Published: Sept. 3, 2019 By

Jennie Dorris playing marimba

With “a shortage of job ads for marimba players,” Pittsburgh-based interdisciplinary artist Jennie Dorris (MM ’05) re-invents herself—and her career—continuously. 

“I’ve never followed a traditional path in music,” says the award-winning percussionist, writer and storyteller focused on social impact, who’s designed and teaches marimba classes to people with Mild Cognitive Impairment. “It was always clear to me that I would pursue my interests entrepreneurially and I’ve been so impressed by what the Entrepreneurship Center for Music did for me.

“I love the empowerment that comes with thinking like an entrepreneur.”

Specifically, according to Dorris—who studied marimba with Professor of Percussion and Jazz Douglas Walter—the Entrepreneurship Center for Music provided her “the nuts, bolts and resources, on a logical level, for how to create opportunities for yourself, and build and manage a collaborative career to bring music to people’s lives.” 

“At the same time,” she adds, “I was gaining technical proficiency on my instrument and learning a musical philosophy. Doug Walter put me on a journey of seeing life through a musical lens—a beautiful path where studying your instrument is just the beginning of a long and meaningful journey.” 

She further credits Associate Professor Michael Theodore, who teaches music composition and technology and interactive media at CU Boulder, for honing her knack for drawing connections among diverse disciplines. “What I learned from these influencers was how to adopt an emergent, creative way of thinking that attracts opportunities to develop and implement programs that activate your audiences. I’m always thinking, ‘How can I apply my musical way of knowing the world for good?’”  

Turns out, Dorris—whose undergraduate degree from Drake University combines music and journalism—is answering that question in a dizzying variety of concurrent endeavors. She’s on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University’s Preparatory School as its percussion instructor and teaches courses in Creative Expression, Community Engagement and Percussion Ensemble. And she pioneered a musical storytelling performance technique that she’s performed across the country, and that’s now used in schools, nonprofits, even cancer centers. In 2016, she received a Best of the Creative Industries Award for the top Art + Technology project for Musical Storytelling and—a year later—she was named “Who’s Next” as a musician defining the new Pittsburgh sound. 

Additionally, Dorris’ multimodal Telling Stories program—developed in 2008 for the Denver School of the Arts—was recently featured on “From the Top.” Her podcast series, “Telling Stories,” which mixed music and personal stories from students at The Neighborhood Academy, was named a finalist for the 2017 Media and Entertainment project of the year. 

Currently—building on her initial research studies on the effects of music on Mild Cognitive Impairment—Dorris is a research associate at Carnegie Mellon University, studying music’s effect on the aging brain. She started a marimba program at the University of Pittsburgh’s BRiTE program, where artists and scientists work together to create effective programming for people experiencing changes in their cognition. Previously, she’s given innovative artistic performances and built education programs across the country; she’s now focused on developing research techniques and refining her music pedagogy to benefit adults with memory loss. 

“I believe that, for true artists, there is no straight or narrow path,” Dorris continues. “There’s always going to be lots of opportunities to improve and expand your skills—and to generalize your knowledge outside of music.

“Especially, you have to know who you are as a person so that—when those opportunities arise—you’ll recognize them and be able to engage with them.”

For Dorris, locally in Colorado, such opportunities have included a teaching gig at CU Boulder, developing coursework for the University of Denver, and teaching positions at Red Rocks Community College and the Community College of Denver. She was named a 2010 Westword Mastermind, and she’s been featured as an artist in a host of local and national newspapers and publications. 

Dorris herself has written for Pittsburgh Magazine Entrepreneur, Real Simple, 5280 Magazine, Colorado Biz Magazine, Boulder County Business Report, Mountain Sports + Living, Rocky Mountain News, Daily Camera and a number of other media outlets. Her feature “The Audition” for Boston Magazine was a finalist for a City and Regional Magazine Association feature-writing award and aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” 

Additionally—incredibly!—she’s a founding member of the Steeltown Songbirds, a classical-folk trio comprised of marimba, violin and bass. Dorris further performs with Pittsburgh’s Hip Hop Orchestra, while teaching at its inaugural summer academy. She also performs with Resonance Works, Alia Musica, Guardians of Sound, the Seraphic Singers and Shelter Music Boston; as well as with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s Notes in the Neighborhood program, New England Philharmonic, Mercury Orchestra, Colorado Ballet, Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Colorado Music Festival, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, Boulder Philharmonic, Fort Collins Symphony and Greeley Philharmonic, among others. 

Concludes Dorris, “I can’t help but be optimistic for music majors. I feel so enthusiastic about the different paths my life and career are taking me. There were never any jobs for me, but I’ve always had more than enough work.

"It’s a way of thinking—and being—that I learned at CU and that continues to guide me through what I consider a really beautiful, artistic life.”