Graduation Stories: Izabella Gieron, BM Music Education and Violin Performance, independent study orchestral conducting

Graduation Stories: Izabella Gieron, BM Music Education and Violin Performance, independent study orchestral conducting

Izabella Gieron was one of a brand new group of NIU alumni to be able to attend an in-person commencement ceremony. She earned her Bachelor of Music in Music Education and Violin Performance with independent study in orchestral conducting. She was also featured in the commencement ceremony video. Here’s her story.

Also featured in commencement videos were Art and Design’s Angie Redmond and Theatre and Dance’s Jill Belluomini.


NIU awards steelpan innovator Anthony Williams an honorary doctorate in human letters

NIU awards steelpan innovator Anthony Williams an honorary doctorate in human letters

One of the most unique and iconic aspects of the School of Music at Northern Illinois University, and the university as a whole, is the success and prominence of its Steelpan program. It is fitting that a man who has had both a direct and indirect influence will have his lifetime of accomplishment and impact on others recognized with an honorary doctorate from NIU.

Anthony Williams, a world-renowned innovator, performer, technician, band leader and arranger has been unanimously recommended and selected to receive an honorary doctorate in human letters from NIU.

During its embryonic stages, indigenous cultural forms of expression such as the steelpan, and its champions, were often relegated to second-class status. However, Williams and many of his contemporaries’ belief in the instrument’s potential could not be quelled—initially drawn to the instrument as a player, he subsequently evolved into one of the most celebrated innovative technicians, prominent band leaders, and arrangers.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1931, Williams, along with the late Dr. Ellie Mannette, was one of the first to experiment with fashioning abandoned oil drums into steel pans, an idea that other stakeholders in the fraternity initially rejected based on the size and weight of the pan. In 1951, he was selected for his multi-faceted skill set to join the inaugural Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), an ensemble which was comprised of some of the leading steelpan players and tuners of the day. They performed for the 1951 Festival of Britain, primarily, in what may have been the first time audiences outside of the English-speaking Caribbean were exposed to the steelpan’s versatility and profundity. The rave reviews that they received led many in Trinidad and Tobago to reexamine their views on the instrument’s true potential.

The following year, Williams was named the leader of one of the most prominent steel pan bands in the Caribbean, the North Stars. From there, he developed his international acclaim as a band leader and arranger.

By the 1970s, still committed to innovating with the steelpan, Williams began collaborating with scientists to understand the physical properties and acoustics of the pan.

Photo Gallery

Click on image to view a gallery of images of Anthony Williams (more story after the gallery)


As an innovator in the science and art of the steelpan, Williams has had a unique impact on NIU, contributing to the success of faculty, staff, and countless steelpan students.

NIU is one of the leading universities in the world for steelpan/pan studies. The steelband program was initiated by the late G. Allan O’Connor in 1973, who subsequently brought on board the late Clifford Alexis—himself a 2017 NIU honorary doctorate recipient—to build and tune instruments for the NIU Steelband, as well as arrange, compose, and, eventually, co-direct the band. The program has attracted students, celebrated performers, composers, and lecturers from many sectors of the globe, including the birthplace of the steelpan, Trinidad and Tobago.

The NIU Steelband has performed at a host of international and national venues, and even captured second place at the 2000 World Steelband Music Festival held in Trinidad—no small feat for a collegiate ensemble. NIU Steelpan graduates continue to leave their mark as educators at the University of the West Indies, University of Trinidad and Tobago and many other institutions of learning around the world. They also consistently appear at respected concert venues, and their creative works are routinely featured at events such as the Super Bowl of steelband competitions, Panorama.

Anthony Williams’ impact on the steelpan art form cannot be overstated. Many of his groundbreaking innovations were realized during a period which brought about significant challenges to the steelpan’s forefathers; indeed, the steelpan universe owes a great debt of gratitude to visionaries like Williams.

For Liam Teague, Presidential Research, Artistry and Scholarship Professor, Professor of Music, Head of Steelpan Studies and Director of the NIU Steelband, himself a native of Trinidad and Tobago, the opportunity to honor Williams means even more.

“I’m in awe of these pioneers, like Dr. Williams,” Teague said. “Because the period that they grew up in, especially when Trinidad was still a colony of Britain, many of them didn’t get support by the public at large. People looked at the instrument more as a novelty and those in the steelpan fraternity were subjected to constant disrespect. For most of us, if we’re doing something that we’re passionate about and day in, day out, people are saying that you’re wasting your time and just get a real job, I think most of us would go elsewhere. I’m just in awe that these pioneers could maintain that focus and have that vision. People like myself are really the beneficiaries of so much of their hard work, sacrifice, and fortitude.”

The steelpan is now recognized as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and it continues to captivate the hearts, souls and imaginations of people globally. Without the unwavering perseverance and fortitude of Anthony Williams and many of his contemporaries, the steelpan’s legitimacy and profundity, in such an astronomically short period, would never have come to fruition.

One of Williams’ innovations was what was then broadly known as the Spider Web pan.

Teague explains the innovation. “Prior to Anthony Williams, the note placements on most tenor pans (actually in the soprano range) were random probably because the majority of the steelpan pioneers didn’t have formal training in music, and much of what they were doing was by intuition.  Williams created a design which was informed by the circle of fifths that brought about a greater sense of uniformity; at that time, because the notes were all connected to each other, they looked like a spider’s web hence its nickname. Williams’ 4ths and 5ths tenor pan design remains the most popularly played in the world- and that’s just one of his key innovations.”

In 1968, Williams and North Stars performed with Trinidad-born Winnifred Atwell, an internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso, in the Bahamas and New York, and produced the album Ivory & Steel, the first ever recording of its kind. These kinds of collaborations attracted of large group of new admirers and served as sociological and musical barrier breakers. Additionally, North Stars engaged in several tours, including an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which allowed them to showcase their eclectic programming- such as Voices of Spring by the classical composer Johann Strauss III, and earn the praise of notable musicians, including the conductor Leopold Stokowski.

North Stars on Ed Sullivan
Watch: Footage of Anthony Williams’ North Stars appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964

The pioneering work of Williams directly resonates in the research and experimentation of Dr. Thomas Rossing, former NIU physics professor.  Rossing’s curiosity about the acoustics of the steelpan led to frequent collaborations with O’Connor and Alexis, and many of his findings were significantly featured in his book-length publication The Science of Percussion Instruments, as well as in scholarly journals and presentations at national conferences.

“A lot of what we do here at NIU, is directly influenced by the barrier-breaking philosophy of people like Anthony Williams,” Teague said. “Their vision, and what they brought to the table.”

Huskie Spotlight: Matthew Kiser

Huskie Spotlight: Matthew Kiser

Matthew Kiser
Bachelor’s in Music Performance, emphasis in Steelpan Studies

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you pursuing that as a major, or have you taken another path?
Matthew KiserAs a kid, my interests were always evolving and changing. I always was interested in music, but I felt like I hadn’t found my voice yet. That all changed when I joined my high school Steelband. I loved playing the instrument and picked it up very quickly. As soon as I heard about NIU, I knew it was the place for me.

What is your favorite thing about studying and/or playing music at NIU?
One of my favorite parts of studying music at NIU is getting to collaborate with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. As a member of the NIU Steelband and Steelpan Studio, I got to interact, learn from and become friends with people from the Caribbean and all over the United States.

Why did you choose NIU to study music?
I chose NIU because it is the only university in the country to offer both an undergraduate and graduate degree with an emphasis on the Steelpan as a primary instrument. Also, I could not pass up an opportunity to play with one of the world’s best, if not the best, Steelpan players in the world, Liam Teague.

Who has been one of your favorite instructors/professors and why?
Easily professor Liam Teague, director of the NIU Steelband and my primary lessons instructor. Not only is Liam an amazing player, but he is a fantastic educator who truly cares about all of his students.

Where is your favorite spot on campus or in the community? Why are you drawn to it?
The East Lagoon. It is the perfect spot to unwind after a long day!

What advice would you give to a student who is applying to colleges?
Follow your passion, whatever it is. You are going to be spending a lot of time studying your chosen degree, so it better be something you are truly passionate about!

Coming to college, what is something that you have had to learn to do differently?
I had to learn how to manage my time more effectively. Juggling music classes, gen eds and rehearsals was a daunting task as a freshman and is something I had to adapt to overtime.

What do you do to relax or recharge?
Playing video games, watching a movie, or taking a walk outside are all things I like to do to relax.

NIU Philharmonic Orchestra joins Rockford Symphony Orchestra for “The Orchestra Sings” online

NIU Philharmonic Orchestra joins Rockford Symphony Orchestra for “The Orchestra Sings” online

Due to the pandemic, the Rockford Symphony Orchestra’s annual Youth Concert for students in grades three through five was not able to proceed “as usual.”

However, the RSO wanted to find a way to offer the concert because it is a  valuable experience for the students in the region to have. The RSO partnered with the NIU School of Music and Benjamin Firer, visiting professor of music and director of the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra to produce a Virtual Youth Concert.

Recorded just last week, RSO musicians served as principals and performed side-by-side with our students in the Philharmonic. The concert featured Carnegie Hall’s Link Up curriculum The Orchestra Sings. Teachers and students have been using Carnegie Hall’s curriculum for this program during the school year to learn how melodies can make the orchestra “sing.”

As bringing elementary school students to a performance this spring wasn’t an option, the RSO shared this interactive recorded concert was shared with registered teachers across the region.

Photo Gallery

Huskie Spotlight: Izabella Gieron

Huskie Spotlight: Izabella Gieron

Izabella Gieron

Izabella GieronSpring 2021 graduate, Bachelor’s in Music Education and Violin Performance, Independent Study in Orchestral Conducting

“I decided to study these majors because I want to be able to share my knowledge and passion for music through playing, teaching, and conducting.”

What is your favorite thing about studying and/or playing music at NIU?
One of my favorite things about NIU is having the opportunity to collaborate and perform with the faculty such as the Avalon String Quartet.

Are you involved in any student organizations or extra-curricular activities?
I am the President of the National Association of Music Education Student Chapter as well as the Vice President of the American String Teacher Association at NIU.  These chapters have shaped me into being a leader and have given me opportunities to collaborate with guest speakers as well as the community.

Why did you choose NIU to study music?
I decided to study music at NIU because I had the opportunity to study violin with Blaise Magniere and also the wonderful Music Education program that has given me many opportunities.

Who has been one of your favorite instructors/professors and why?
The School of Music has wonderful faculty that I enjoy working with however, there are a few that have been my mentors since the beginning of my time here at NIU. My favorite professors at the School of Music are Blaise Magniere (Violin), Dr. Mary Lynn Doherty (Music Education), Dr. Christine D’Alexander (Music Education), and Dr. Benjamin Firer (Orchestral conducting). These professors have shaped me into the person and musician that I am today and I am very thankful for all of the opportunities and knowledge that they have shared with me.

An internship provided Izabella Gieron the conducting experience she’s long waited for

An internship provided Izabella Gieron the conducting experience she’s long waited for

Izabella GieronIzabella Gieron knew she wanted to be a conductor since high school, and as she completes her degree in the NIU School of Music, an internship this year with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO) has given her the chance to get hands-on experience.

“My high school band teacher, Jeanette Soebbing (Argo High School, Summit, Ill.), is an amazing conductor,” Gieron said. “Watching her movements; the way she expressed the music only through hand and arm gestures felt unreal. From that moment, I knew that was something I needed to study. I tell her to this day that she’s the reason I am doing conducting.”

Gieron is majoring in music education and violin performance, with independent study in conducting. She’s a senior who will graduate in May, and is grateful for a long awaited opportunity to study conducting.

“I knew all along I wanted to be a double major, so I stuck with that. We had conducting classes which were fun, but it wasn’t until Dr. [Benjamin] Firer came that this opportunity was given to me. He emailed us and asked if anyone would like to take lessons with him and I responded in a heartbeat. It was something I always wanted to do, and when that opportunity came up, I was going to take it.”

Firer is a visiting assistant professor who teaches music theory, orchestration, advanced orchestral conducting, orchestral literature and directs the NIU Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Theatre. Last summer he was named to replace retiring, longtime MYSO music director Lawrence Sisk, and it turned out to be a great opportunity for Gieron, too.

“Dr. Firer had mentioned that he had an idea of how to keep me involved, as he knew this was something I have always wanted to do,” Gieron said. “He helped create an internship/assistant conductor position, and ever since then, I have been part of MYSO. It’s always something I look forward to during the week. It’s so much fun, and I get to make music with all of these young musicians.”

MYSO was founded in 1959 and seeks to promote and challenge talented young orchestral musicians by providing an opportunity to perform repertoire of a wide variety of styles and historical periods. Membership includes junior high and high school students form Joliet and 21 surrounding communities, as well as students from Lewis University and Joliet Junior College.

Gieron’s duties as assistant conductor puts her in charge of sectionals, marking the bowings, doing playing tests, grading playing tests and provides her opportunities to conduct the orchestra, which includes being given a piece of music to conduct in every single concert.

“Witnessing Izabella’s journey into a skilled conductor has been a highlight of my time at NIU,” Firer said. “Her natural ability on the podium and outstanding leadership qualities make her a perfect match for the MYSO internship.  It’s a special experience seeing our students take what they’ve learned at NIU and make an impact.  Izabella has an extremely bright future in music, I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

COVID-19 presented challenges for the orchestra. “Everyone is six feet apart and this year, we’re only doing strings,” Gieron said. “In the beginning, it was quite challenging; the sound reflection was totally unbalanced and delayed as we were all spaced out. To adapt to the unordinary circumstances, Dr. Firer and I had to train the musicians to not try to listen to others, but to concentrate more on watching the conductor to resolve the sound delay dilemma. Eventually, the students started adapting and teaching in an uncommon environment was normalized. Things are going well.”

Gieron has also had the chance to study and perform with the Avalon String Quartet, the artists in residence at NIU. “Blaise Magniere [Avalon String Quartet member and Richard O. Ryan Endowed Chair in Violin in the School of Music] was my primary teacher,” Gieron said. “He opened my eyes to how important it is to study basic material. When you really understand the fundamentals, you can perform or do anything. Now in my teaching, I apply all that I’ve learned and make it a good habit to pass on the knowledge I have been given. There’s a quote I always like to use, ‘In order to be a good teacher you have to be a good musician.’ I’m so happy he prepared me for that.”

As she looks at graduate schools, Izabella also reflects back on the opportunities she was presented with at NIU that have helped her chart her path. “It’s definitely been life changing and eye opening,” she said. “Especially with conducting. Dr. Firer knew I was serious, and he definitely raised the standards and had very high expectations. I studied Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” which is one of the most challenging pieces ever written. I conducted a Beethoven symphony and a Haydn symphony as well. We have done intense score studying and provided me with different resources and materials to practice. It is one thing to learn how to wave around your hands to conducting, but what I cherish the most from these experiences were learning the deeper side of the art of conducting. To understand the meaning of the piece, to study how the composer wrote each piece and what they did to achieve such musical success – things that are often forgotten when studying music. I can move around my arms and conduct a musical composition, but music is more than that. It’s about the meaning and the feeling of performing it.”