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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.

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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.”

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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.

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A biwa from Japan. Photo by Jeremy Samuelson

Another exciting advancement came in 2011, when veteran music industry executive Mo Ostin ’51 — legendary for his years at the helms of Reprise and Warner Bros. Records — donated $10 million to erect a music-focused facility on the UCLA campus. The complex provided much-needed space for performing, recording, producing and even socializing. “Mo’s generous gift will create state-of-the-art technology and teaching facilities that support the vision of music at UCLA and enrich our commitment to a holistic education for young musicians,” says Waterman.

The complex was designed “to take existing space and buildings and reimagine what they could be so they would tie in with the goals of the Herb Alpert School,” he says. In addition to a café and social area for students, with a bandstand for student performances, there will be more rehearsal spaces and a concert room, mixing bays for students to do post-production on recordings, and more faculty offices. “The second building,” Waterman says, “will be a stand-alone recording studio with room for small or large groups to play and record. This should all be ready in time for our next school year, so you can imagine the excitement that Mo has made possible.”

The Herb Alpert School also prides itself on its inner structure, with three departments — music, musicology and ethnomusicology. Daniel Neuman, interim chair of the school, notes how these three allow students a variety of experiences that is unique in music studies.

“We now have a faculty of 118 spread over three departments, giving more than 500 music majors a wide spectrum of choices,” he says. “So if students want to study rock or classical music, or the musical traditions of a specific culture, they can. Or if they want to focus on playing the pipa or the oud — traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern stringed instruments, respectively — this really is the only campus that can make that happen. As a result, the strength in our curriculum translates to the wide spectrum of students we attract. Our student body is probably more diverse than at any other campus — certainly in the U.S., and probably the world.”

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A goblet drum from Côte d'Ivoire

An expert on the classical music of India, Neuman points to the experience of a soon-to-graduate student, Gaayatri Kaundinya. He says she was able to both expand her musical horizons within the curriculum offerings and take advantage of the school’s excellent relationships with music industry professionals in the Los Angeles area.

“She’s of Indian origin and arrived here already very well-trained, so she didn’t need to study Indian music,” Neuman says. “She came here to major in ethnomusicology and experience world music in general, and also to gain exposure to the music business. We connected her with A.R. Rahman, the famous Bollywood composer who won an Oscar for his work on the movie Slumdog Millionaire. He’s based in India but has an office here in L.A.”

Kaundinya adds that “Rahman is kind of like the John Williams [a former UCLA student himself] of the East — the most famous film composer in India today. Working with him was incredible. When he heard my voice, he gave me the opportunity to intern with him — I ended up singing on the soundtrack for an upcoming Disney film, Million Dollar Arm.”

She credits the Herb Alpert School for pushing her beyond one style of music or approach. “I was surprised in many ways — good ways — by the classes. I took a couple of music composition and music theory courses that helped me a lot, and I got to meet musicians from many different disciplines and understand what’s different and the same between us. That was important, because once you leave school, it becomes difficult to know people outside your own circle and style of music.

“The ethnomusicology courses,” she continues, “I thought would be like I heard they are at other schools — listening and studying and analyzing. But here, they emphasize performance. So while we did listen and study, we also had to learn to play instruments and perform. I explored singing Balkan vocal ensemble music with Professor Tsvetanka Varimezova, who’s famous in Bulgaria for her singing and conducting. I had the opportunity to join a Balkan choir that she put together and travel to Mexico City to perform. It was an experience I’ll never forget — something unique to UCLA. There are so many great things about the school, and it made me love Los Angeles, too. I’m planning to stick around after I graduate.”

Neuman emphasizes that the school aims for a lot more than instrumental expertise. “We want to ensure that when students graduate, no matter what their emphasis may be on whatever instrument, each leaves us with the intellectual and practical skills to enter into the world of music as a productive artist and into productive employment.

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A dvojnice, or double-duct flute. Photo by Jeremy Samuelson

“One example of that is a new music industry program taught by music industry veterans, many of whom live and still work here in L.A. The courses deal with how to market your music or yourself as a performer, or how to record and produce music and become familiar with a recording studio on a technical level.”

The chair of the music industry minor, Robert Fink, says the program was directly urged by Herb Alpert himself. “Herb really cares about rethinking the way musicians are trained in the 21st century, and he wanted the school to come up with an integrated curriculum that negotiated the lines between the domain of musical performance with the vocational or practical framework of the music business, and the theoretical and historical aspects of music.

“One of my academic specialties is popular music, and I’ve taught courses on Motown and soul, electronic dance music, and the like, and undergraduates consistently come to me and want to expand their knowledge of the music industry. A few incredibly motivated students have incorporated courses on popular music from our division with economics courses and maybe some law and business. So far it’s been an unalloyed success, and the inspiration comes from Herb, who at the very start thought about providing students with the tools so that they can finish at UCLA and act in a more entrepreneurial way than music majors have traditionally.”

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A chwa-go from Korea. Photo by Jeremy Samuelson

Indeed, the school could hardly have a more appropriate benefactor than Alpert, whose legendary career serves as a successful, visionary model of a musician who took charge of his own business affairs. In 1962, he co-founded the hugely successful A&M Records in a Hollywood garage; in the ensuing decades he achieved monumental success as a star performer, bandleader and music executive. Today, he stays in touch with the direction of the school and is often present, whether helping judge competitions in the Monk Institute or speaking in the classroom.

Alpert says, “Ken Kragen — the longtime manager who helped put together ‘We Are The World’ in the ’80s and managed Lionel Richie and many others — teaches a music business class. He brings in students from all departments at UCLA, dealing with questions of music, creativity and careers. He brought Lani and me in to speak, and we basically dealt with the nature of success and the idea that kindness is contagious — that whether you’re making music or shoelaces, if you’re involved in a creative process it’s about developing your own uniqueness and appreciating that same thing in others. Your style of music or what country or background you’re coming from is not what’s important — I believe that goes to the heart of what the school’s curriculum is about.” He commends the music industry minor, which he says is in great demand. “I always feel like you need a plan B if you’re going to be a musician.”

The initial experience that led Alpert toward a career in music also inspires his desire to nurture the creative urge in all students — at UCLA, or anywhere.

“When I was 8 years old, I was taking a music appreciation class at my elementary school, and they put us?in front of this round table covered with musical instruments. We each chose an instrument we wanted to learn. I picked up the trumpet, and obviously it changed my life. This is something that barely exists anymore because of budget cuts targeting arts education. It’s a sad commentary on our society that we don’t really value the arts like we should. I’d like to see kids have that opportunity again. The school of music at UCLA is like that — a big, round table full of possibilities. All the students need to bring is their imaginations.”