Jonathan Helmick’s booming laugh will draw you in — and you’ll be glad that it did because this thoughtful and caring music educator has established a welcoming culture at Slippery Rock University. “Part of establishing that culture is living it,” he says. “I take time to get to know my students and meet their parents and family. I also try to intentionally engineer a culture within the program where current students reach out and connect to first-year members.”
Helmick teaches more than musical skills and knowledge. “It is my responsibility to curate a space where students have the opportunity to grow in the area of their dispositions and embrace vulnerability,” he says. He emphasizes this point by telling his students to “hug the cactus, embrace the vulnerability.“
Helmick explains, “As musicians, we understand how vulnerable it is to make music. Encouraging students to take healthy risks, step into the spotlight and actively own their trajectory and growth always run parallel to the curriculum on paper.”
He also tells students to see music as a game with purpose and to focus on building skills, confidence, independence, self-efficacy that transfers to all facets of their lives.
During the pandemic, Helmick surveyed his students on how to stay connected with each other when they were completely apart. One topic overwhelmingly captured their interest: diversity in the wind band. During the rest of the spring semester, Helmick and his students explored music by diverse composers and music that was connected to themes of diversity.
“When the semester was over, students wrote to me explaining that this unit provided them with the first opportunity to see themselves in much of the music that they listened to and performed,” Helmick says. “This was particularly true for LGBTQ2S+ students.”
Helmick went a step further for the fall 2020 semester and gave the SRU Symphonic Wind Ensemble a special project. “They were to analyze the content of our library to see if the composers in our library proportionally mirrored our ensemble and society,” he says. “The students went so far as to compare the demographics of our music building, campus and country to the composers listed in our library.”
The results of this project are being leveraged to write grants to commission underrepresented composers to write for SRU’s ensemble, “giving our students actionable ways to meaningfully impact equitable programming practices,” Helmick says.