From classical to jazz, students and teachers share the joy of music in applied study lessons

Lulu Wiesemann’s (senior) voice lesson with instructor Karen Hogle Brown and staff accompanist Alan Geier at Remsen Bird Hillside Theater at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 11, 2021. Lucy Krause/The Occidental

Every Thursday around noon, Eli Friedman (sophomore) walks into Booth 226, a room overlooking the Academic Quad on one end and Booth fountain, the music department’s architectural centerpiece, on the other. Friedman then takes out his Ibanez guitar, plugs it into an amplifier, and starts jamming to tunes like “Caravan” and “On Green Dolphin Street” with Riner Scivally ’73, one of music department’s guitar instructors.

The guitar course Friedman is taking this semester is one of 26 instrumental courses Occidental’s music department offered in Fall 2021 through its Music Applied Study curriculum. Every semester, these courses are open to students of all majors and skill levels who are interested in learning an instrument or singing. According to Desiree La Vertu, director of choral and vocal activities, the music department looks for active, performing musicians who are also capable teachers.

“We want our instructors to be first-rate musicians and first-rate pedagogues,” La Vertu said. “In fact, all of our string instructors play for the LA Phil.”

Having graduated from Occidental in the 70s, Scivally said he perfected his guitar skills under the instruction of Darryl Denning, a Southern California native who toured Russia with the Occidental College Chorus in the early 1990s. After Occidental, Scivally earned a Master of Music degree from USC and became a recording guitarist. He has been teaching guitar at Occidental for over 20 years.

“I just liked music and I liked playing with other people,” Scivally said. “Music, for me anyway, has not been real profitable, but it has been quite rewarding.”

Friedman said Scivally introduced him to jazz guitar and expanded his musical interests.

“I think [the lessons] are really helping me develop my playing, improvising and technique, and just having a lot more chords in my vocabulary,” Friedman said. “I definitely need to work on reading music.”

According to Friedman, he has been playing guitar for seven years now, starting when he was gifted a ruby red Ovation Celebrity Elite guitar in middle school.

“It was for my Bar Mitzvah, I got my first guitar as a present — it was a guitar and a check for lessons,” Friedman said. “That just kind of rolled and I fell in love with it. It’s like developing a relationship, almost like with a person.”

Scivally said if a student is new to guitar, he would assign pieces from the classical guitar tradition, while more advanced students can try out genres like jazz and flamenco.

“[Classical guitar] is a bit easier to teach because you have the music and it’s all written down, and I can show the student what to do with their fingers,” Scivally said. “Teaching a student to improvise [in jazz] is more difficult because they have to have a certain amount of prerequisites — they have to be able to play already.”

Lucas Jen (first year) has been learning guitar for a year. During lessons, he and Scivally often go on tangents to focus on specific chords, or inverting a segment to make it sound more interesting. According to Jen, these tangential moments are useful for him because he’s just starting off with guitar.

“You get to a certain point when you’re advanced, when you need to practice specific things to up your game,” Jen said. “[But] I’m at the point where I can soak up anything and it helps.”

The Music Applied Study lessons also include vocal lessons. Sofia Delgado (junior) is a member of the Occidental Glee Club and is learning to perform songs in La Vertu’s voice class. Delgado said the voice lessons provided more opportunities for her to learn from La Vertu.

“I do [receive] a lot of instruction in general from Desiree in the Glee Club, but there’s no opportunity to fine-tune everyone’s voices, because we’re just working as a collective,” Delgado said.

According to Chris Kim, Choi family director of instrumental music and conductor of the Occidental Symphony Orchestra, Occidental carries a unique advantage in that lessons are available to all majors, unlike conservatories and music schools where only music majors tend to have access to private instrumental instruction.

Because the department brings in outside musicians as teachers, students are charged an additional cost, although the department also provides scholarships to students who are financially challenged, according to David Kasunic, music department chair. Kasunic said he is working to fundraise a specialized pool of funds that would allow more students to receive scholarships and a higher compensation for the instructors.

Delgado said she encourages those who are considering music courses to enroll in the program.

“I would just encourage anyone who wants to sign up for voice class to sign up because it’s worth it,” Delgado said. “For anybody of any skill level, you don’t need to be an incredible singer who’s had years of experience to join these classes. I think they’re very inclusive and very welcoming.”