Music to Our Ears

By Linda Peterson

How does a musician know he or she is a musician? Here’s one gauge: musicians make music. Music has always been an important part of Saint Mary’s — from the Jazz Band to the all community choir to visiting groups performing in the Chapel. But new partnerships with the Contra Costa Chamber Orchestra (CCCO) and the Diablo Wind Symphony (DWS) mean music-loving Gaels have assets any musician would welcome — more venues, more professional colleagues and more audiences.

It’s one of those rare partnerships that truly benefits everyone. Saint Mary’s students have the opportunity to play in larger ensembles, to enjoy learning from more fellow musicians and get academic credit for their participation in the performing ensembles. As for DWS and the CCCO, they relish access to talented young performers and having the opportunity to collaborate with a selective academic partner with deep roots in music.

Lino Rivera, Performing Arts Department chair, says, "Our music program was strong in history, appreciation and theory, but up until eight years ago we didn’t even offer private music instruction. With music, you can’t just talk about it, you must do it. This new partnership with CCCO gives students a semi-professional experience, and the chance to play with more experienced musicians, in a wider range of performing venues."

"Our program basically became too big for its old package," explains Martin Rokeach, composer and music program director. "We have many more fine musicians and we needed to expand the range and number of performance opportunities available to them." Saint Mary’s has attracted more serious musicians in recent years, with the addition of performing arts scholarships and growing faculty reputation. Adds Rokeach, "When prospective students arrive for a private lesson and their teacher is, for example, the principal trumpet for the San Francisco Opera, they realize Saint Mary’s is offering the same caliber of teacher as the conservatories."

Freshman Rachel Neubert, now a violist in the CCCO, came to Saint Mary’s as an alumna of Portland, Oregon’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. "The CCCO isn’t as big, but it offers plenty of benefits," she says. "Going from one of 12 to one of five means I get more individual attention." She likes the mix of ages as well. "The people who lead the violas are amazing — they have been really kind to me." As an engineering student with a demanding course load, Rachel acknowledges that making time for music in her life is difficult — but worth it. "I enjoy the company of musicians. I would miss them if I weren’t involved with music. But I also would miss it for me. Music is such a stress reliever."

Conductor Tim Smith calls Rachel a "very fine viola player" and values the partnership both for the students and Saint Mary’s faculty. "Being associated with a college of such high academic standing means a lot, especially when I have such regard for the faculty musicians." He’s enjoyed conducting Rokeach’s compositions and looks forward to featuring faculty as soloists in future performances. John Maltester, director of the Saint Mary’s Jazz Band and artistic director of the Diablo Wind Symphony, says the DWS relationship offers students real advantages. "They benefit from the performance opportunities, master classes we have and retreats with the band. They also play with very talented high school and college students."

Composition student Stephanie Webster was a percussionist without a performance home until the
DWS opportunity arose. "As a Saint Mary’s composition student, the opportunity to study with Martin Rokeach was a huge attraction. Plus, Saint Mary’s makes you a well-rounded musician. I have private classes in piano, voice, percussion and composition. I’m also in Chamber Singers, Jazz Band and the NightinGaels. We used to be limited in how many music classes we could enroll in, and now we can take as many as we want without paying extra fees. And with the Diablo Wind Symphony, I have a place to play. It’s helpful for my composer’s ears to hear large ensemble performance from the inside. Plus, since I teach percussion to high school and middle school students, in DWS I get to see how young students approach things, and that brings a new perspective to teaching."

Last fall, the CCCO concert series celebrated composer milestones — the 100th birthday of Samuel
Barber, the 200th birthdays of Chopin and Schumann, among others. What could have been saluted as well during that series was a first birthday — a brand-new partnership with Saint Mary’s College, with plenty of promise ahead.