Students take pride in music professor, concert choir

Penn State Altoona doesn’t offer a major course of study in music, so it’s not normally where opera producers would look for singers.

But they know the well-honed singing voice of Penn State assistant professor of music and contralto Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber. When producers of concerts hire her for a solo performance, she voices her support for her students: “I also teach, and I have this quality group -would you consider them?”

They always agree to interview them.

“And they are always happy with what they hear,” she said.

Cutsforth-Huber came to Penn State Altoona in the fall of 2008 with the goal of helping students who are members of the Ivyside Pride concert choir to achieve a national and international presence.

As an assistant professor of music, she’s led the Penn State Altoona Ivyside Pride concert choir to perform at major venues in the United States and Europe.

In December, when she was hired as a soloist to perform at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria – where the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was married- she also secured chorus roles for 12 of her students.

“I was in awe,” integrated arts and communications student Hayley Kelleher of Altoona said. “I never thought I would go out of the country … and to sing difficult classical pieces I never thought I would be able to sing.”

Ivyside Pride also performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2012, when Cutsforth-Huber was hired as a soloist for a Mozart requiem.

“It’s wonderful for a small school,” Cutsforth-Huber said. “Normally for an opportunity like that, you have to go to a large school.”

Students are humbled by the opportunities.

“Performing at Carnegie Hall was one of the most fantastic events of my life,” junior year student Annette Nagle of Altoona said. At the time, she was a freshman. When Cutsforth-Huber announced to her students that there was a possibility of performing at Carnegie Hall, it was surreal to her.

“I nearly fell out of my chair,” Nagle said.

In high school, Nagle was often encouraged, “‘Someday, we’ll see you end up at Carnegie Hall,'” she said. As a freshman in college, it was actually happening. “To me, it was my dream coming full circle.”

Nagle later enrolled as a music major at Penn State University Park, but she said Penn State’s main campus didn’t provide the musical opportunities that Cutsforth-Huber brought to the Altoona campus. She has since returned to Penn State Altoona.

“I’m so grateful,” Nagle said. “She really inspired me to someday be a teacher, to give students the same opportunities she’s given me. She goes the extra mile to ensure we are good people. The way she educates us – we learn to elevate each other.”

Cutsforth-Huber is fueled by her belief in the power of music.

“I believe that if people could just sing more, the world would be a much better place. It’s hard to disagree and argue when you are creating music with your voice and your soul.”

She has been fine tuning her art for more than 20 years. Her students have benefited from her work ethic as much as her talent.

“As a performer first starting out, there were so many things I had to learn the hard way. I always swore that if I became a teacher, I’d make a special effort to make sure my students had it better than I did, that they would be more prepared.”

She’s faced rejection as a performer, but growing up on a farm in the harsh climate of Saskatchewan, she learned about hard work and rejection.

“Planting a crop was a gamble,” she said.

She’s passed on some of that grit to her students.

“Their work ethic has gotten the choir where they are,” she said. “Talent matters, but what matters more is hard work and dedication to your art.”

Junior Taylor Swick of Johnstown, a communications and integrated arts student, has taken note of her determination.

“She wrangles with university administration to secure funding for our travel,” Swick said.

He was one of the 12 students to sing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

A sizable portion of the 10-day trip to Austria was funded by the university, he said.

And then there is her influence among music professionals.

“Her word carries so much weight in the international community,” Swick said. “She makes doable what’s normally impossible.”

On March 23, Cutsforth-Huber and 31 members of Ivyside Pride are scheduled to perform for about 1,200 people at the Avery Fisher Hall of Lincoln Center with the New York City Chamber Orchestra.

“It’s unbelievable we are able to go to Lincoln Center and perform there, just like it was to go to Vienna -absolutely mind blowing,” Swick said.

Cutsforth-Huber plans to continue performing professionally and pass along her knowledge to the next generation of singers.

“Being a singer and sharing that gift with the world is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken for granted,” she said. “Artists have a responsibility to nurture the next generation or their art form dies. It’s important to me not only to grow as an artist, but to pass on knowledge of that onto the next generation.”