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Greher Selected as Donahue Professor

Funds will Support String Project and Visiting Artists

UMass Lowell Music Prof. Gena Greher
Music Prof. Gena Greher plans to use funds of  the Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor of the Arts to support art education in Lowell.

By Sheila Eppolito

Music Prof. Gena Greher has been named the Nancy Donahue Endowed Professor of the Arts, a position funded through a $500,000 gift from patrons Richard and Nancy Donahue to support arts education.

Greher will use the award to support the Lowell Youth Orchestra (LYO) and the Lowell String Project, which provides high-quality stringed-instrument instruction and creative music classes to Lowell Public School students. In addition to teaching young students the benefits of music, the String Project offers University students hands-on experience teaching children. 

After a successful community LYO concert last spring featuring Dan Ellsey, Greher plans to use the funds to bring artists to the University for concerts and workshops with UMass Lowell students and String Project students.

Evolution of a Music Teacher

Greher’s contributions to the world of music are varied and impressive.

She didn’t start out as a music educator – her involvement with music began with a love affair with the violin instilled in her by her parents, who met in a youth orchestra and went on to careers as professional musicians on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall.

After college and a degree in music performance, Greher pursued a master’s in broadcasting and film from Boston University.  She worked in advertising in New York City working her way up to music director of Lintas New York. But when work that had been creative (as music director, she crafted original scores for jingles) morphed to searching databases for existing recordings, Greher wanted out. 

With her mind on a career creating music education videos, she returned to school for a degree in education, eventually earning a doctorate in music education from Teachers College, Columbia University. As part of her work with Columbia’s Creative Arts Laboratory, Greher worked with emotionally disturbed students and their teachers at a New York City public school located at Bellevue Hospital. 

“As a TA I was invited to teach a class in world music, which I loved,” says Greher. 

And then, she had an epiphany of sorts.

“I realized that while I loved teaching students and being in the classroom, I could effect more change if I taught the teachers instead,” she says.

She applied for a position in UMass Lowell’s the University’s music education program, and caught the eye of Music Prof. Kay George Roberts.  
“I think Kay liked me because she, too, is a violinist,” says Greher, who says she was attracted to the University for a host of reasons, including the nascent nature of the department, which would allow her to put her stamp on things.

Greher also cites the appeal of the renowned sound recording technology program, which spoke volumes for the University’s commitment to the technology of music. 

Greher has always been interested in the way kids think, and is a devotee of MIT’s Seymour Papert, who championed the use of computers as instruments for learning and enhancing creative thinking. 

Out of the Mouths of Babes

It’s obvious Greher likes to be around students: she stays up on what’s new in music through them (and her daughter) and she feeds off their enthusiasm. On a recent afternoon, Greher’s office is full of students happily experimenting with the MaKey MaKey Invention Kit developed by an MIT doctoral student, along with Scratch, a software program from MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, that allows participants to interact with music and change it in real time.
Her work at the University has been largely collaborative, often with unexpected partners.

Sound Thinking, a class co-taught with Jesse Heines of the Computer Science Department, aims to bring the seemingly opposite worlds of music and computers together.

In a nod to the success of the class, Greher and Heines recently published a book about it, called “Computational Thinking in Sound: Teaching the Art and Science of Music and Technology.” The class and the book were both funded through an NSF grant.

And, in a program influenced by her time working with the New York students at Bellevue, Greher has teamed up with psychology Assoc. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier to offer SoundScapes, a program that uses music and technology to help teens with autism spectrum disorders feel less stressed and more comfortable socially.

Student volunteers from music education and psychology helped implement sessions featuring music-listening exercises and technology-based creative activities. At the conclusion of the sessions, participants created and starred in their own videos, complete with music, for standing-room-only audiences.
No matter how much success she’s amassed on campus, Greher is humble about the Donahue professorship.

“When the executive vice chancellor asked to see me, I immediately figured I’d done something wrong,” she says, adding that she never expected to win. 
Greher joins previous Donahue professors Kay George Roberts, art professor and world-renowned photographer Arno Minkkinen, and English professor and bestselling author Andre Dubus III.