Eastman School of Music

Audience Engagement, Commemorative, Future of Music, Inspirational Stories, Opportunity, Travel

Into the Wild

No Comments

In October 2014 Dan Ketter and I took a hike through western New York’s Letchworth State Park, where we daydreamed about how great it would be to make music in such a grand and beautiful place. Days later I was still thinking about this idea, and I started imagining outdoor music-making on a national scale, wondering if it would be possible to arrange concerts at scenic parks around the country. With a little bit of research I learned that the National Park Service (NPS) would celebrate its centennial year in 2016, and with this fortuitous coincidence in mind I knew I was on to something.

Luckily, I had an in. Dan, my then boyfriend, had some relatives working at Yellowstone National Park, and they connected me with a network of NPS employees who had been crafting centennial events over the course of the past few years. After a brief conversation with the national office, I made a list of all the national parks that I would most like to visit, and I started sending emails explaining my idea of honoring the NPS centennial by filling the parks with music.

A few parks were quick to say no for one reason or another, but here’s the amazing thing: a lot of people said yes. And those who said yes to the idea were – and continue to be – extremely enthusiastic.

(design: Laura Blair)

As locations fell into place, so too did the concept for the project. Music in the American Wild would have three main objectives: commissioning a new set of works inspired by the national parks; premiering these works on tour of the parks that inspired their creation; and making a studio recording of the pieces post-tour.

With recommendations from friends and colleagues, I found a group of eleven composers, all affiliated with Eastman School of Music, who were excited to write works for this centennial celebration. I assembled a team of seven performers, all Eastman alumni like me, who are not only fantastic musicians and dear colleagues, but who also share a passion for new music and an enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Then I got to work. Over the past year and a half I have developed relationships with our composers, performers, park contacts, and representatives from organizations and venues around the country to make our project a reality. I have written grant applications, gathered pockets of supporters to help promote our tour, visited park sites, and worked to make this initiative one that everyone involved can be proud of.

Along the way I have had help from myriad individuals and organizations, without whom Music in the American Wild couldn’t happen. We’re grateful to have received a considerable amount of private and in-kind donations that will make many elements of the project possible. We’re also recent recipients of a 2016 Art Works/Imagine Your Parks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is a huge vote of confidence for our fledgling endeavor. Among other things, it will help us to pay our musicians for their time and their talent and assist us in bringing our performances to broader audiences across the country. We’re still working hard to fund the remainder of our tour, but so far the hard work has paid off, and we hope it continues to do so!

As we gear up for our summer tour, which is just a few weeks away, we are excited to bring a new opus of inherently American music to fantastically scenic natural venues across the country. We’ll tour the American Southeast in June, with concerts at Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah National Parks; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Locust Grove Historic Estate; and The Theatre at Washington, Virginia. In August we’ll head to Washington state to perform at Mt. Rainier, Olympic, North Cascades, and San Juan Island National Parks, with a few performances lined up in Seattle. Along the way we’ll post photos, videos, recordings, and anecdotes from our travels so that even those who can’t make it out to the wild this summer can share in the pioneering spirit of our ensemble’s musical trek through the parks.

The mission of Music in the American Wild is two-fold. On the surface, it’s a concert series in the national parks, an opportunity for a collective of emerging and established artists to share their music on a national tour. On a more philosophical level, our mission is to rekindle the integral bond between the arts and nature. In this increasingly digital age, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history music has been inspired by the natural world, whether that meant the imitation of birdsong, the physical process of using the breath or the bow to draw sound from an instrument, or the universal exploration of man’s relationship with his surroundings. We are excited to celebrate and reconnect with the creative spark offered by our own backyard wilderness, and we hope to inspire audiences and other artists to connect with our national parks through creative acts. We mean to inspire a new generation of listeners to become stewards of what we believe to be two of our country’s greatest assets: the arts and the parks.

The past year and a half has been filled with ups and downs, long hours put into project development, and many “firsts” that come with directing any sort of large-scale creative endeavor. The one constant throughout this process is the realization I’ve had time and again that music brings people and places together in unexpected and wonderful ways. Working with NPS rangers and employees has been especially rewarding, because I have gotten to interact with a whole network of people whom I would have never otherwise encountered. The employees of the NPS are smart, creative, generous people who are deeply dedicated to preserving our treasured parklands and helping others to explore and appreciate them. They have been fantastic allies throughout the planning process.

Furthermore, the inspiration provided by the natural theaters and vistas of the parks has led to collaborations with composers whose musical languages I may never have explored, and the world deserves to hear them. Working with my fellow musicians has been a huge source of inspiration, because they are the heart and soul of Music in the American Wild, and I believe in sharing and promoting their artistic voices. And to end on a personal note, Dan Ketter, the Music in the American Wild cellist and assistant director who made an appearance as my boyfriend at the beginning of this narrative, is now my fiancée, a joyful development that I have to credit in part to the time and teamwork we’ve put into this undertaking. It’s worth saying again: music brings people together.

Emlyn Johnson (flute) and Dan (cello)
Emlyn Johnson (flute) and Dan Ketter (cello) (PS: Blair Hornbuckle).

We would love to connect with you on tour this summer. We hope you can join Music in the American Wild at one of our participating parks, or follow along with us online. For more information on when and where to catch us in the wild and how to get involved, check out our website [www.musicintheamericanwild.com] or our Facebook page [www.facebook.com/musicintheamericanwild].

Media links:

Website: www.musicintheamericanwild.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/musicintheamericanwild

Instagram: www.instagram.com/musicintheamericanwild

Twitter: @playtheparks

Fractured Atlas:


Audience Engagement, Education, Ensembles, Future of Music, Opportunity, Pedagogy

Traditional American Music in a Traditional Conservatory Setting

No Comments


“I really want to play like that, but I’m just scared and I don’t know where to start…” These are the words an Eastman student said to me about playing bluegrass recently. Over my past three years at the Eastman School of Music, I have heard a variation of that phrase from classical performance majors countless times. “How do you do that?” “I wish I started playing like that earlier.” “I wish I didn’t have to depend on a score all of the time.”  

I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse and rich musical environment. I started classical piano lessons when I was four and classical violin lessons when I was eight. When I was younger, my mom had a bluegrass band and I always sat downstairs in the living room, listening to every rehearsal. By the time I was thirteen and the fiddler from the band left to go to college at Boston Conservatory, my mom was looking for a new fiddler. I told her I could play the tunes since I had been listening to all of the rehearsals. She was surprised to find that this was in fact true and I took over as the fiddler and subsequently played in various other bluegrass bands throughout high school. My mom always took me to bluegrass jams, house concerts, “picking parties” as we like to call them, and many live concerts ranging from Irish to jazz to funk to folk. The breadth of music I was exposed to when I was younger came to define the person I am today.  

My identity as a fiddler is just as important as my identity as a classical musician. After hearing many of my peers at Eastman tell me they wished they could improvise and play the styles I do, I decided to start a student organization, Eastman Americana, for the purpose of educating students how to play traditional American music.  

Eastman Americana performs in Kodak Hall at Eastman for the Celebrate Diversity Concert.

My main goal is to create a safe-haven for Eastman musicians to learn tunes and improvise in a community where they will not be judged. My belief is that traditional American music is the perfect introduction and environment for any instrumentalist of any skill level or age beginning to learn how to improvise. I think the main roadblock holding classical musicians back from improvising is the lack of knowledge and competency. No one wants to feel incompetent on an instrument they’ve worked years to master.

When I was younger and went to various jams back home in Connecticut, musicians of all levels and ages would play in the same environment. If you were less experienced, you might stand at the edge of the jam circle rather than in the center. But no one was ever ostracized for their skill level or musical ideas. The way I learned was listening to older musicians take solos who had more experience than me and finally I felt safe and comfortable enough to start taking solos of my own.    

I want to re-create the environment where I learned to play fiddle for students at Eastman because the importance not only lies in the type of music being created, but the welcoming environment in which learning takes place. The reason why traditional American music lends itself so well especially to the classical conservatory setting is because there are a multitude of levels where a player can be involved.

Take a fiddle tune, for example. The way I usually go about introducing a fiddle tune to a group of experienced classical musicians is to teach the melody phrase by phrase and then review larger chunks of the sections that repeat. Then, I teach the chords so rhythm and bass instruments can join in.  

With the musicians that feel less comfortable improvising, taking a solo, or playing the melody, I always give a few additional options to play backup or accompany in a tasteful way. Bass and cello players can play a simple bass line and guitarists can play chords. Any other string players or instrumentalists can play a rhythmic ostinato over the chord changes or play what fiddlers call “chucking” which are short double stops on the 2nd and 4th beats. If all of those options are still too much, a player can simply play long tones that move with the chord changes over the melody.  

Giving a wide variety of options to players learning a new style relieves pressure or worries of judgment. In regards to improvisation with traditional American music styles, I stress to beginning players that it is perfectly fine to use the melody of the tune as a backbone to a solo. Many people think improvising (especially in other genres like jazz) has to be something completely new and different and many established musicians who do not have a lot of improvisation experience feel the pressure to do that. With traditional American music, using the melody as a basis and jumping-off point for a solo is not frowned upon, and is actually accepted.  

I started Eastman Americana last spring, and since then, we have had a lot of success with hosting jams and bringing in local and national musicians in for educational workshops for Eastman students and faculty. This year, we were able to present educational workshops with Silver City Bound (formerly known as The Amigos) from New York City, 10 String Symphony (two 5-string fiddlers from Nashville), Christian Howes and Béla Fleck. I hope we will continue that success next year by presenting more workshops, particularly with musicians who play traditional American music and also have a background in classical training.   

The Amigos from NYC run a workshop with Eastman Americana members.

Many people ask me how I developed my skills as a fiddler while simultaneously developing my classical technique. I think the best way is to listen to other people play live. Hearing the stylistic and rhythmic subtleties of traditional American music compared to classical style is so much more important than just learning the notes. Even going to a jam and just listening to others can be really beneficial to develop your ear.  

I feel very passionate about incorporating traditional American music styles in the public school setting as well as in conservatory education. Even if a conservatory-trained musician has every intention of playing classical music exclusively, I believe that every musician should be able to play improvised music and learn tunes by ear with their peers. Improvising unlocks a level of creativity that is not accessed when reading a traditional score.  

The bluegrass scene I grew up with brought musicians of all ways of life together. Having the skill set to be able to improvise is not only valuable, even as a classical musician, but also brings all types of musicians together that maybe would not have interacted under any other circumstances. That is the part of playing traditional American music that I cherish and that I hope every musician has the chance to experience.   

Tahlia Cott is a performer and teacher currently pursuing her music education degree at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. She is the founder and president of Eastman Americana, a student organization devoted to educating students about traditional American music. She can be contacted at tcott@u.rochester.edu.

Audience Engagement, Community Outreach, Ensembles, Interdisciplinary, Orchestras

Students Build Film Music Empire

No Comments

By Ben Escobar

I remember walking down a hallway in the practice room Annex one day in late April of 2015, continuing my eternal quest to find a vacant piano. Since arriving at music school in the fall of my freshman year, I quickly learned that noise hides around every corner, and the walls are covered in paper of all sizes. Some pieces have vibrant colors and smiling faces, primped portraits of bright stars hoping to leave a mark. Others simply feature plain paper with the words “The Eastman School of Music Presents…” typed out over a list of jaded names. That spring day, one particular poster caught my eye, as a picture of Jeff Beal, the Emmy award-winning film and television composer, drew me into an advertisement for the Empire Film Music Ensemble’s biggest concert of the year. It promised an evening of stunning film music, most notably the premiere of Beal’s House of Cards Symphony, adapted from themes used in the smash hit Netflix original. Unfortunately, I had to miss the actual concert for a gig, but this prompted me to attend EFME’s dress rehearsal later that same day, and as I sat in the 2,400-seat hall, the sounds of the student orchestra boomed throughout Kodak in perfect sync with the sinister images of Frank and Claire Underwood on screen. Being able to see Jeff and the conducting legend Donald Hunsberger rehearse the orchestra and collaborate with the ensemble’s executive team was an enlightening experience, as well as a glimpse into the world of musical administration.

Screen shot 2016-04-05 at 9.59.28 PM
photo by Kurt Brownwell

After witnessing EFME’s Executive Director Michael Staffeldt and his two-man team perform the Herculean task of organizing, administering, and conducting a breadth of musicians and technicians, I was astounded by both the caliber of musicianship, and the remarkably high production value of the event. Immediately following that dress rehearsal I pulled Michael aside, congratulated him, and expressed my desire to participate in EFME’s future. The final concert would go on to receive rave reviews and mark a triumphant moment in the ensemble’s three-year history.


Founded in 2013 by Michael and his friend Dylan Price, the Empire Film Music Ensemble emerged from the duo’s shared passion for performing the film music they know and love in a professional concert setting. By using the resources available to them as students at the Eastman School of Music, the pair recruited a team comprised of their peers and began staging public concerts throughout the school’s many recital halls. After two successful Kickstarter campaigns, the project developed and EFME began collaborating with budding artists and filmmakers from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as the Berklee College of Music in Boston. These student collaborations included the recording and staging of original film content in conjunction with classic film music repertoire. In addition to their work with renowned Eastman alumnus Jeff Beal, the Empire Film Music Ensemble has also premiered an original arrangement for choir and orchestra of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Nova in their most recent concert titled “From Darkness Into Light.” The producers of the award-winning, crowd-funded show “Star Trek Continues” also chose EFME to record the music for episode 4, composed by Juilliard faculty member Andy Farber. Today, Michael remains the only original founding member on the executive team, but thanks to the efforts of students throughout EFME’s history, the ensemble has grown to include over 70 musicians, received fiscal sponsorship from the University of Rochester Optical Society of America, and expanded its executive board to a team of six people.

Since joining the EFME executive team in January 2016 as Personnel Manager and Social Media Director, I’ve become deeply enthralled in the madness of music administration. Between embarking on a major online re-branding, enlisting musicians for our upcoming “Star Trek Continues” recording, and booking future opportunities for the ensemble, my days have become a blur of emails and board meetings. Not to mention my academic responsibilities as a full-time dual degree college student. Yet, despite the countless late nights, the few months I’ve spent working with this team have been some of the most rewarding in my two years living in Rochester because I have been directly involved with major advancements in the development of EFME’s legacy.

In order to expand on EFME’s professional recording experience, the ensemble is moving towards functioning as a film and contemporary media production company, in addition to its current status as a performance ensemble. This is an effort to both expand the ensemble’s marketability and assist up and coming artists in creating an industry quality product at a fraction of the cost. As a student led NGO, the entirety of EFME’s music personnel is made up of volunteers, but the executive team has been working tirelessly to book production and recording jobs for the ensemble that will provide enough capital to fund future projects and pay our musicians. Aside from creating added incentive for students to participate in our projects, EFME strives to provide them with professional opportunities in the highly competitive industries of film music and contemporary media in a manner that does not inconvenience their pursuit of a college degree.

Thankfully, both local and national demand for low budget filmmakers and composers is keeping us busy with requests. It’s an exciting time to be in this group because it enables us to work with so many talented, passionate people. This very month the “Star Trek Continues” crew will be traveling from LA and NYC to record with us in Rochester for a second time.  We are also composing and recording original scores for two student filmmakers at RIT, and working with a local writer in bringing a fictional narrative to life through animated film. Additionally, our team is working with RIT’s Film and Animation Department on producing an interactive show on the topic of augmented reality at the 2016 Rochester Fringe Festival.

If you’d like to stay updated on the Empire Film Music Ensemble’s other current projects, or if you would like to collaborate with us please visit our website at http://www.empirefilmmusicensemble.com and follow us on social media.



Ben Escobar is a multi-instrumentalist and producer currently attending the Eastman School of Music. He has been a member of the Empire Film Music Ensemble since January 2016, serving as Personnel Manager, Social Media Director, and a member of the Executive Committee.