CalArts Brass and the Pursuit of What’s Missing

Honestly, performers can have a really hard time choosing grad schools.

I say that as a composer and composer-performer who’s always had way too many things to think about when it came to school choices. During my undergrad auditions, I managed to piss off an interviewer at a school that will remain unnamed because I insisted on continuing to play my instrument as I continued my composing. (They didn’t accept me. This was not a surprise.) Yet as I’m starting to look toward the final semester of my MFA, it stymies me that so many teachers request or insist that their students focus on one thing and one thing only. I was incredibly lucky at Arizona State to have not one but four composition teachers who supported my performative endeavors, and that streak has continued at CalArts. But as my performance-major friends look at grad schools and doctoral programs, often they’re only focused on one thing: the teacher.

Before we go any further, I do understand how important it is to have an instrumental instructor that you gel with. Not every teaching style works for every student. But chances are, most folks looking at grad schools have a list of at least two people they’d like to study with. A lot of the time the ultimate decision is made based on who accepts you. And that’s cool and all, but I think the most important issue I have with masters programs at large is that they all want you to specialize.

They never really explain what that means, either—for composers, they talk about “finding your voice” and all that jazz, but I am six and a half months from graduating with my MFA and I am twenty-two years old. I have no freaking idea what my voice is going to sound like in the long run (or even a year from now, honestly). Do I have ideas about where my creative practice at large is headed? Yes. Does that mean it’s all starting to settle in? Hell no. And I’m really, really, really happy with that. Because I spent my MFA exploring the things I didn’t feel like I learned in undergrad.

I don’t think it’s uncommon for folks to feel like there are blind spots in their knowledge at the end of their BA or BM in the music world. Four years of strictly-structured curriculum can only teach you so much, and not all of it will end up being relevant to your personal creative practice. When I got out, I knew I was missing interdisciplinary work and sound-oriented music—sure, we’d touched on Cage a little in music history, and I certainly had friends who knew more than I did, but I was starting to play with music that walks the line of sound art and I needed direction and context. CalArts gave me that.

And in reality, that’s the best of what CalArts has to offer—you’ll go in to learn about performing or composing or music technology or experimental sound practices, but outside of the required courses (hint: when you’re an MFA, there aren’t many), you have entirely free rein. I’ve taken a capoeira class, a grant writing class in the theater school, and a dance class; I’ve done work in the Music Tech department, in ESP, in a little bit of world music; I’ve played orchestra pieces, tackled the absurd trumpet part for the Ligeti violin concerto, worked with the brass ensemble, and improved my playing and composing. And when you’re taking so many varied classes, they ultimately fold in on themselves to inform your creative practice. Dance and capoeira have reminded me how important it is that music and movement go together. Brass ensemble has allowed me to work with extended techniques I wouldn’t otherwise get to explore. ESP has let me blur the line between music and concert theater and performance art. Almost every class I’ve taken has tied into John Cage in some way or another. Life feels more complete.

Brass players in particular are at a disadvantage when it comes to the intersection of pedagogy and new and experimental repertoire. Exceptionally few performance teachers in the US highlight the importance of being conversational in experimental styles and techniques as well as traditional forms and genres. When new material does get played, it’s Ewazen or Morales or Arutunian, all largely tonal and using traditional techniques. A lot of my friends from undergrad can’t sing multiphonics and don’t know the first thing about split tones. They don’t improvise with the sounds of their instrument. They don’t know how to make the brass family sound like the percussion section. And it makes me sad, because these things are so much fun.

So if you’re a brass player considering grad schools, consider CalArts. We’ve got Trio Kobayashi (Matt Barbier, Luke Storm, Allen Fogle) extending the reach and repertoire of the studio; we’ve got Ed Carroll and Doug Tornquist keeping us grounded; we’ve got Nicholas Deyoe guiding us through orchestral rep that’s weirder, more challenging, and more awesome than most things you might play otherwise; we’ve got a world-class composition faculty who you can study with (because everyone has the option of taking multiple lessons a semester); we’ve got the nicest jazz faculty around. Most importantly, we understand the gravitas of tradition, but we are firmly committed to building upon it and moving our craft forward. If any or all of that appeals to you, join the CalArts mafia. (Preferably before December 1st.)

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