The well-rounded musicians of Occidental College


He looks very Joey Ramone-esque—that is, if the punk-rock singer ever wore Vans and played in a jazz ensemble. Tapping his foot to the beat and glancing down at his guitar, Tyler Yates (senior) sweeps his shaggy hair to the side as his conductor, professor Shawn Costantino, indicates the beginning of his solo. Next to him is Jake Richman (junior), plucking at a string bass that reaches just above his head. He is bopping up and down and keeping time to the bustling pace of “Stolen Moments” by American saxophonist Oliver Nelson. After a minute or so, DJ Ramos (senior) brings in the piano, his right hand bouncing up and down the keys as he stares at his music.

Mid-passage, Costantino stops the rehearsal. The ensemble is seated in a circle, all facing each other, but looking at their professor, who holds a gleaming gold saxophone to his chest.

“I wasn’t feeling the chords, my man,” Costantino says. He advises Ramos on a few notes.

“I can do that!” Ramos says, and Monday night at jazz ensemble continues as usual.

In Occidental’s music department, rehearsals like these not only train students in their discipline, but also eat up the majority of the time outside of their other classes. Students devote themselves to hours of practicing every week, be it on their own, through individual lessons or formal rehearsals.

“It’s a skill that doesn’t stop with classroom education—you have to take it outside the classroom,” Ramos said. “And it’s something you work on your entire life.”

Still, practice can seem never-ending.

“I feel like I practice all the time,” vocalist David Baca (senior) said. “I live off campus, so when I’m driving to and from school, I’m always singing.”

Having studied and worked at various liberal arts colleges, department chair David Kasunic feels he knows the heavy demands his students face. From Amherst to Princeton to Haverford, students might not practice six hours a day like at a conservatory—the formal term for a music school—but they are still committed.

“I would say the biggest challenge, which I had as well as a student, is time management,” he said. “You’re pulled in so many directions with rehearsals and performances and practice time. So much of your time is spoken for.”

At the same time, Occidental’s music majors are intent on keeping a balance. Situated in the tiny, remote Booth Hall, the music department is one of the smallest departments at Occidental. Students and staff all know each other well, but the dynamic is different than that of a conservatory. Here, their focus is not on a career in music, but on getting the whole liberal arts experience.

“We’re creating the well-rounded musician who is thinking, who’s literate, who knows how to write,” Kasunic said. “It’s music as an intellectual endeavor.”

Practice alone cannot get an Occidental music major by; a knowledge of different musical periods, cultures and theory is imperative. Students take courses ranging from “Chamber Jazz and Improvisation” to “Music in Latin America” to “Making Opera in Los Angeles.”

“One of the big things is that we have expanded the program’s offerings in culture and history quite a bit over the last two years,” professor Shanna Lorenz said. “We’ve always had a history sequence that takes students from medieval up to contemporary composition, but the current faculty has just such interesting and eclectic interests that we are able to do kind of an interdisciplinary approach.”

Given that there are a few different concentrations a music major can take, the tracks of music majors can vary widely. While composition majors are advised to take electronic music courses, vocal performance majors may find it more helpful to take German, French or Spanish, to understand both the culture and the lyrics of the composers they play. A composer will understand his or her own instructions in English, or even standard Italian, such as “forte.” But when the German composer Richard Wagner writes “massig iangsam,” to indicate his intentions for the tone of a movement, it helps to know that that means “always slowly.”

Students in all three of the concentrations—composition, vocal performance and instrumental performance—take standard classes on subjects such as composition and conducting. Another popular class, “Topics in the Critical Study of Music,” takes a topic, such as the history of musical theater, and challenges students to analyze it much like in an English class or a cultural studies program.

Music theory, or the practice of breaking down the structure of music into notes, chords and patterns, is also a large part of the major. Technically, someone could play music their entire lives without knowing the theory behind it, just as one could read without knowing literary theory. But for academic advancement, this knowledge is expected of Occidental musicians. Analyzing a piece of music also helps students understand their playing on a deeper level.

“Music is like learning a language,” Lorenz said. “In order to understand that language, you need to understand basic grammar. And in the music department, that involves instrumental practice, but it’s also about music theory.”

Once these basic requirements are fulfilled, music majors begin their senior comprehensive project—which actually begins in the fall of their junior year. For those interested in more academic areas of music such as music theory or history, it is then that they propose the thesis for a 25-page paper, to be submitted the following year. For performance and composition majors, however, the project is a performance and an accompanying 10-page paper on what they play. Students focusing on composition showcase an hour of their original music, which means writing accompanying parts for each instrument. Instrumentalists and vocalists must play music from a variety of different composers, genres, periods and ethnicities.

The music major’s diverse requirements allow them to develop the same liberal arts skills that are the hallmark of other departments, such as critical thinking, analysis and research. Students learn to think critically by examining the music they play and gain research skills through writing papers on history and theory. Ultimately, though, these skills have a wide range of applications. Kasunic mentioned that one student went on to study soil science in graduate school, after a paper on Friedrich Nietzsche and the Romantic composer Gustav Mahler got him hooked on research.

The liberal arts system allows students from different backgrounds, with different career goals to come to the music major. Some, like saxophonist Alyssa Cottle (senior), initially come for the liberal arts education and stay for the music, reuniting with something that played an important role in their lives growing up.

“I thought that a liberal arts college would be a good fit for me and I felt that I would really benefit from the learning style of the liberal arts education,” Cottle said. “I think being a music major at a liberal arts college, you learn how to engage in a deeper way with critical analysis.”

Pianist Patrick Sullivan-Lovett (senior) had a slightly different experience. “I tried a bunch of 101 classes and nothing stood out for me, and music was my biggest passion,” he said.

Sullivan-Lovett knew before arriving at Occidental that he wanted to continue with music in college. Still, he rejected offers from other conservatories to sacrifice less of his academic and social life.

Baca, on the other hand, never thought upon entering college that he would study music full-time, much less make it his vocation.

“I just decided to go after what I loved as opposed to what was more of a surefire way to success—I could’ve just gone to law school and made money, but I decided to go after what I was passionate about,” he said.

Baca plans to take a rare path after graduation and become a professional musician. Students who pursue music professionally usually end up in Los Angeles, Kasunic explained, taking advantage of the thriving entertainment scene. There is plenty of work in scoring for television and film, especially for composers, but other options are also available. One music major became a vocal arranger for a cappella groups in the area, and even more went on to graduate school to pursue conducting. Baca said he also considered additional schooling to learn about recording after watching others record during an internship.

However, Kasunic and fellow professor Gloria Lum both said that they do not see many students pursue music professionally beyond Occidental. Lum explained that the competitive nature of a career in music often deters students. Instead, students have gone on to, or intend to go on to, physical therapy school, law school, graduate work in music therapy and academia.

“I’m of the firm belief that a music major can take you in many different directions,” Kasunic said.

Opportunities for a more training-heavy curriculum are available through a semester abroad in Vienna, Austria. Every semester, the music department sends one or two students to study in the same city where Beethoven, Mozart and countless others composed centuries before. Students meet people studying their instruments more intensely in music school, while experiencing the city’s rich musical culture.

“They soak up all this history, and it’s a living history,” Kasunic said. “And they witness this singular dedication to their craft, and they’re inspired by it.”

Ramos, who went on the trip last semester, also believed the trip was valuable.

“It was really fun,” he said. “You get to see a lot of students from programs across the world.”

At Occidental, students have also found that their studies complement classes in different departments and extracurricular activities. Practicing an instrument can be similar to studying for a test or perfecting an athletic skill.

“A lot of it starts with preparation to go in and know what you’re trying to accomplish that day,” Ramos said. “It’s lots of repetition, and not just mindless repetition, but focused repetition, approaching everything intentionally.”

Sullivan-Lovett found the opposite was true in his performances, both on the stage and on the soccer field.

“You don’t think, you just play,” he said.

Despite these parallels with other facets of student life, many aspects of the music department are singular. The classes are more personal, and sometimes a little different in structure. The result is a very unique relationship with the faculty.

“The way I interact with teachers is a little different … I feel like I’m collaborating with [Professor Simeon Pillich] on stuff sometimes,” Richman said.

Pianist Kylenee Johnson (junior) also noticed the more informal nature of her interactions within the music department.

“They are very much more like mentors and parents than professors at times,” she said.

Lum, as a professor who plays the role of a mentor, sees the one-on-one nature of lessons, smaller classes and chamber groups as also contributing to the dynamic.

“I think because they have to respond directly to me, it’s not passive in the same way that a larger class might be, where the teacher is imparting information,” she said.

The students also become closely acquainted with one another. Besides the small size, students regularly interact at rehearsals together, and use Booth Hall as a communal space to hang out. The separate area allows them to study together, talk to an understanding friend about their classes or even share music they find.

“You will most definitely always find music majors lingering around in Booth lobby,” Johnson said. “[They’re] like an eclectic bunch of very tight-knit people. We are all so motivated in different areas of music, and we just kind of create this little family.”

Sullivan-Lovett also appreciates how the department encourages intimacy among fellow music students.

“You do form close bonds with each of your fellow majors,” he said. “And they’re all wonderful people.”

Still, the department sees room for improvement. Since coming to Occidental in 2008 and being promoted to his current position in May, Kasunic has dedicated himself to expanding the curriculum; matching it to fit the diverse offerings of performances on campus. In years past, the department hosted musicians from Southeast Asia and Africa, but what they played did not always match what students were learning.

For others in the department, the hope is to one day have access to more resources. Some of the instruments and equipment are old and some things are simply lacking. A few expressed a desire for recording equipment, and others just want more people in the department. Though they need not be huge, fuller ensembles can do more for a group’s sound.

“I would like to see more people who used to play instruments come and check us out,” Lum said.

Overall, though, the students and staff seem happy with their prospects.

“The first-years and sophomores are sharing a lot of promise and enthusiasm,” Kasunic said. “We have a good, dynamic and committed group of students.”

Cesar Martinez
Cesar Martinez


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