Musicians-in-residence program at Mirabella at ASU wins top honors

June 1, 2023

Mirabella at ASU, a university-based retirement community on the northwest corner of the Arizona State University Tempe campus, offers independent-living apartments, assisted living units, skilled nursing and memory care, and a unique program in which ASU students reside and engage with residents on reciprocal projects: the musicians-in-residence (MIR) program.

The Mirabella MIR program was named winner of the 2023 Innovation Award by Arizona LeadingAge at the nonprofit's annual conference on May 19.  Group of musicians on stage performing in front of a screen. Mirabella residents perform with ASU students in the musicians-in-residence program. Photo courtesy Mirabella at ASU Download Full Image

The award recognizes an organization that creates an innovative program or service on their campus, such as technology advancement, environmental design or impact to residents and/or employees.

“The MIR program is a 10-month intergenerational, fully immersive and mutually beneficial program that connects generations based on a shared love of music and the arts,” said Lindsey Beagley, director of lifelong university engagement at ASU. “Because Mirabella is situated so close to campus, it is designed to not only bring music into the building, but also help residents explore and become familiar with the nearby arts and culture scene.”

Each year, four exceptional graduate students are selected to participate in MIR. The inaugural program launched in fall 2021 with music students; this August, the program — in response to a request from the Mirabella residents — will include a graduate dance student and will be renamed the artists-in-residence (AIR) program.

The program also engages residents with free or reduced-price access to more than 650 music, dance and theater events each year, including productions, ensemble concerts and recitals by guest artists, faculty and students as well as performances at ASU Gammage. Residents can also participate in several musical ensembles on campus, some of which do not require an audition.

Beagley said planning for the MIR program began in 2019 when she and C. Samuel Peña, assistant director of the popular music program, were asked to co-design the program by Heather Landes, director of the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

In addition to bringing musical programming to the residents, who are 62 years and older, they wanted to provide an opportunity for the students to build relationships with the residents.

“We designed the program from the ground up,” said Peña, who was the school’s community engagement coordinator at the time. “This included merging the missions and goals of Mirabella and ASU.” 

Peña’s academic research focuses on community and participatory music, so he researched music schools throughout the United States to discover if similar programs existed.

Creative aging

As a music facilitator and teaching artist in the field of creative aging, Peña is experienced with the social and mental benefits of interactive music experiences, especially with participants whose ages span generations.

A major design choice, Peña said, was to replace one of the two required weekly performances with a flex engagement to create mutually beneficial experiences for both the students and the residents. Flex engagements encourage the students and residents to get to know each other and discuss areas of interest.

“I wanted the residents to be inspired and feel seen and included in the decisions ... shaping their community,” Peña said. “I love watching them light up with inspiration during a performance and then again when they are participating in a flex engagement they took part in shaping.”

While the graduate students are selected in part because of their musical excellence, Peña said the flex engagement allows them to showcase and strengthen hidden talents as well as experiment and try new things.

“They are providing art for the community and creating art with the community,” Peña said.

Beagley said one of the inaugural resident musician’s dissertations focused on the MIR program, and the emerging theme from the narratives he collected revealed the program was a deciding factor for residents in their decision to move into the community.

“What we have seen happen over time is that fantastic intergenerational relationships are developing, not just over music, but as neighbors and community members,” Beagley said.

She said the program also encourages residents to get out of their comfort zones and explore something new that they might not have done on their own, which is key for an older adult living on a college campus.

“They are building a level of community with the actual campus,” said Beagley.

Beagley said bringing a movement and dance aspect to the program will reach people who have not necessarily felt connected to music.

“The people living in Mirabella have had incredible lives and very often they don't get an opportunity to talk to our students, who are also living incredible lives and have incredible skill sets,” Peña said. “The university is a very curious place, and when those two worlds converge together, it allows both of the parties to grow in ways that they could not otherwise.”

Da Hye "Michelle" Kim, pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts in collaborative piano, has been the student coordinator with MIR since January 2022.

Kim said Mirabella’s idea of lifelong learning is applicable to any age. She took art classes together with residents, which reminded her how much fun she had going to art classes as a 5-year-old. She started playing the flute again, her secondary instrument, and even entered the Arizona Flute Festival and Competition with resident Emily Zeigler.

“The residents here are very talented and have so much to offer,” Kim said. “You share ideas and different perspectives with them and grow as a person.” 

Kim said one of her favorite experiences was when the MIR students went to fine dining with the residents, and afterward they all went to the exercise room and played table tennis in their dinner clothes.

“As an artist and student, you get to bring all your dreams and see them come true here,” Kim said. “We are encouraged to experiment with even the silliest ideas and we get tons of support. We have huge supporters and loving fans. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

Beagley said the program is very innovative and creative and is a win-win for everybody.

“If you think about the definition of innovation — putting two things together that do not typically belong together and creating something new that is more than the sum of its parts — that is really this program in a nutshell,” Beagley said.

Peña, the school’s representative for the program, also attends the welcome orientation, meets with the artists-in-residence, facilitates the selection panel and call for applications, and reviews the applications.

“The project design, selection process, and excellent artistic and social skills of the AIRs will make this program successful for years to come,” Peña said.

The MIR program received an honorable mention during the 2022 Promising Practices Awards from the Mather Institute for developing and implementing innovative approaches that are reshaping the aging services industry. Mirabella at ASU received the 2022 Innovation Award for being a university-based retirement community concept.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music, Dance and Theatre


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How love for wrestling helped make professor a 'game changer' for struggling student

June 1, 2023

Shared connection brought James Blasingame, Krista Cox together

The young woman walked into James Blasingame’s office and looked around.

There were books everywhere. On every wall. In every corner. Stacks and stacks of books.

Krista Cox knew her professor in the Literature for Young Adults class at Arizona State University was a bookworm. At the start of each class, Blasingame would show his students one of the many books he had read or collected.

But on this day, as Cox glanced around the office, Blasingame’s love for literature was just a momentary distraction. She thought about how difficult it was to raise a young son as a single mom, with no family around to help. She thought about the day care bills that were beginning to choke her budget and wondered if she would have to quit school and start working.

She had skipped two classes, and Blasingame, concerned, suggested she come into his office to talk.

He asked Cox why she had been absent. The question surprised her.

“It stood out to me just because in college nobody cares if you miss class,” Cox said. “If you miss, they just fail you and move on.”

Cox told him she wasn’t sure if she could continue with her education. He probed a bit more, asking about her upbringing. She mentioned she had been a wrestler in high school.

Sometimes, a single innocuous sentence is just that.

Sometimes, it can change a life.

That day, in that office stacked with books, it changed Cox’s life.

An unexpected connection

A woman and a man standing in front of a giant 2023 sign make the ASU pitchfork hand gesture

ASU alumna Krista Cox poses with her former mentor, ASU Professor James Blasingame, on the Tempe campus. Photo courtesy of Krista Cox

On June 23, Blasingame will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame along with the rest of his 1974–75 University of Northern Iowa wrestling team that won the NCAA Division II national championship.

His induction is the culmination of a love affair that began alongside his grandmother, Jewel Clark. He’d visit her over the summer at her Mississippi home in the woods, and on Saturday mornings they would watch Memphis championship wrestling with Jerry “The King” Lawler, Dutch Mantel and Superstar Bill Dundee.

Blasingame would tell his grandmother that he wrestled in school, and she would say, “Now, Jimmy, you wrestle scientific, right? No brass knuckles.”

Blasingame was a self-described “book nerd” who would rush from class to class so he could have a few extra minutes to read a book. But those Saturdays with his grandmother left an imprint on him.

“To tell the truth, if I’d been 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, I probably would have been a professional wrestler, at least for a while,” he said.

So, when Cox told Blasingame that she had been a wrestler and was struggling to fulfill life’s obligations, he told her of a book he had read “Beneath the Armor of an Athlete." In it, Lisa Whitsett wrote about growing up in Iowa and becoming an Olympic freestyle wrestler.

Like Cox, Whitsett had struggled giving up her identity as a wrestler, and through research done by his doctoral students, Blasingame knew young people liked books that reminded them of themselves, books where the main character faced adversity but succeeded.

“The books end with hope that they’re going to make it,” Blasingame said.

Their shared connection to wrestling stirred something in Cox. She had never felt comfortable telling others about her childhood. But she opened up to Blasingame.

About how her mother, hoping to make a better life for her family after her divorce, uprooted Cox and her five siblings from New York to Chino Valley, Arizona, when Cox was in junior high school. 

Soon after moving, however, Cox’s mother struggled with substance abuse and was unable to take care of her children. Cox was assigned to her grandmother as a ward of the state, but from eighth through 10th grades she bounced from friend’s house to friend’s house.

“And then something would come up,” Cox said. “I mean, there were times where I was literally living out of a vehicle.”

Cox said her mother eventually became sober through rehabilitation but then was killed by a drunken driver. Separately, her father was incarcerated when she was a high school senior.

Cox could have succumbed to her circumstances, but she had something else in common with Blasingame. She loved learning.

“I always just did well in school,” she said. “Even when we had no parental supervision, where most kids probably would’ve been partying and ditching school and staying home, I was setting my own alarms and walking to the bus stop or calling people for rides.

“I think I always saw that I wanted a way out. And I wanted to make a difference.”

Cox received an athletic scholarship to wrestle at University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, but during her freshman year her case worker in Chino Valley let her know she might qualify for the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars Program at ASU, which awards scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The scholarships cover full tuition, fees, books and supplies, and provides a living stipend.

Cox was awarded the scholarship and was thrilled to be at ASU, even though it meant the end of her days on a wrestling mat.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, but I just knew it was a better opportunity,” she said.

But as she sat in Blasingame’s office, distraught, that opportunity seemed like a dream slipping through her fingertips.

“I shared with him that I’m a young mom, and I don’t know how I can even continue going to college,” Cox recalled. “I’m at a point where I just don’t know what I’m going to do. … Then he pulled out his checkbook and was like, ‘What do you need to pay for day care? I’ll write you a check.’ ”

Cox thanked Blasingame but declined. She was used to taking care of herself. OK, Blasingame said, but if you can’t afford child care, bring your son to class and the two of you can sit in the back.

Those simple gestures brought Cox to tears. They also strengthened her resolve.

“Just him showing he cared was enough for me to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to figure out a way,’” Cox recalled.

That way, as it turned out, would be Blasingame’s way. His caring touched Cox so much that she decided she wanted to become a teacher, so she could be the angel for a student the way he was for her. She got her master’s degree and her doctorate, became a teacher and a principal at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, Arizona, and is now the director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Gilbert Public Schools District.

“Dr. B was really the game changer for me,” Cox said. “When you’re in education, you’re asked to share your why or who made the difference for you. He’s always the person I go to.”

There is a second person, of course.

“I think a lot of people in her situation would have given up, especially on college,” Blasingame said. “For her to go on and be the principal of a giant high school and now be in the central office at Gilbert as the curriculum director, holy cow.”

Blasingame and Cox have kept in touch over the years, and wrestling has worked its way into every one of their conversations. And that book Blasingame had Cox read?

It’s still on her bookshelf. 

Top photo shows ASU Professor James Blasingame in his office. Photo courtesy ASU

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News