My grandma got me a guitar when I was 4, but I don’t think I really understood what it was. My sister was taking piano lessons when she was in 3rd grade and I was in 1st, so I begged my mom for lessons too. Piano is my first real instrument.
Did you have a musical family?
My dad played saxophone and a little bit of flute. Most of my exposure to music through my family was singing in church.
What do you remember about those early lessons?
My earliest memories of music are about just making things up, writing things, improvising. It was simple things at first, but I was always making things up. The teacher that I had at the beginning was kind of receptive to that. I had a couple of later teachers, but they didn’t really take it that far.
It’s kind of sad, but most of the reason that I ever stopped taking lessons was I misbehaved a lot growing up, and the only punishment that was ever effective was to take away my music lessons and my instruments. So that’s what happened to piano lessons sometime in 6th grade.
When did you start playing other instruments?
I started on flue in 4th and 5th grade, then in 6th grade I switched to alto sax after a few weeks, and to tenor sax a few months after that. I switched to tuba in 7th grade, then by the end of the year I picked up basson, which I played in 8th grade. I also played guitar in the jazz band in 7th & 8th grade. Freshman year I was doing basson, then the summer after that I got indoctrinated into the marching band, on trumpet.
I understand you were on a track to be a math major? How did you get back to music?
I was on a roadtrip with a friend and we passed by CalArts. It’s right by Magic Mountain. It’s kind of a crazy, awesome place. The practice rooms are open 24/7, which is an incredible thing for music students. I saw a few shows there and fell in love with the place. So when it came time to apply to schools, I applied there and to a bunch of other schools as a 3rd year math student. I decided that I would go to CalArts if I got in there, but otherwise I was going to study math. But I got in!
Tell me about your experience at CalArts!
I feel really lucky to have as much one-on-one instruction as I had. I took a lot of lessons with Bill Powell, the clarinet professor there. I was a composition major, but they let me have major lessons in two other things, which you’re not really supposed to do! I got lessons with the woodwind specialist, Vinny Golia. I remember in his office he just had tubs and tubs of flutes and different reeded things from all over the world. There was even a tubax hanging on the wall! It’s a subcontrabass saxophone!
What sorts of groups were you performing with while you were at student at Cal Arts?
I organized a group of about 11 people while I was there. That’s how I learned that I don’t want to be a manager! I went through having to fire the bass player and hiring a replacement. I had 2 sax players that were both amazing musicians and really into the project, but hated each other! I had to deal with that kind of stuff, but it was still an awesome experience. I wrote a bunch of charts, we did a few concerts. There’s some live and studio recordings too. We had charts, but there was a lot of improvisation worked into it.
How did improvisation work, with an 11 piece band?
Well it kind of depended on the piece. One section that comes to mind was a song with a melody, plus a counter-melody going on at the same time, and a third simple part underneath. Everyone would start on the melody and then improvise their way onto the 3 parts. They could add whatever they wanted from point A to point B. so they were improvising within the structure. Or some other songs would have a section with written parts, except one part would be improvised on top. A lot of the inspiration for this was from Charles Mingus.
Overall, what was the biggest take-away from your experience at Cal Arts?
Just that it’s incredible how much you can get done when you have the time and when you are surrounded by other artists, that also have the time!
After you finished at Cal Arts, did you have a career plan?
I’ve always been passionate about education. If someone asked me, “What are you?” I would say, “I’m a human being. I am also a musician and I am a teacher.” So that’s where my head has been at for a long time. Right out of college, I thought I would go into a Master’s and eventually a PhD in music. But really, I ended up learning how to practice. I learned how to really look more critically at what I wanted to do and how to fill in the holes. Ultimately what I decided that I needed for my own education was time to practice, people to collaborate with and teachers.
What was is that sparked your interest into being an educator?
I’ve always cared how I spend my time, and I guess I started thinking about how I want to live at a pretty young age. It seems to have a lot of intrinsic value, but the flip side of that is I do feel kind of selfish, because any time I’m teaching, I’m also learning! A lot of what I like to do with my own time is learn things, so I like to share that with others.
When did you first start teaching?
I started teaching guitar lessons when I was 16 and have been teaching ever since! Currently, I also teach for a musical theater company in Alameda. During the school year, it’s an after-school program that meets a couple times a week at 12 locations, with 2 teachers in each class. In the summer, we have our main stage productions. I usually play piano, in addition to teaching the class. We just did a production of Narnia, and the summer before we did The Hobbit. It’s a pretty fun gig! A lot of the kids are students I have had for a long time, and the other teachers are friends of mine. I have been a math tutor since high school as well!
I also hear that outside of music and teaching, you’re also into traveling and biking? And you have another big adventure coming up soon?
I’m leaving for Peru on October 12th! I’m going to see Peru by bus, because it’s way too steep and hilly for a bike. When I get to the border of Chile, I’m going to buy a bicycle and ride it down the whole length of the country, which is about 6000 miles, so it’s going to take a few months.
And you did something similar here in the US previously, right?
Yes, I rode my bike from Oakland to Seattle.
How do you manage to keep up with music when you do these trips? Do you have to take a break from playing?
That’s one of the hardest things, actually. I had a bamboo flute with me actually. It’s easy to find guitars, harder to find pianos. You can sing! I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do this time. I’m probably going to buy a hatun (an 8-stringed strummed instrument). This is a big conflict for me though – I want to travel & explore, but when I do that, I feel that I’m going backwards in terms of practicing.
What got you started on doing these long bike rides?
Well I’ve always loved riding, but it’s also about anti-capitalism, and how the oil industry runs our world. I sold my car 7 years ago, and I don’t ever want to buy one again. I’ve done a lot of travelling. I’ve been lucky enough to go all over the world, and I want to keep travelling, but I want to do it with my own force of motion.