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Hitting a High Note


By Ashley Kahn

Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM

The Herb Alpert School of Music's global perspective and industry savvy have placed it solidly among the nation's top music programs. Its renowned benefactor says students need bring only their imagination.


The gottuvadyam from South India is a fretless, long-necked lute played in the manner of a slide guitar. Photo by Jeremy Samuelson

It goes without saying that in the last 15 years, the music industry has changed from top to bottom. Digital technology and the internet have forced major shifts in the way music is recorded, produced and distributed. The business side — how music earns revenue, and how much — is still being redetermined. Students entering music schools today must rethink the traditional paths toward a successful career. Hybrid professions — such as performer/producer or engineer/online entrepreneur — are the norm in a world where it's necessary to balance music and commerce.

How are music schools responding?

Suffice it to say that any academic institution determined to graduate career-bound music majors today must seriously consider what skill sets are needed and what faculty, courses and facilities will best fill that need. The successful music school embraces a cutting-edge, global view of the art and the industry.

For the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, it would be hard to find a better description than the one The Hollywood Reporter ran last November, praising the school for being “the opposite of a Beethoven-bust-worshipping conservatory stuck in the 19th century” and placing it fourth among the nation’s top collegiate music programs, on a par with such long-established institutions as Boston’s Berklee College of Music and New York’s The Juilliard School. This thrust into the national spotlight was no surprise to those at UCLA who are responsible for the school’s rapid rise.

“What we’re offering that’s so essentially apart from other schools,” says Christopher Waterman, dean of the School of the Arts and Architecture, of which the School of Music is a significant part, “is a global perspective on music that includes styles from popular and ethnic to jazz and classical, and a focus on the business side of music making that’s reflected in our newly created music industry program. That adds up to a future vision of career building in music that is entirely unique.”


A khong wong mon yai from Thailand. Photo by Jeremy Samuelson

“The school’s starting to get the recognition it deserves,” says benefactor Herb Alpert, for whom the school is named. “It was already a hidden gem, and now with our funding it’s been able to attract top-tier faculty and work on a core curriculum that enables all the students to study music from a global perspective.”

The funding to which the renowned trumpeter and music industry pioneer refers is the $30-million endowment that he and his wife, famed singer Lani Hall, gave to the school in 2007. The gift — the single largest individual grant earmarked for higher music education in the western United States — created the umbrella that houses UCLA’s music, musicology and ethnomusicology departments.

Waterman points to other high-profile developments, including some enabled by the Alpert gift, that have elevated the school’s reputation — like becoming the home of the Thelonious Monk Institute, arguably the leading finishing school of jazz talent, which includes the participation of such headliners as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. “Jazz has always functioned as a strong bridge between people of different cultures and countries,” Hancock says. “Because of UCLA’s focus on ethnomusicology and its long-standing relationship with jazz, this has been the perfect home for the Monk Institute.”

Long-standing is correct. Kenny Burrell, the legendary guitarist who heads the school’s jazz studies program, created the first regular college course on Duke Ellington in the U.S. in 1978. In 1996, Burrell was the founding director of the jazz studies program. “The way the jazz program has developed since then says so much about UCLA’s continued commitment to this music,” he says.