Hitting All the Right Notes
By Eric Breier
Cal State San Marcos’ campus looked quite a bit different when music professor Bill Bradbury joined the faculty in 1993.
Only Academic Hall, Craven Hall and Science Hall 1 had been built. As for a state-of-the-art music studio, well, only if you count a closet in Science Hall 1.
“It was not a lot bigger than my office,” Bradbury said. “We had a mixing board and some mics and I could squeeze about eight or 10 students in the closet.”
Times have certainly changed.
In the past three years alone, CSUSM has added a music major, an innovative music lab and received the prestigious designation as an All-Steinway School, among other milestones.
“It’s really a new era for music on our campus,” Bradbury said. “There are a lot of exciting things happening for our students.”
Earning the All-Steinway School designation was not even on Ching-Ming Cheng’s radar when she arrived at CSUSM in 2011.
Cheng, an associate professor of music and a renowned classical pianist, took one look at the 61-note keyboards being used by students at the time and knew an upgrade was paramount.
By 2015, thanks to a fundraising event at which Cheng performed, CSUSM was able to open a music lab with 30 new, 88-key digital pianos.
The music lab was the first step on an important journey for the University’s music program.
In October 2016, nearly $150,000 was raised for the purchase of a Steinway D Concert Grand piano, the instrument of choice for most concert pianists. CSUSM students experienced playing on the Steinway D in the spring as part of their senior capstone projects.
“It’s like you’ve been driving a Volkswagen and all of a sudden somebody gives you a Tesla,” said Dana Burnett, a lecturer in the music department.
Building on the momentum from the acquisition of the Steinway D, the University publicly announced its goal to become an All-Steinway School on April 9, 2017, following a performance by Cheng at the California Center for the Arts Escondido. CSUSM reached its goal exactly one year later, joining an exclusive group of fewer than 200 universities and conservatories worldwide with the All-Steinway School designation.
“In music, especially in piano performance, having a good instrument can bring you to the next level,” Cheng said. “For all the elite music schools around the world, becoming an All-Steinway School is really the goal. When you present yourself as an All-Steinway School, you don’t really need to say much more. That’s when you know that the teachers know what they’re doing, and the school knows what’s important and how to support students.
“I’m really grateful and happy to be in this community where everybody supports music so much.”
The All-Steinway School designation and the music lab aren’t the only unique aspects of the program.
Music professor Merryl Goldberg, who arrived at CSUSM the same year as Bradbury, notes that the small professor-to-student ratio is a boon for students, who are able to provide input into the structure of their degree.
“Their path might be rock ’n’ roll, it might be classical or mariachi or some type of folk music, but we’re able to support and nurture students in any path they choose,” Goldberg said. “It’s really student centered.”
The program has a group of core courses that all music majors take and then they are free to emphasize a specific area based on their interests.
“The flexibility in creating your own degree that works for you is really unparalleled,” said Spencer Osborne, who will graduate in spring 2019 with a degree in music composition. “I don’t know another school that does that.”
Students’ musical experience when they arrive at CSUSM runs the gamut from those who are highly skilled to others who are at a beginner level.
Kristina Vo is one who arrived at CSUSM highly skilled on the piano, but she never considered majoring in music – not until she took a course with Cheng.
Kristina started playing the piano when she was 7 years old and continued through high school. Then she quit, figuring it was time to focus on her economics major when she enrolled at CSUSM.
Then Kristina signed up for an intermediate piano class taught by Cheng. With her previous playing experience, Kristina figured she would get an A in the class before moving on to fulfilling other graduation requirements. Instead, with encouragement from Cheng, Kristina added a second major and graduated in May with degrees in economics and music.
“The professors are really passionate about teaching and conveying their passion to students,” Kristina said.
The growth over the past few years has attracted talented musicians eager to be part of CSUSM’s burgeoning music program.
“We have really high caliber faculty,” Bradbury said. “There’s a lot of faculty-student interaction, which is really important, especially in music.”
Renowned trumpeter Curtis Taylor, a Grammy Award-winning artist who has played in a dozen countries and with some of the heavyweights of jazz, is one such instructor.
While some of his students are relatively new to their instrument, Taylor embraces the challenge of getting them up to speed. A music lecturer at CSUSM since spring 2016, Taylor begins each semester by finding a common starting place and building upon everyone’s knowledge base.
“That happens through the instruction and the concepts I teach, but it also happens through the students who know a little more helping the students who don’t know as much,” Taylor said. “I try to foster that team-building environment.
“It’s so rewarding. Even if people don’t go on to have a career in music, you can take the skills you learn from music in practice and discipline and consistency, and you can apply it to any area of your life that you want to excel in.”
Malesha Taylor is another recent addition to the music program, becoming the department’s voice teacher in the spring.
Malesha Taylor taught Vocal and Instrumental Instruction in the spring and will be leading a performance ensemble that will perform traditional and contemporary gospel music in the fall.
“What I really like about this music department, which is unique to all music departments that I’ve ever seen, is the students are learning different genres,” said Malesha Taylor, noting that the repertoire of her students includes classical, Latin jazz, traditional jazz, musical theater, pop and soul, among other genres.
Curtis Taylor and Malesha Taylor are two of nearly a dozen lecturers in the music department. Bradbury, Cheng, Goldberg and department chair Mtafiti Imara comprise the full-time faculty.
Their presence and work toward developing the music major – not to mention the revamped music lab and All-Steinway School designation – have helped put CSUSM’s music program on the map throughout the region.
“Our award-winning music faculty are skilled and talented artists, teachers and scholars,” said Julia Johnson, dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, Behavioral and Social Sciences. “They have won multiple awards, including Emmys and grants from organizations like the National Endowment of the Arts or the Federal Department of Education Arts in Education Program.
“Additionally, they travel globally to perform for and to educate audiences in every part of the world. Students studying music at CSUSM have the benefit of learning from these accomplished professionals as they work toward their own professional goals as musicians.”
Bradbury still remembers the email he sent to faculty when the music major was approved three years ago. He noted that the “grunt work” was done, referring to the committees, the seemingly endless paperwork and designing the curriculum. It was time to start the “real work.”
“Now we have students coming here expecting this degree,” he said. “We have faculty with so much energy who are so supportive of the students. It’s really an exciting time.”
The department members aren’t resting on their laurels. Space constraints are an ongoing issue as the music department shares Arts 111, the campus’ lone performance hall, with dance and theater classes. One of the more immediate priorities is raising funds for student scholarships.
But seeing all that has been accomplished in a short period of time, Cheng has no doubt they can reach these goals and more.
“Every semester something good happens,” Cheng said. “We’re growing so fast. We keep getting the right support.
“The community really sees the importance of music education and arts education.”