The sound of music
Dana Stewart, collegiate professor at Mountainview College, is at the center of a musical venture where aspiring (and seasoned) artists and musicians find a supportive community and a judgment-free stage.
Once a fortnight or so, Appalachian Dining Hall in Mountainview College remakes itself from a spot where hungry undergrads find sustenance to the backdrop for an open mic event where artists and musicians find a supportive community and judgment-free performance space.
A venue with a view
Dana Stewart, associate professor of Italian and medieval studies, and husband and bandmate Bob Rynone are active in the local music scene and, over the years, have hosted open mic nights in the community. In 2019, Stewart brought that format to campus with a couple of open mic events in the Mountainview amphitheater that received an enthusiastic response. So, when the cold weather set in, Appalachian Dining Hall proved the perfect spot to bring the music inside.
“My band had played an event in Appalachian once before, and we were just blown away by the space and inspiring views,” Stewart said. “We couldn’t imagine a better location.”
Just as Mountainview Jams was gathering steam in its new home, COVID arrived, effectively shutting down all public gatherings and performances. But, when a sense of normalcy returned the following year, Stewart was more than ready to pick up where they had left off.
“After the isolation of the previous year, I think people were ready to come together again, and the response was just extraordinary,” Stewart said. “Our first time back was pretty magical, and we’ve been going strong ever since.”
The key of collaboration
In addition to fronting the band at the heart of Mountainview Jams and her teaching commitments, Stewart is the collegiate professor at Mountainview College.
At Binghamton, collegiate professors are tenure-track faculty working in collaboration with the Residential Life staff in each college or living community to provide general advisement, help orient new and transfer students, and plan extracurricular activities and programs that bridge student living and learning experiences.
Stewart’s enthusiasm for this role is unmistakable.
“I love that I teach in a small department where I can get to know our students, but it’s equally incredible to be a collegiate professor where I work with and mentor hundreds of students in the Mountainview College residential community.”
In addition to the jams, Stewart mentors Mountainview’s Romance Languages Learning Community, where she helps plan movie nights, cooking demonstrations and other cultural celebrations for students interested in French, Spanish and Italian languages and cultures.
“I genuinely love all the opportunities for collaboration that being a collegiate professor provides,” Stewart said.
More than a microphone
Mountainview Jams provides a platform for experienced and novice performers, but it’s more than your typical “open mic.” Stewart offers a first-rate performing experience featuring a professional PA system, lights, amplifiers and a seasoned backing band.
The house band, Dr. Dana & the Jam Dept., features Stewart on vocals and guitar, Rynone on lead guitar and a core group of musicians from the Binghamton community. These musicians include Cary Malkiewich, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, and second-year students Max Plati and Calan Ibrahim. Drummer Bob Alan Bricks, a local artist and musician, holds down the beat, with Mitch Mitchell (a chef at Wagner Vineyards) and Jamie Swetland (who works for Lockheed Martin) occasionally subbing in. Curtis Kendrick, the recently retired dean of Binghamton University Libraries, often sits in on keyboards, but several student interns also fill in.
Mountainview Jams is open to the entire Binghamton community and features student performers from diverse backgrounds, majors and schools. While some students are involved in other musical initiatives on campus, most are not pursuing music degrees.
“They are all just very passionate about music and performing,” Stewart said.
A passion project
Second-year Springfield, N.J., native Sarah Zarember has been a part of Mountainview Jams since her first semester at Binghamton. She lives in Mountainview College, selected because of its musical culture, and completed Stewart’s first-year immersion course, Festivals, Fans and Jam Bands, where she learned about the jam sessions.
“My first jam was an awesome experience,” Zarember said, “and it got me thinking about how I could get the word out about this amazing project happening right here on campus. So, I approached Dr. Dana about using my business and design background to help develop a social media presence for the jams and she happily accepted. I created accounts on Instagram and TikTok, and developed a logo and promotional materials.”
Zarember, a business administration major, has been musically connected since the second grade when she joined a local theater group. She is an entrepreneur with her own jewelry business, a singer-songwriter and host of a weekly radio show on WHRW 90.5 FM Binghamton. All skills that contribute to her success as Mountainview Jams’ first marketing intern.
“Working with Dr. Dana and her team has been an amazing experience; it truly is my dream internship.” Zarember said, “Not only has it provided a great opportunity to improve all my technical skills, but it helped me discover the value of applying myself to the things I am passionate about.”
Jams inspire confidence and self-discovery
Stewart sees the jams as an opportunity for personal development and discovery.
“We welcome participants with all skill levels and performance experience,” she said. “However, there is something special about seeing a student take the stage for the first time. Right before your eyes, you can see them step out of their shells and own the experience; it’s a joy to witness. And I think they bring this confidence to other parts of their lives.”
According to Stewart, these transformative experiences are regular occurrences at Mountainview Jams, as many students step into the spotlight for the first time.
Bassist Sonnie Picallo, a third-year philosophy major, is a Mountainview Jams regular.
“A friend and I heard about the jams and decided to swing by to check them out,” Picallo said. “We didn’t have anything prepared, so we just jumped up on stage and improvised. It was my first time performing in front of a crowd, and I had no idea how it would sound or be received. I can still recall this long moment of anticipation after we played the final note, but the crowd was super receptive and kind. It was just a positive experience.”
After Picallo’s performance, they were approached by a classmate who knew how to play drums, and suggested playing together, which led to the formation of Picallo’s band, Happy to Be Here.
“We actually have seen several bands emerge from the jams,” Stewart said. “They regularly play in the community, and one of the student bands toured last summer.”
Mountainview and beyond
Last fall, Stewart partnered with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies on “Rock and Rumble,” a musical festival for student bands held at Mirabito Stadium.
“We held auditions at Mountainview, and a panel of judges — including Rumble Ponies’ owner David Sobotka, University Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Rose and President Harvey Stenger — selected several bands to perform at the festival,” she said. “Some bands even received an invitation to perform at a regular Rumble Ponies game. It was a great community partnership and opportunity for our students.”
Whether talking with Stewart or one of the jam regulars, there is palpable enthusiasm for the music as well as the community that has assembled around Mountainview Jams. And Stewart is at the heart of that community.
“Dr. Dana is a once-in-a-lifetime mentor,” said Zarember, “and I am beyond grateful for all the opportunities I have had! I am incredibly proud to be part of this group and part of helping aspiring musicians. Mountainview Jams is an amazing first performance venue.”
Picallo also notes the mastery of craft and musicianship that contribute to the creativeness of the jams experience.
“Not enough ink has been spilled on just how great Dr. Dana’s band is,” Picallo said. “Their technique is flawless, and they do a great job mixing intricate playing with shifts in dynamics that make the songs feel like they go on forever, and not long enough. They bring out the best in everyone who steps on that stage.”
A shared appreciation
“I cannot say enough about the students at Binghamton. They are simply the best,” Stewart said. “When I hear older people complaining about ‘young people today,’ I wish they could meet some of my students. They are all intelligent, caring, creative, dedicated and brave; they inspire me every single day and I am just grateful to be part of their journey.”
The public can follow Mountainview Jams on Instagram, and students, faculty and staff can check out B-Engaged for the upcoming schedule. For students interested in a Mountainview Jam internship, contact Dana Stewart directly.