Director of Vocal Jazz
Evolving as a Musician, Teacher, and Human Being
You are a very accomplished musician, and also a very dedicated educator. You are a lecturer, adjudicator, clinician, private teacher. Where do you get your passion for teaching?
I think it’s a combination of my passion for music and for helping people. I mean, art was created to uplift and inspire humanity. In teaching young people to do that . . . [in] forming ensembles and doing performances, we’re giving something back to the world.
I feel like the perfect people came into my life at the perfect times . . . and I feel so blessed and honored and don’t take the responsibility lightly that now I get to be that for other people. It’s such a privilege and an honor to be able to walk part of the life journey with these amazing students.
Was there a music teacher in your life that was particularly influential for you?
There were many. The first one that comes to mind was Sonny Wilkinson, who was my private jazz voice teacher. She really gave me a lot. And then of course my mentors from college, Steve Zegrie, Larry Lapin, and Dwayne Davis. I feel like . . . there are people who come into your life and . . . walk that part of your life with you, and . . . help you not only musically but to evolve as a human being. I feel like the perfect people came into my life at the perfect times . . . and I feel so blessed and honored and don’t take the responsibility lightly that now I get to be that for other people. It’s such a privilege and an honor to be able to walk part of the life journey with these amazing students.
Do you think the teaching style of those teachers you had influenced the way you teach?
Absolutely. We are all the product of all the influences we’ve had in our lives, and whether it’s good or bad, you know, we decide we want to take some of the good that this person brought us, and then if there was maybe a negative influence in our life, we say “you know what, I’m not gonna do that.”
You are notoriously well-liked you are by your students.
Oh yay! That makes me really happy, ‘cause I’m hard on them, so that’s good.
Why do you think your students like you so much?
Because I think they know that I genuinely care about them. I mean, in addition to holding them to a very high standard, musically, professionally, and personally, they know that no matter . . . how much I expect of them, that I’m doing it out of love. You can’t fake that. People can spot a fake like that.
Pacific Standard Time is your incredibly successful jazz ensemble. What is the competition like to get into the group?
Even though we’re one of the top vocal jazz programs in the country, we’re also one of the smallest. So I believe in quality over quantity. So it’s a small on purpose. And then of course only the best of the best of the ones that are in the program get into the top ensemble.
I’m picturing intense practice sessions, like Whiplash.
It’s not like that at all, haha
Are you JK Simmons?
No, no I’m [not]. I feel like I teach with enthusiasm and positivity, but I’m always honest. And so if it’s not good I’ll say, “that wasn’t good, let’s do it again.” But there’s always a smile on my face.
You live and breathe music, jazz specifically. What brought you to jazz?
At first I chose it because it was the most challenging thing I’d ever tried to do. There’s specific music written on the page, but what I do with it is my own. Every time I sing it it’s different, and if somebody else sings it, it’s going to be different. There’s a different audience in front of me, and I’m going to have to say this in a way that this particular audience will understand or get uplifted from.
In all the Jazz Pantheon, who is your favorite jazz musician?
Oh gosh, that’s such a hard question to answer because I feel like I’ve been influenced by so many. I guess I like the song stylists. Carmen McRae would definitely have to be one. And Mark murphy. I feel like singers in that realm, those two in particular, just really know how to tell a story in their singing. It’s so honest and so real. Those would probably be the two.
Have you gotten to work with any of your idols?
Well Danny Elfman, for sure. And Alan Silvestri is another huge one. Just last week . . . I sang on Ready Player One, the new one that’s coming out in March, and Alan Silvestri did the score. Stephen Spielberg showed up to the session, so I was . . . star-struck. And for the first cue, the two of them just got a couple chairs and sat out there in the room with the choir and the mics and everything just listened to it live.
Is that a lot of pressure?
Yes and no. Every day when I go to one of those things, I feel like its slow-mo. I’m walking on Warner Brothers Lot, going is this real, am I doing this? I never thought in a million years when I was a kid I’d be doing something like that.
What advice do you have for today’s students who dream of being successful musicians or even making it onto Pacific Standard Time?
You have to do the work. In today’s society, everything is instant. Everything is . . . at our fingertips, and it’s so easy to not be in the world and not be in the present because we’re behind screens all the time. And so I think people are just not as dedicated to the practice and the discipline of doing the work.
There’s some quote that says 90% of success is showing up, and that’s . . . what I think students need to do. Show up at the page, show up at the piano, show up in the practice room.
And then of course, be kind. Be a person who is easy to work with. Be professional. All those things count.
What are some of your proudest moments as an educator?
I really don’t like competition in music, but the proudest moments are in performance. When I see students achieving such a high level of mastery and musicianship and honesty and vulnerability on stage.
Some of my proudest moments are when I see a student break their own barrier. That’s one of the most beautiful things to see. They’re evolving, not just as musicians, but as human beings.
What would you hope that your legacy would be?
That the students will pass this on. Pass it on. I know this sounds really hippie and cumbaya, but it’s really true. Remembering the motivation behind why we’re doing this. We forget that. In academia, we forget that. It’s remembering why we do this in the first place, because it brings us joy and other people joy and it is, that’s why art exists. That's why art exists.