Alice Walker once said, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.”
Over the past several months we have watched the world come alive with art. Musicians on balconies, serenading their neighbors; artists creating on their walls at home and sharing it via timelapse on YouTube; influencers using their writing skills to encourage, uplift, and inspire. It’s the arts that got the world through quarantine. The arts restored people’s souls. And PUC’s department of music could do no less for its students.
It didn’t take long after everyone went home to wait out COVID-19 for reality to hit: We missed music. Spring quarter is generally the busiest for the department, and 2020 was no different. However, the “busy” looked very different. Like every other campus department, the music department scrambled to make sure all of its courses were available and viable online, that students could access everything they needed to, and that effective learning was still taking place.
Once those logistical details were ironed out, the question remained: How will we make and share music this quarter?
Music is more than just a discipline. It’s more than a major or a college department or background to a movie or a road trip. Music is a community. It’s a lifeline. It’s an expression of heart and soul. And we needed all of that more than ever during spring 2020.
Like many others across the disciplines, our gazes turned toward Zoom. Deciding we had nothing to lose, we figured, Why not?! And on the evening of Wednesday, June 3, the music faculty and staff gathered on Zoom with a few community attendees and several music majors for our first-ever virtual General Student Recital.
Between the six pieces performed that night viewers enjoyed the (sometimes somewhat garbled) sounds of piano, voice, violin, and viola.
“I didn’t think it was possible to do a recital over Zoom,” admits Asher Raboy, acting chair and resident artist in the department of music. “And yet, it was a lovely evening. I felt so much joy seeing our students perform, and I sense they had a similar experience. I am so glad we did it.”
Natalie Fode, 2020 nursing graduate, and senior piano major performed Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” from her empty church in Yountville, California, where her husband is a pastor.
“I really enjoyed getting to do our GSR this quarter, despite the odd circumstances,” she says. “It gave me something to practice for and kept me motivated. Seeing and hearing my friends play was so special; they are truly wonderful musicians.”
Fode’s performance was gorgeous, and just the right speed for a contemplative and peaceful piece like “Clair de Lune.”
Her favorite part of the recital?
“Definitely when Lewis’ little niece sang along with him!”
Lewis Govea, a junior voice major in the pre-pharmacy program, sang from his home in Southern California. What no one saw coming was the adorableness of his nearly two-years-old niece stealing the show by standing right in front of the camera during Lewis’ performance, and trying to sing like her uncle. Lewis held it together, though, and finished strong with his Italian and French pieces.
Michael Siahaan, voice major, presented two pieces, one live and one pre-recorded, the former a classic vocal performance piece in Italian and the latter a fun and familiar tune from the 1950s musical, My Fair Lady.
James Woodward, senior violin and viola major, also presented two compositions, one Schubert, one Vivaldi. His live solo performance was beautiful and well-executed, despite his camera slipping while he played. Quickly setting it back up during a pause in the music, Woodward carried on like any great musician would.
The point was not that it was perfect. Because it couldn’t be. “Perfect” would have been in person, live, applause echoing throughout Paulin Recital Hall, and we all would have enjoyed Ghirardelli brownies and sparkling punch after the show. “Perfect” would have been together.
The point was that we made and shared music, we saw each other’s faces, and we reminded ourselves of what it is we truly love about our music, our community, and our department.
So, in reality, maybe it was “perfect” after all.
Govea shared his own feelings about the recital, and, honestly, he says it best, so I’ll let him close this post.
GSR was, in short, everything I needed, but nothing I wanted. I wanted to sing in a big wide open space. I wanted to bow to the masses. I wanted to have a real accompanist. I wanted the nightmare of separation to be over. What I got was family. I got a reminder that I still had my community. I got a wake-up call.
GSR this quarter was an outpouring of virtual yet tangible love and support. I got to see my music family play and sing like nothing was wrong. We got the opportunity to do things we never thought we would have to do. I got to sing for people who literally were only there to listen and support and encourage.
The reality of GSR is nothing compared to what it meant for me as a musician. GSR was a success, and not just because my one-year-old niece had her debut performance, but because it stripped the music down to what it was intended to do: be a beacon for those who listen and love.
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Matthew Guevara, trumpet major, is set to graduate in June with a degree in music performance and having completed the requirements for the pre-veterinary program. He’s finishing up his final quarter from home in Vallejo, California, where he’s sheltering-in-place with his parents, brother, and sister.
Kelley Polite, voice major, completed her coursework for a degree in music performance in March. Her plan this quarter was to spend time with family and friends and do some traveling while she waited for graduation in June. Instead, she’s sheltering-in-place with her parents and brother in Oakley, California, where she’s lived all her life.
We will definitely miss these students with their fantastic sense of humor, easy laughter, cheerful attitudes, and significant contribution to our ensembles and music program as a whole.
Congratulations, Kelley and Matt! Please come back and perform in Paulin Hall again very soon!
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was around four or five years old, my family went to visit some family in Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks. Because it was a long trip, we took our dog, along with her favorite toy. During play one day, her toy was thrown into the street and of course she chased after it, but she was hit by a car in the process. Her back legs were broken and I remember watching my aunt and my mom bandage her up and try to splint her legs, and I knew at that moment I wanted to do that. I was going to be a veterinarian.
When I was a kid I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I had my own little doctor kit I would use on my stuffed animals. But after I found out what you had to do to help animals that were hurt and how hurt they could be, I knew it wasn’t for me and my dream went to being a baker. I even thought about going to culinary school for it.
When did you first realize you loved music?
I don’t know that there was anyone moment when it was revealed to me; it’s just always been part of who I am. Even before I was born my parents were always playing classical music and I was born into music. It’s just always been there.
I’ve always loved music, but I think the moment that I fully recognized it was when I watched The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway when I was 18. It was the first musical I saw live and it’s my mom’s favorite musical so I grew up listening to the music and watching the movie adaptation a lot. I almost cried when I heard the first opening notes from the orchestra and continued to just be so emotional throughout the show. Experiencing the orchestra, singing, and dancing in person changed everything for me. It was like seeing the music come to life and it got me thinking that I’d love to have a job making music and giving the experience I had to someone else.
How did you settle on which instrument you wanted to major in?
As I said, I’ve always loved and been around music, and through the years I’ve tried my hand at several. I can play the piano–which was my first instrument–trumpet, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, tuba, euphonium, and French horn.
The funny thing is that for most of my early childhood, I thought I was going to play drums. The summer before fifth grade we traveled to Nicaragua to see family and I spent the entire trip bragging to my cousins about how I was going to be a drummer. Then, two weeks before school started, my dad showed me a video of someone playing the trumpet, and I suddenly knew that was what I wanted. I was going to play the trumpet. I never looked back.
Voice wasn’t really an option for me until I was 17. My first instrument was the piano and it was only after my brother had started playing did I see how cool it was and when my brother stopped playing my parents really pushed me to continue. While learning piano, I also took up the flute in elementary school and played until high school when I switched to playing mallet percussion. I took piano for eight years before making the decision to quit because I didn’t have enough time and the passion to play wasn’t there anymore. After that I didn’t think of taking lessons again until my parents suggested it.
I had always liked to sing and was in choir all through elementary and high school but always felt too small and shy to commit to lessons. Then when I was 17, my dad found a studio in Walnut Creek and convinced me to take a trial lesson with a couple of instructors. I clicked with one of them–Nancy was her name–and I took lessons there for about a year and a half until it closed.
Describe a music-related experience that changed your life.
When I was in high school, the music department took us to Disneyland where we recorded a film score. I’d never had an experience like that before, and I suddenly realized I could do more with trumpet besides casual church playing. Everything I thought I knew about music shifted.
In my senior year of high school I was in my school’s performance of The Sound of Music. It was the first musical I had ever done and I will always cherish it. I had never acted or auditioned for a show before so it was all new and scary to me. It was a huge learning and growing experience for me but I’ll never forget it. We practiced for almost a year and I put everything I could into rehearsing and the two performances we did.
Tell us about someone whose positive influence has helped you get to where you are today.
Definitely my trumpet teacher in high school, Ian Cochran. My old trumpet was falling apart and not playing well at all, and I desperately needed a new one. One night my dad came home with a Stradivarius trumpet–the gold standard–and he said I could have it if I took actual lessons and got serious about learning the instrument. I agreed.
I remember my first lesson when Cochran asked me what my goals were. I said I didn’t know and he just started playing crazy things I didn’t even know were possible. I was awestruck. He made it look easy and it was remarkable. Even looking back now I realize how amazing he was, and he was only 25. He started showing me how to do some of the crazy things he’d done, and in every lesson I learned something new. He pushed me to where I am today and I wouldn’t be here without him and the time he took to get me here.
I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve had so many people help me to become who I am today and I feel bad to only choose one. So I’m going to cheat and say, two people.
Singing-wise, Chalena and Chanelle have given me the most push to get me out of myself to sing. I’ve never told them, but ever since I met them I’ve always looked up to them. Their voices have just been my goal. They have the type of voice and presence on stage that when they sing you gotta listen. When I started wanting to sing in the praise band they took every opportunity to shove a mic in my hand and say, “Sing this.” No matter how much I protested they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I think that’s the kind of push I needed back then because after that I can’t remember saying no. It was a shift in myself that I don’t think I fully recognized until now but their pestering and pushing has gotten me to where I am today.
How did you choose music as a major?
I started out as a biology major, but it quickly felt like something I’d been pressured into doing and I wasn’t enjoying it. It didn’t seem to fit completely. When I realized what did fit, it was music. Music was something I enjoyed wholly and it helped me through some tough times those first few months of college. I realized that if music helped me, it could help others, and I could be the conduit, so I declared a music major. You never know what someone is going through, no matter how happy they seem, which I fully understand. I know music can touch people in ways nothing else can, so every time I give a concert, I have a little prayer in my head: “Let my music show the light at the end of the tunnel to those who need it.”
What surprised you about college?
What surprised me most about college is how different it was from how people said it would be. I had teachers and my brother telling me senior year of high school how hard classes would be and I got it drilled in my head that it would be so serious and hard all the time. Then I got here and realized I hadn’t been told about all the fun I would also have! Don’t get me wrong: the classes were hard and I had to study and practice a lot, but I also had so. much. fun. I’ve met so many people who are really important to me now, done things I wouldn’t have done otherwise and have grown so much. I’m really happy with the time I’ve spent at PUC.
Tell us about a class you weren’t sure you’d like but that ended up teaching you something invaluable.
Orchestration. I expected it to be just “okay” but I had such a blast in that class and I learned so much. I find myself now writing random stuff, orchestrating random pieces. It was a really useful class in the end, and I’m glad I took it.
I hate to say it now (especially since Matt just did) because I actually really liked the class when it was done, but…Orchestration. It’s funny now because there were three of us in the class and none of us said much, but I learned a lot. Initially I didn’t know what to expect but there was a lot more to it than I thought. Learning about each family of instruments and how to write for them individually and collectively gave me so much more appreciation for orchestras and bands. I listen to each now with more comprehension and admiration for what is happening during pieces.
Before we all had to go into social isolation, what were some of your favorite on- and off-campus activities?
I absolutely loved nightly room checks as an RA, when I got to see all my residents. I love those guys–they’re my second family. The friends I’ve made here at PUC are brothers to me. When we went off-campus we’d usually go to the movies, ice skating, or grab some food in Napa.
I liked to check out lots of different places in the area, but the only real regular spot I went to was the Friday farmer’s markets in St. Helena. My roommate and I went almost weekly to get coffee and a pastry, walk the market, and just chill. I did have favorite places to study, though; my usual spots were The Grind, the Napa RoCo, and the third floor of the PUC library.
What is one of your favorite pieces you’ve performed, and why?
Definitely and without hesitation Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major. I’m a romantic classical performer–that’s how I can express myself the most and it’s what I like to play. I love all the romantic arts and music, and this particular piece combines everything I love: The technical difficulty, the range, the dynamics. You have to have it “just right” to sound good, otherwise, it’s just a blob of everything and it’s not pretty. Making it pretty is what makes it different, and I love it. It’s the piece I was most excited about for my senior recital, actually, and the piece I’m most sad I can’t perform for a while.
My all-time favorite piece I’ve performed is The Monk and his Cat by Samuel Barber. I remember getting the music from Dr. Wilkes (my voice teacher) and looking it over and being so excited that I got to sing a song about a cat and it is, like, a “serious” piece of music. It was supposed to be a challenge piece for me and something she thought I would like. Me, not being so observant, thought, “Ok, two pages and in English: No problem.” Then Ellen (my accompanist) pointed out that there was no time signature and the piano played something totally different than what I would sing, and I panicked. But learning the piece was so fun and learning to portray the story of the song made me absolutely fall in love with it. If Dr. Wilkes would’ve allowed it I would’ve performed that song everywhere.
Speaking of performing, Kelley, because you finished the quarter before COVID-19 made gatherings impossible, you were able to give your senior recital. How did it go?
Kelley Funnily enough I don’t remember much about it! When I perform I put myself into this mode where I give everything that I can and for some reason it makes me blackout until I’m done, lol! I do remember how relieved, overjoyed, sad, and full of disbelief I was when I was done. I had so many emotions because it’s the moment I had been preparing for since sophomore year when I started with Dr. Wilkes. I couldn’t believe that I had done something so huge before, and sad that it was over.
There were three things that I was really worried about before my recital. I worried about the French set that I was doing because that is the hardest language for me. The second was one of my German pieces. It was the newest piece of music for me and for the life of me I couldn’t get it committed to memory. The other thing I worried about was the thank-you speech I gave. I never like doing speeches, public or otherwise, so it was really tough for me. I went onstage with a written-out speech and when it came time to talk it stayed folded up in my hand the whole time.
The thing I was most proud of was how I held myself on stage and handled doing a whole concert by myself. Second to that was my performance of My Dear Marquis at the end of my recital. I was so anxious to see how people would receive it and see me go all out for that song. I had so much fun with that piece and I loved that the audience didn’t know where I was going with it.
And Matt, you actually didn’t get to do a senior recital–yet! Are you going to come back and show off your skills when we can gather again?
Ha! I sure hope so. I worked really hard on all of my music, and I was really looking forward to performing the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto. Raboy has mentioned to me that they want me to come back next year and give my recital, and I hope that works out.
Let’s talk about how COVID-19 affected your senior year. I know that’s a challenge because it’s pretty much turned everything upside-down for everyone, but what has affected you most, do you think?
Honestly, it’s plagued my life. It took away my degree recital, my last quarter of college…if I’d known last quarter was the end of normal college, I would’ve done some things I now won’t get to do. I don’t know if I’ll see some of my friends again, and I don’t get to perform my senior recital–at least not before the school year ends. I already had Senioritis, and now the whole online education thing has made motivation even more difficult. In some ways there seems to be more pressure, in other ways less…it’s just a whirlwind experience that I can’t say I’m enjoying!
It’s been a really strange period for sure. I had no idea what was really going on with COVID-19 until I heard that other colleges were being shut down and even then I didn’t think it was that serious. I had just performed for my last General Student Recital and was preparing to take part in the NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] singing competition and do my drama final (two things that I was really excited for) that weekend, and 3 days later I’m moving out of my dorm room. I had to deal with so much information at once with finals being online and leaving college so suddenly that it honestly didn’t feel real. It felt rushed and incomplete. I was sad about leaving the music building for the last time. It’s been the building I’ve practically lived in since I started in college.
I don’t like saying this but I felt like I was robbed of the things that I was expecting to do during this time. I was planning on doing some traveling during the gap quarter I had. See friends in L.A., a road trip to Seattle and maybe go up to Canada, stay out in the Santa Cruz mountains with my auntie and live life a little slower. But instead I’m confined to my house with my family who works during the day so I can’t really bother them and a weekly shopping trip to look forward to. I’ve missed a lot over this time and some days I’m sadder over it and other things than usual, but I’ve also gained different perspectives during this quarantine so I choose to focus on those and make something positive out of what I am given.
Tribute time! What final words do you want to leave for your teacher?
Sheesh I don’t even really know where to start. Actually that’s a lie. Freshman year was really rough for me because of some things that were happening outside of school. Early on, Dr. Davis could tell something was up and she was there to help pull me out of it, not only as a musician but just as a person. She encouraged me to never lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s something I keep in mind every single day.
I was also a pretty shy guy when it came to performing, and she pushed me out of that shell. She would always tell me that a good trumpet player has to act like you’re the best person on the stage at any moment, even if that’s not how you feel. She made me learn to be confident and command the stage, and that’s something I also keep in my mind.
As for Raboy, oh man… He pushed me in ways I didn’t know I could be pushed hahaha. He was tough but it was always to help me become a better trumpet player, especially the last year of college. Originally my degree recital had an entirely different repertoire that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about, and he was helping me prepare for it. He could tell I wasn’t feeling the rep so he told me to go out and find pieces I want to play, so that’s what I did. I practiced them for a while, got pretty confident in how I was playing, and then we started having weekly coaching sessions. I remember that first session. I went in thinking I would be ready to play the show in a week, but man he broke the pieces down in a way that made me reevaluate that, which of course is a good thing. I was happy with how I was playing, but after even just a few sessions, Raboy had me feeling like Wynton Marsalis on that stage.
Both Davis and Raboy pushed me to become the musician I am today and I promise you I wouldn’t be here without them. They were tough when they needed to be, and a friend when I needed one and for that I will be eternally grateful. I hope that I’ll be able to pass that forward someday.
Aw man, I can’t even begin to express how much thankfulness and love I have for Dr. Wilkes, but I’ll try. I met Dr. Wilkes in a time where I needed someone like her in my life. With her big aura and personality that you could literally feel the moment you stepped into her office. She gave me a safe space where I could work and experiment without fear of anything. She basically took the small, introverted girl, put her in front of a mirror, and slowly but surely showed her what she could do and be. She essentially said, “This is what I see, and I’ll help you see it too.” She gave me the pieces, tools, and education that would get me there.
Dr. Wilkes, if you ever read this, know that you have taught me so much more than how to sing and I’m so so so grateful for everything that you have done for me. I only wish to one day have the same aura you do that people can feel when they enter the same space as me.
So, let’s move away from school for a minute. What are some of your hobbies? (When we’re not sheltering-in-place that is!)
Baseball, basketball, soccer…anything sports-related. Actually, speaking of sports, I have a shoe collection, too, which is probably my biggest hobby. It’s mostly Nike, except for the dress shoes, and I have almost 70 pairs now, still in their original boxes. I wear all but four pairs on a regular basis; those four pairs are limited editions I don’t want to mess up. For dress shoes, I prefer Italian-made. They’re just better quality.
I love to read. I haven’t had the time since I started college, but that hasn’t stopped me from buying books over the years. I also really enjoy watching period films and old movies and musicals. Baking is a big favorite of mine, too.
What plans do you have as soon as life resumes a bit of normalcy?
I’m actually taking next year off and working at the SPCA in San Francisco, then I’m hoping to get into UC Davis’ dual program so I can get a degree in music rehabilitation as well as veterinary medicine. My plan is to combine them in my career, which many people don’t realize you can do–veterinary medicine and music? But a lot of times the animals who come into the clinics are really scared, hyped up, and anxious. I want to be able to use music to help them relax and comfort them, and then ultimately help heal them.
As of right now I have two things that I really want to do when this is all over and things are more normal. I want to have a get-together with family and friends and be able to stand next to them and hug them instead of the current 6-feet rule and no touching. I would also like to just wander around any and all stores that would be open then so that I can just experience shopping with others again.
Work-wise, my dream career is to be an actor. I would love to be on-stage in opera, musical theatre, or both. Also, if I ever got the opportunity to voice a Disney princess I would so do it, no questions asked. But as of right now I don’t know where I’m going. I’m looking for jobs with theatres and other performing opportunities that could get me in the right direction. It’s a little scary right now but I’m finding my way. And I’ll stick to music while I get there.
If you could go back to Freshman You and encourage them, what would you say?
There’s a lot I would say. Something like, “Don’t let the naysayers get in your head. There’s gonna be a lot of challenges, but just push through. Never give up. Don’t take anything for granted–take the chance. Do it. You don’t want regrets later.”
I would tell her that even though it has been a rough year there are better things coming. “What happened this past year was a lot and it’ll take a while to feel normal and happy but it’s coming. Experiences and moments that will build you back up and then make you grow–grow into the you that you’ve been needing to be. It’s coming, I promise, just wait.”
Before joining the PUC faculty over a decade ago, he spent 20 years as music director of the Napa Valley Symphony. Today, as acting chair, he spends most of his time doing what department chairs do: Paperwork, teaching classes, advising students, paperwork, attending meetings, catching up with students and colleagues, and more paperwork. Somewhere in there, he fits in directing the college’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble and playing trombone in the orchestra. As a brilliant composer and a natural performer, Raboy is a joy to talk with and a hoot to watch onstage.
Today (literally), we caught him between virtual classes and a walk with his dog, and he told us some very entertaining (and true!) stories.
What was the first-ever piece you performed on stage, and how old were you?
You forget that I am very, very old and can’t remember that far back. I started studying piano when I was five, so I certainly played in recitals before grade school. I remember playing in a trio with my brothers on the radio when I was in third grade, but I’ll be darned if I have any idea what the piece was. I conducted a summer festival band when I was in sixth grade (again, no idea of the piece). As for paying work, that came a little later. I was the music director and synth player for Godspell at age seventeen; that was probably the first.
Who would you name as one of your favorite composers, and what draws you to them?
I was literally raised on Beethoven. My parents got me the recording and orchestra score to Beethoven’s seventh symphony when I was in third grade. I still love the music of that madman, but I can’t claim to completely understand it, even after all these years.
It was Puccini’s La Bohème that really reached me. I understood music intellectually and as a set of skills to master, but I really didn’t get the power of music, the emotional punch that it contains until I saw a production of that opera and was surprised to find tears in my eyes and my heart full. I have loved Puccini ever since. He taught me the real meaning of music.
Your career has allowed you to “rub elbows,” as they say, with some famous people. Who are some of those you’ve personally met?
I’ve been very lucky in my performing career that I have gotten to work with some very big names. (This is not because I’m great, it’s simply the job. The Napa Valley Symphony hired well-known artists and it was my job to conduct the orchestra.) In the pops world, I worked with Wynona, Glen Campbell, Mel Torme, Pink Martini (all except Pink Martini are way before your time…). In the classical world, I’ve met Yo-Yo Ma, worked with André Watts, Sir James Galway, and so on. Maybe not household names, but in the music world, these guys are at the top.
But my favorite was Branford Marsalis, the saxophone player who used to conduct the Tonight Show band. He played three concertos with us, and then went out to a club to play jazz with a friend of his father’s. He was kind (although he wanted to put forward a rough edge), gifted, fun, spirited; we spent two days together and those are some of my fondest memories.
Let’s talk composing. How did you become interested in that aspect of creating music?
This is a dumb story, but it is 100 percent true. When I was in junior high school, Masterpiece Theater ran a limited series called “The Strauss Family.” Everybody was so excited because it was a story about musicians. I was a contrarian, so I hated the series. I thought it was just a soap opera, and besides, anyone can write waltzes. To prove it, I went to the piano in my living room and wrote one.
Before I continue, let me just say that Johann Strauss Jr. is a musical genius. Don’t judge me by my adolescence.
Nonetheless, my waltz turned out pretty good. My piano teacher asked for two more pieces so that three of my siblings could play a piece of mine in recital. I wrote for my family, trying to capture their personalities in each piece. It was a fun challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing an opera. It is the story of a woman who has power, prestige, pleasure but gets dissatisfied. She looks for something more. The point of the opera is not her conclusions, but her search. It mirrors my own journeys, and it is time for me to write a piece that is truly personal. It is loosely based on some very old stories, but it has been updated. I’m writing both the libretto and the music.
I doubt it will ever be performed. I’m not convinced that many opera companies will survive our time of shelter in place. it’s an expensive art form and needs large groups to congregate to make it successful. Still, I feel I need to write it, and hopefully, some excerpts will bring people pleasure, solace, or at least thoughtfulness in the future.
If someone were to tell you the next instrument you touched would be the only one you could play for the rest of your life (and that you’d instantly become a master at it), which one would you choose, and why?
It would be my own instrument, the piano. I want to be able to play everything: bass, chords, and melody. I want to be able to work alone or with a group. I want to be able to be expressive and shape a phrase like a singer would. I was born for the piano, and I’ll stay with it. I’m loyal like a dog.
When we say “music department” here at PUC, we think classical, church, tradition. Why is it important to remember there are other genres and styles of music out there?
First, let’s look at the music of Europe and the Americas. What we call “classical music” wasn’t always classical music. Opera was a popular art form the way musicals are today. Mozart was a pop composer (although for a pretty wealthy class of people) and the romantics made their money on ticket sales, just as rock musicians do in our time. The whole concept of “classical music” is a fairly modern creation.
The energy in music has always rested in songs written for people, not for academics. This is true of the church music of the thirteenth century or the string quartets of the eighteenth. In our time, Paul McCartney is as good a songwriter (in my opinion) as Schubert. Movies are the new operas, and John Williams may be as important as Verdi. This “non-classical” music is the expression of our time, and we should value it. There is no room for snobbery.
Then, go to Asia (just as one example). There are long musical traditions in China, India, Japan, and so on. There is no reason to assume that these traditions are any less powerful or enduring than our Western music. Think of India. We don’t have to sit cross-legged listening to ragas to enjoy this music. Bollywood is full of it. And it is wonderful.
How are you taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 crisis?
I am lucky. I have a dog, enough space in my house, food in my fridge, a large family I love, and a reclusive personality. Still, this isolation is a killer. Here’s what I do: I Zoom my family three or four times a week. My wife, daughter, and I cook together even though we are almost 3000 miles apart. I walk the Back 40, the front forty and every other forty with my dog. I exercise, I get up early, and have created a routine. I work, I eat, I listen to music. And I heartily enjoy my conversations with my students and my colleagues. For those of you who are suffering, I am thinking of you. This can be really, really hard.
How has your job/life changed since March 2020?
I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I went back East for a family affair. My wife and daughter stayed for a while and I flew home for concerts at PUC and elsewhere. I got the flu (blame it on the airplane. Why not?) and when I got out of bed, my nuclear family was trapped in North Carolina, students had been sent home, and no one was meeting. My hair was already too long, and my hairdresser was closed. My tuxedo was lying dirty on my dresser and my dry cleaner was closed. I gave concerts for a living, now I couldn’t gather to make music, hear music, or go to a movie. My dog needed walking and feeding, and I was his sole caregiver. Wow. But we can get used to anything. At least I have a family who loves me, a safe place to live, and open space. We all have a right to complain, but I am one of the very lucky ones. Yes, it feels like I woke up and I’m still in a dream. But every day I count my blessings. And part of those blessings are all the people who keep us safe, healthy, and supplied. All at personal risk. Thank you all!
Besides music, what are some of your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working or composing or practicing?
I love to cook. I hate to do dishes, so I don’t cook as much as I would like, but I truly love it. I would call golf a hobby, but it is more of an addiction. And I’m really bad at it. (But so is everyone else–don’t believe the stories you hear.) I love chess but find chess puzzles better than chess games (because they are shorter). Still, I’ll play with anyone who wants to! I read and belong to a book club. I hike; in slow motion when my dog is there, a little faster but not by much when I’m alone. And, when there are sports, I follow the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. No wonder I don’t practice as much as I should.
Okay, we have to ask about the dog, because it seems like he’s an important part of your life. Introduce us!
Bowie, named for David Bowie, is an old guy. My daughter thinks he’s 14, but I’m convinced he’s 12 because I choose to. He is two dogs long, half a dog high, with twisted legs that probably come from a basset hound, although perhaps a dachshund. He’s got a normal dog face like a Labrador, a narrow ruff (that shoots up at the sight of huskies) like a Ridgeback, and a loose neck like a Shar-Pei. To me, he is simply a loving dog, a lap dog, a stubborn dog, and truly a boy’s best friend.
If you could swap places with Bowie, would you?
No, I wouldn’t trade places. He’s very happy and well cared for, and nothing troubles him except when he wants to go to the Back 40 and I am meeting with students.
But here’s the thing. I’ve always loved challenges. I can’t get out of bed if there isn’t a mountain to climb or something to conquer. That’s not a good thing, but it’s how I’m built, and it’s the way I’ve been since I was a little kid. Bowie is happy because there is nothing he has to accomplish. I am happy because there is always something that can be accomplished. We each have the life that fits our personality and scrapes along together very well.
All of these feelings are normal and understandable in the unfamiliar world in which we now find ourselves. As a Christian college, PUC supports faith in what never fails: Christ. And as a department of music, we also believe in the calming, reassuring, healing power of God’s gift of music.
Whether it’s COVID-19 or a significant change in your personal life, adapting to a new normal can be challenging at best. This month, our faculty share their perspectives on the importance of music in situations like this.
Resident Artist, Acting Chair, Symphonic Winds Ensemble Director
English is a great language for talking about concrete things. Trees and cars and houses and rocks are all well served by our local tongue. But abstract concepts, like hope, love, and faith are much better voiced in the language of music.
For me, when I need a shot of faith, I turn to J.S. Bach (the Magnificat is my go-to piece). Others may find the same message in Christian contemporary music. For hope, theGreat Gates of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ravel) always thrills me. For love, a melody from Tchaikovsky’sSwan Lake or maybe aSchubert song will do, or maybe you would preferHere, There, and Everywhere by The Beatles. In any event, let’s buoy our spirits by listening to the music that feeds our better angels.
Jenelle Westerbeck Anderson
Choir & Vox Pro Musica Director
It may seem rather silly writing about how music can positively impact our feelings, energy, creativity, etc. because it seems so self-evident to many, including me. But it is true that different music will speak to various individuals in varying ways. To that end, here are some annotated links to choral music that move me, sounds exciting and creates energy so I can’t sit still. I will end with a Sacred Harp singing example that reminds me of the power of shared music-making that isn’t about performance, but about sharing the experience of singing together.
What If by Eric Whitacre and arranged by the conductor of this wonderful choir. It comes from an opera so it was originally sung by solo voices. But in a choral setting, I love the unique way the voices are used. It’s almost pointillistic (if that’s a word). I also love the combination of percussion instruments and voices.
Unclouded Day arranged by Shawn Kirchner and sung by the same choir as above. I love folk music and this is a wonderful sacred folk song arranged for choir.
The Battle of Jericho, a traditional spiritual arranged by Moses Hogan. This video is to enjoy an animated, fun conductor and singers who are totally committed to their singing and the message of the song. There may be cleaner, “better” recordings out there of this famous piece, but probably not one more fun.
Ndikhokele Bawo (text based on Psalm 23) is a South African traditional song arranged by Michael Barrett (who is conducting). I’ve listened to this piece often this year since we performed it. But I like how this choir feels it and sings from the heart.
Antioch(I Know That My Redeemer Lives) from The Sacred Harp. This video isn’t about the beauty of the sound. In fact, you need to watch to the end and really watch the leader. In this style of singing, everyone sits in a square and different people lead each song. The singing is not for performance at all … just to sing together. The best sound is in the middle of that square and it is fun to watch this rather reserved man get taken by the experience. FYI – this is a uniquely North American style of folk music that is here sung by a group in Ireland.
Rachelle Berthelsen Davis
Music has been therapy for me for longer than I want to admit. Its power to distract my mind from stress and give me something constructive to focus on is a given in my experience. Certain songs have had the power to lift my spirits and help me re-engage with the world with a more positive spirit and I have a playlist that I’ve often used when my stress level is high and my courage low.
Hailing from Loomis, California (near Sacramento), Alexis Keller is a nursing major in her junior year who also happens to be both a fabulous violinist and a successful competitive water-skier. Not only is she a first violinist in the PUC Orchestra, but she plays second violin in the college’s string quartet as well.
Alexis was gracious enough to share her passion and insights with us so we could share them with you. Without further ado, meet Alexis!
When did you start playing the violin?
I started playing the violin when I was three years old. Interestingly enough, the school I went to at the time required everyone to learn how to play the violin. After the violin teacher left the school, my mom, who is also a violinist, continued to practice with me at home and took me to private violin lessons.
What kept you interested in that particular instrument?
I have continued to be interested in and play the violin because I love the medium of emotional expression it creates, the ability to connect with others through the language of music, and the opportunity to worship God through music. Also, in my unbiased opinion, the violin is one of the most beautiful-sounding instruments and truly emulates the human voice.
Because of my experiences playing the violin, I have had opportunities to connect with lifelong friends, perform famous orchestra pieces, and play in performances around the world.
Aside from learning the violin, tell us about your experience with music as a young person.
Music was a big part of my life growing up. From as early on as I can remember, I was brought along to my mom’s orchestra dress rehearsals and concerts. I grew up listening to the orchestral works of Beethoven, Dvořák, Mahler, and Haydn (to name a few), both at my mom’s orchestra concerts and on the radio station when my parents drove me home from school. At the age of seven, I joined the Sacramento Youth Symphony and continued to perform in the orchestra for the next decade until I graduated high school at age 17.
What makes music valuable to you here at PUC?
I am very grateful for the opportunity to continue making music at PUC because I am surrounded by a community of like-minded students and professors who share the same appreciation for music and passion to share that love of music with others. The environment PUC’s department of music has created pushes me to become a better musician and provides a creative outlet for a much-needed break from my studies!
What is your favorite piece of music you’ve ever performed, and why?
Definitely Accolay’s Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. This piece holds a special place in my heart because it was my first time soloing with an orchestra. It was a really great experience to go through the process of working with the orchestra and conductor to create the performance and then share that with my family and friends.
How do you balance study and music?
Finding time to practice can be very difficult, which is one of the reasons I am so thankful to be in orchestra and quartet. Without these scheduled times, I am not sure I would so frequently play my violin. The best way to balance my busy schedule is to remind myself how important it is to take time for myself and what I love to do, like making music.
Okay, so heading a completely different direction, tell us about your other, non-musical hobby.
Competitive slalom waterskiing is definitely a less conventional sport, but one I absolutely love doing. I started skiing and competing around the age of seven after much convincing from my mom to enter a tournament. After that first tournament, I was hooked. I loved competing against both my personal score as well as the other girls in my division and the constant challenge to complete the next pass as the rope was shortened. I have won many local tournaments and received medals when I traveled throughout the U.S. for regional competitions.
What’s one class here at PUC in which you feel you’ve learned the most?
My nursing classes definitely feel like information overload a lot of the time, but they have all taught me so much. My favorite nursing class that I’ve taken was Nursing 4. It was a transition phase from the first year of nursing school to the second. I felt this class really helped me grow my critical thinking skills and prioritization of patient care.
What is something you want to accomplish before graduating?
I hope to make a positive impact on the PUC campus in a way that emulates God’s love. Additionally, my goal is to start working as a nurse while I get my BSN next year.
What is something you’ve already accomplished?
I am proud of getting into the nursing program, my work as a coordinator for the collegiate Sabbath school, and my opportunities to connect with students as an RA. I am glad to be involved in campus life because it has taught me skills of leadership, teamwork, and communication I will continue to develop after graduation and into adulthood.
What is your career goal, and why?
I want to get my nurse practitioner license. I chose nursing as a career path because I was drawn to the interactions with patients, the opportunity to better the physical and lifestyle health of individuals, and to be in a setting where I am constantly learning new things.
Okay, final and clearly most important question: Tra Vigne or Villa Corona?
I prefer Tra Vigne over Villa Corona. Though Tra Vigne is more expensive, it has a lot of vegan options such as the make your own pizza, Beyond Burger, and piadinas.
Brennan Stokes graduated from Pacific Union College in 2013 with a degree in piano performance. Having discovered a love for composition while studying with Professor Asher Raboy in the department of music, Stokes chose to continue his education at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, graduating in 2019 with a Master’s of Music in composition. Today he maintains a teaching studio in San Francisco’s Sunset District, passing on his love of music to the next generation of pianists.
How did you discover your love for music?
My parents are both musically inclined; they both sang in the church choir, Mom took piano lessons as a kid, and Dad plays the trumpet. They started me in piano lessons when I was in kindergarten, but there was always music in our house. I just took it and ran with it.
How did you settle on the piano?
It was the first instrument I learned, and it was a match from the start. I really liked it, and according to my teachers, I showed some promise for it, so I kept playing. Piano just made sense to me.
How did composing become part of your musical life?
I always assumed I was going to be on one side of the page. I knew I was going to learn it, research it, analyze it, but I never considered creating it myself. When I found out I had to take a composition class for my degree, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but after our first assignment I realized how magical this process is and I fell in love with it. I continued to take classes with Professor Raboy even after the requirements were done. Creating new music was incredibly exciting for me.
Tell us about your studio.
I teach 30-35 students a week, all between the ages of 5 and 13. My schedule is very flexible; since most kids are in school, I am relatively free during the day. I start teaching around 3 p.m. three days a week and teach until 8 p.m. I enjoy what I do. I consider myself very fortunate to be working in my field, teaching young musicians.
When you’re not teaching kids to create music, you create music yourself. Describe your approach to practicing.
Really, it starts slow. Paying attention to fingerings becomes essential; training my hands to do smaller tasks automatically. Then I focus on rhythm, hand by hand, figuring out what each part of the piece sounds like, then I put it all together. A valuable tool Dr. Wheeler gave me is reverse practice. If you only ever start your practice at the beginning of a piece, that’s always going to be the strong part. But if you start at the end, which is often the hardest part, you ensure the end is also strong. Then you feel even more comfortable with the piece.
What is the difference between hearing a piece and playing it?
It’s a totally different experience to hear a piece than it is to see what the hands have to do to make the piece happen. You may feel like you know a piece after listening to it multiple times, but when you sit down to actually play it, you realize there are little rhythmic or harmonic nuances you didn’t realize were there. For example, the harmonies in some Chopin and Rachmaninoff pieces are super crunchy. It sounds like you’re playing something wrong and you check the notes three times, but that’s really what it is. You learn it, and suddenly it’s not crunchy anymore; it works.
Aside from providing a way to make a living, how has studying music contributed positively to your life?
The last several years I’ve been getting into poetry and it has turned into a cycle of self-enrichment. I read poetry and feel like it was meant to be an art song, so I create some vocal music to go with the poem. Also, music allows me to meet really incredible people from all over the world. Music is the most universal thing; it doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak, you can bond over music. I love how it brings people together.
Who is your favorite composer to play, and why?
I’d say Chopin and this relatively new 20th century English composer named York Bowen. Chopin changed the game for solo piano. Yes, it’s technical, but once you get it in the fingers, it becomes so fluid and so natural. There’s playfulness, there’s sadness, and the composer’s intentions are really clear. Bowen utilizes really rich harmonies and has a bit of a jazzier feeling. I don’t think he’s well known but he’s written a ton of music; in particular, his preludes and ballads feel really nice to play.
Who is your favorite composer to listen to, and why?
There are two to whom I constantly return: Ravel and Beethoven. I have yet to encounter a piece by Ravel I’m not stunned by. He was a wizard of music and his chamber and orchestra music is stunning. Every instrument’s shape and technique is magic because he thought about more than the obvious ways to use the instrument. He utilizes every aspect of shading to get different tone colors and sounds.
Beethoven takes his time with his surprises. What he did to change musical form is a reminder that if you feel like doing something, you can. He’ll pull a fortissimo out of nowhere or move through his harmonies in an unexpected way. His sonatas are really rich; one movement is fiery and passionate then another is lyrical and serene. It’s incredible to realize you don’t always have to do the same thing all the time. He reminds me to come back to things that are good and innovate. I’m still looking back to these masters and finding ways to influence my music-making process.
What is something you want to improve about your musicianship, and what are you currently doing to move in that direction?
Right now, rhythms and the finer points of notating what I want, maintaining my ear to get the intricate harmonies I love. I constantly have to work at how I put the complicated pieces together in the way I want them. During my first year of grad school, I took a musicianship class, and it was insane but incredible. Walking out of that class, my ear was so much sharper than it had been walking in. I still use techniques from that class to keep track of what has happened in a piece and what I’m doing next.
What is the highlight of your career thus far?
Definitely my first composition recital in November 2017—the first time I heard one of my pieces performed. I had composed two songs for mezzo soprano, violin, cello, and piano, and I was terrified. I’m so used to being in the driver’s seat, and it was terrifying to be the composer just sitting in the audience watching four other people do my music and having zero control over what happened.
It was an immense learning curve handing my music over to other musicians; what I think works initially may not actually work after a second pair of eyes looks it over, especially when I’m composing for instruments that are not my primary. I also learned that how performers interpret music is also a part of the creative process.
A lot of people came up to me afterward and said it was amazing. It was a moment when all of my fears of not being good enough vanished. To be positively received by an audience was wonderful, but for my music to be positively received by the musicians playing it was even better. It was confirmation I was doing what I should be doing.
If you could change one thing about society’s perception of classical music, what would it be?
I wish more people understood if you have the context of 20th century music, it will make more sense. The 20th century saw a lot of horrible things happen, and that’s reflected in dissonant 20th century music. It’s not necessarily pretty to listen to, but if you understand what they’re trying to say you don’t necessarily disagree with it. It takes a moment to transcend what you’re hearing and realize what the composer is saying; for example, a minor key with shrieking strings can express how a Polish composer feels about the Holocaust. If you understand what it is they were experiencing or reacting to, it contextualizes their voice and makes the music more accessible.
How do you deal with performance anxiety?
I read a book on performance anxiety and the author said if you don’t get nervous, if you don’t feel anxious or get a boost in energy (whether positive or negative) before a performance, it’s apathy. You don’t really care. If you’re nervous before you perform, it means you want to do a good job and perform to the best of your ability to make sure what you put out there is wonderful. That really changed my way of thinking. I’ve learned to recognize what happens to me and where my nervousness affects me the most, then find a way to adjust. I try to fully relax my body and tell myself I’m going to give a wonderful performance. I reassure myself I’ve practiced, I’m ready, and I’m a good enough musician to find my way through the performance. This is music and music is fun, and sharing it with others should be enjoyable. That nervous feeling just means I’m doing the right thing. I’m doing something that matters to me. And that’s how it should be.
PUC boasts many great music ensembles. We enjoy their performances every quarter, but most of us don’t participate in a music group. After all, why should we sacrifice our precious free time? I asked Kayley Wilson, a junior English major and member of both I Cantori and Chorale, for her answer and a few other questions about music at PUC.
“The payoff is great. There have been times where I’ve been thinking, ‘Man, I could be working on a paper right now.’ But there have been so many times when I’ve walked out going, ‘Wow. I am so less stressed about what was bothering me.’ I feel better … Singing is healthy. It causes you to breathe really deeply … Psychologically, physically it’s good for you. Even though there have been times when I’m like, ‘I could be doing something else,’ I feel it benefits me in so many ways. It’s not something I’m willing to give up, you know? It does limit your time sometimes. If you’re just in Chorale, a couple weekends a year you’re singing. It’s really not that much. I think it’s worth it.”
Why do you have such a high opinion of singing? “There’s something so powerful about this big group of people all thinking about the same thing and focusing on the same thing when we live in this world where there’s so much division. It’s really a beautiful thing to be able to come together and do that.
Music relaxes me. It allows me to step outside of the daily struggles and focus on something I love. I love that a lot of it’s worship music and I love doing that. It’s an escape; it’s worship. I just think it’s really valuable … I also feel like whatever gift you’ve been given, doing it well is an act of worship … When I was in high school, I came from a Waldorf school and it wasn’t Christian, and now I go to this school where my professor is saying, ‘We’re singing the Bible; we’re singing Scripture.’ Literally, singing Scripture! He said, ‘When I’m conducting, I’m praying. My heart is in it; my soul is in it. I want you to think about singing in a choir as your personal worship time. You’re not performing for other people; you’re giving back to God.’ That really, really stuck with me.”
Why do you think people are hesitant to join music groups? “Well, for one I think a lot of people are scared of joining music groups because they’re scared they don’t have the ability. The thing is, no one expects you to come in knowing everything. That’s why there’s an instructor.
If you like music, what kind of music are you interested in? Don’t think that ‘Oh, well, this was written in 1500s–I’m not going to like that.’ You don’t know unless you’ve tried singing it, unless you’ve sat down and listened to it. It doesn’t have to be choir–that’s my background, but I have friends who are in Symphonic Wind Ensemble and they just have a blast. They’re always doing some really interesting pieces. I think it really builds community–really, really builds community. It’s typical that you’re going to know more people within your department because you have events to go to and classes with all those people, but when you’re in a music ensemble, you also get to meet people from all over who maybe you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise and you’re all coming together for one common goal. I just think that’s so cool.
One thing I think is really neat about being in an ensemble is that if you don’t feel confident, you’ve got a lot of people behind you. There’s something really beautiful about that unity; that we may not all sound amazing by ourselves, but we’re stronger and more powerful together.”
So, consider joining one of the music groups on campus and be part of a community, worshipping and singing together. Here’s a list of some of the larger ensembles at PUC:
Big Band–Rehearses and performs big band jazz. The group focuses on the development of reading and improvisation skills.
Chorale–Performs both sacred and secular music, in diverse styles and from many periods. It’s a large mixed chorus open to all students, faculty, and staff. The group normally performs one piece with the orchestra each year. There are auditions each quarter; however, membership for the whole school year is preferred.
Gospel Choir–Extensively surveys religious music from African-American worship experiences.
Handbell Choir–Performs every quarter, both on and off campus. There are two levels of handbell choir: The beginning choir is open to any student who can read music; the advanced handbell choir is for ringing level three music and above.
I Cantori–Performs both sacred and secular music. It’s a mixed-voice chamber ensemble for voice majors and other serious vocal students. It’s also a major touring ensemble and has a full performance schedule, including off campus tours. The director holds auditions at the beginning of fall quarter and year-long membership is required. Students in I Cantori are also required to register for Chorale.
Introductory String Ensemble–Performs music at the level of the group. The ensemble focuses on developing technique, musicianship, and ensemble skills.
Orchestra–Performs masterworks in concerts every quarter and at other events, both on and off campus. It’s for advanced string, wind, and brass players. The group often collaborates with soloists and other ensembles.
Praise Teams/Bands–There are opportunities to perform at both vespers and the PUC Church service Sabbath morning. Contact the religious vice president in the Student Association or the church office to learn more. You can also read our post “(P)Raise the Roof” for some thoughts on being part of a praise band at PUC.
Symphonic Wind Ensemble–Performs a diverse selection of music in a wide variety of settings and is for advanced instrumentalists. Tours and workshops occur on alternate years.