all of this wonderful stuff to offer, but the upside is we are sort of rebuilding in a really new and energized way.”

Howell came to Napa from Atlanta, where she taught music at college campuses ranging in size from other community colleges to small liberal arts schools to four-year universities.

“I run the gamut in terms of teaching career,” she said, “but I have been teaching at the college level for about 25 years.” Howell has been at NVC since 2019.

While vocal instruction is her wheelhouse, her NVC post allowed Howell to take on new challenges in the realm of musical theater.

“What I do now that I have not done in any other position before is that I conduct the musicals,” she explained. NVC traditionally hosts one musical in the fall and one in the spring, making use of a range of student talent.

Howell saw this creative collaboration unfold during last fall’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” which ushered in a couple of firsts. It was the college’s first live performance after COVID-19 had halted such large-scale gatherings. It was also the first time in years that NVC had had a full live pit orchestra providing the musical backdrop for an on-stage production.

“One of the things I was most proud of with that particular performance is something that is really important to me in this job here at Napa Valley College and that’s in the orchestra pit we had very wide-ranging experience levels,” she said.

The “Beauty and the Beast” orchestra welcomed everyone from a dual-enrollment high school violinist to a Sacramento Symphony percussionist parent of another student who “had the whole right side of the pit with percussion instruments,” Howell said, laughing and gesturing to the right. This group also had a woman who was retired from the U.S. Air Force Band.

“We had such a nice diversity of players in the pit, not to mention what we have on stage that’s a whole other layer of variables and diversity," said Howell. "And that’s so important to me especially in this particular program because it’s a community school, it’s a community college so for us. For me my target student is everybody.”

Napa Valley College offers an associate of arts degree in music, and music majors have access to individual instruction in their area of emphasis. NVC’s program is open-enrollment, meaning that prospective music students do not need to undergo a rigorous audition process to be accepted.

“Every level of musician is welcome in NVC music, whether they are well on their way to a professional career or just beginning to explore musical expression,” Howell said. “Our diverse program includes musicians from 16 to 96 at every level of musical experience, and our students perform from classical composers to modern pop stars.”

While Howell acknowledged Bach and Mozart have their place, “we’re focusing on different types of music, not just classical music,” she said.

There is a huge world of music out there, and Napa Valley College’s program should reflect that, Howell said.

“It’s such a big umbrella and we want to make sure that everyone knows that we have that whole umbrella,” she added.

Not all students are enrolled as music majors. Being a community college means that NVC is able to help anyone from the student who is on their way to a four-year university and a professional music career, to “community members who want to polish or develop their musical skills individually and in ensemble work,” according to Howell.

“Some people need a little bit of a bridge between 10th grade saxophone/band and college admission and that’s what we do really, really well,” she added. “We take that person from where they are and we help them get to where they want to be.”

Accomplishing this is no small feat. It takes a dedicated faculty and staff to be able to work with a diverse group of students with varying degrees of musical expertise.

“We have to have really excellent teachers who can both teach the beginner and the experienced performer. And we definitely have that,” Howell said. “We have so many amazing instructors that I am very proud of the team that we put together. They play amazing, they are really nice people and they are great teachers. You don’t get that everywhere.”

For the upcoming school year, NVC is touting a packed lineup of both student and community performances headlining the on-campus Performing Arts Center.

The 500-seat theater is set to host the typical fall-spring dichotomy of performances from music students in NVC’s chorale and orchestra, as well as the jazz and guitar ensembles. The center will also launch a Sunday Recital Series in October, which will offer a different mix of performances.

The Sunday Recital Series kicks off with “Las Magnificas.” Based on the lives of renowned Latin American singers Celia Cruz, the Cuban “Queen of Salsa,” Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, “the Mother of Latin American Folk Music,” and the iconic Mexican performer Chavela Vargas, "Las Magnificas" will showcase music popularized by the trio, according to Howell.

The fall and spring musicals will be “The Wizard of Oz” and “Spring Awakening,” respectively.

Asked what goes into this selection process, Howell explained that various stakeholders gather with their wish lists and work to narrow their musical choices down each year. This collaboration always runs smoothly and the group is able to find shows that “tick our boxes” for each semester.

“Again, one of the best things about what we do, I think, is that we have so many partnerships," said Howell. "You’ve heard that phrase ‘It takes a village,’ (and) I really believe that because we can be stronger together. My strengths can fill in your weaknesses. Your strengths can fill in my weaknesses.”

What’s on Howell’s musical wish list?

“Into the Woods,” “Chicago” and “The Sound of Music” rank near the top.

For now, she’ll just have to wait and embrace “The Wizard of Oz” and “Spring Awakening,” and the sense of community that comes from a community college production.

Building on the success of “Beauty and the Beast,” these productions will again feature a full pit orchestra.

“Working toward a common goal (of musical production), you start to realize what you have in common with people as opposed to all the ways that you are different,” Howell said. “Everybody’s different in some way.”

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Read the original article at the Napa Valley Register.

Article written by Sarah Dowling