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The Power and Potential of Music

CFA’s Penelope Bitzas on what makes the human voice unique

Click the audio player to hear Bitzas talk about the importance of music.

Penelope Bitzas, an associate professor of voice in the College of Fine Arts school of music, has been an educator since she was eight years old. Back then, she would gather all the kids in the neighborhood in her front yard on Saturday mornings and teach them to sing.

“I think music is great,” Bitzas says simply. “I think vocal music is great. I think orchestral music is great. I think choirs are great. I think music has this power and healing force that’s bigger than anyone can imagine, and I hope everyone keeps music in their lives.”

Bitzas, winner of one of Boston University’s highest teaching honors — a  2007 Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching — has an obvious passion for her craft. But she also has a strong desire to be a mentor — like the ones she had — to her students and an understanding that each student learns a little bit differently.

“That’s the fun part for me,” she says. “I have to figure out if this student is a cognitive learner or if that student is a kinesthetic learner, and sometimes I have to completely change how I think and process information.”

Established in 1973 by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former faculty member and chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees, and presented at Commencement, the Metcalf Cup and Prize and the Metcalf Awards are a ceremonious public expression of gratitude to the teachers students regard as the defining figures of their academic careers. The Metcalf Cup comes with a prize of $10,000, and the Metcalf Awards with $5,000.

This year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize recipient was Jeffrey Beatty, a School of Management associate professor of strategy and policy. The Metcalf Award winners were Bitzas and Eric Widmaier, a College of Arts and Sciences professor and chair of biology.

A committee of five previous winners and two undergraduates selects the winners, weighing factors such as statements of pedagogy from the nominees and observing their teaching by sitting in on their classes. The letters of recommendation from current and former students also are key — many of Bitzas’s students wrote that they appreciated her unique approach to the study of voice.

“Dealing with students on such a personal level is an art,” says Maria D’Amato (CFA’01). “[Professor Bitzas] used accessible imagery to get the optimal sounds from her students. She was able to translate her vast pedagogical knowledge into a language that her students understood and could relate to.”

Nicole Laskowski can be reached at nicolel@bu.edu.