Special to The Dallas Examiner
Michael Robertson and some of his friends – Zantana Zuniga and Johnnathan Melendez included – have recurring weekly appointments as part of their work.
But those appointments aren’t in an office, and they don’t involve talking about sales, hiring employees or conducting other business. Their get-togethers take place in a large music studio at Cedar Valley College. And they don’t just talk. They “jam” to jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and other genres.
The trio are students in the college’s commercial music program, which teaches them about different aspects of the music industry.
“This is not a classical music program,” said Dr. Kathryn Brown, commercial music program coordinator at Cedar Valley. “Commercial music is anything from pop to jazz to hip hop, and everything in between. It’s most of the music you hear on the radio.”
Brown said students can choose from four different tracks in the program, but every track offers facets of each one: recording technology; digital music production and composition; music business and entrepreneurship; and performing musician.
“We get a mix of students, but they all have something in common,” said Dr. Mike Bogle, professor of music production and composition at the college. “Every student wants to be in the music industry, performing, recording, producing and composing.”
Pursuing a passion
Patti Ruth, a registered nurse by profession, said she has been attending classes in the program since 2000 because she’s “addicted to music.” The 62-year-old said she already has all the credits she needs for a degree in commercial music, but she has kept taking classes so that she can sing jazz and blues after she retires at the end of this year.
“My passion is music and my profession is nursing, but I will soon retire. Then my passion and profession will be music,” Ruth said.
Tiffany Briscoe, who graduated in 2016 but is taking music theory classes now, said she always knew she had talent, but her parents didn’t know how to get her involved in her passion.
“I used to walk around the house singing, and my parents heard me,” Briscoe said. “My love for singing and performing grew over time.”
Briscoe, who sang and danced in Cedar Valley’s Family Music Theater production of the classic musical Hairspray this summer, said she plans to work in musical theater and go into voice acting.
Briscoe said she already has performed as a singer at Dallas clubs in Deep Ellum.
“It was nerve-racking to sing on stage at those clubs. I was nervous, but I still wanted to get up there and sing. It went better than I thought,” she recalled.
Zuniga, who graduated from Cedar Valley in 2015 and now tutors other students at the college, said he always wanted to pursue music and recording technology, but his parents told him that he wouldn’t be able to get a job in that field. He started studying nursing instead.
Zuniga said his father used to play the guitar, and he eventually asked his parents if he could pursue his passion for music; they consented.
“I always imagined myself being a musician and playing the guitar. I was in a band, and it was all I wanted to do, but people said I was going to go hungry,” he exclaimed.
Growing a talent for music
Bogle, who is a multiple Grammy Award nominee, said many of the students who enter the program start from scratch. “It’s amazing to see when people discover they have musical talent,” he added.
Melendez, who is majoring in commercial music in all four of the program’s tracks, started his college career as a business major. He said he spent two years in that program before he decided he wanted to go into music – against his parents’ wishes.
“I came in for a business degree, but I felt something for music,” he said. “I discovered and trained my talent. I had raw energy, and I found out I could sing.”
Melendez, who expects to graduate in December, added that eventually he picked up the piano and took lessons.
“The professors took my talent and shaped it. I worked hard and trained to develop it,” he said.
Robertson, who graduated in May, said he first became interested in music after his grandmother gave him piano lessons for Christmas when he was 9 years old.
“I love playing music. I grew up with R&B, jazz and classical, but I’ve learned Brazilian, Cuban and African rhythms here,” Robertson stated. “My colleagues here really inspired me, and I’m looking forward to forming a group some day.”
Bogle insisted that it takes hard work to succeed in the music industry, paraphrasing American inventor Thomas Edison:
“Music is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. It’s hard to create a hit song, and there has to be some creative sauce in there,” he said.
Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la …jobs!
Brown said the idea that music performers don’t do very well financially is somewhat of a myth, but being successful requires a lot of hard work.
“There is a perception that music performers are swimming through life as artists,” Brown said. “There are very clear things they have to learn and do. It’s a process. It’s not just a magical thing that someone will discover them on YouTube.”
She said the business side of the program helps prospective performers promote their talents to succeed.
“What we’re trying to do with all tracks is produce well-balanced musicians who know how the music business works, as well as graduating students who know how to breathe in order to support a good tone,” she added.
Brown said the Dallas area offers many employment opportunities because there’s an abundance of event locations and music industry-related businesses in the region.
“We have music venues, clubs, hotels, convention centers, recording studios,” she said. “Any place that uses microphones employs audio technicians.”
Many of those jobs pay well. Audio engineering jobs in the Dallas area, for example, earn a mean wage of almost $56,000 per year, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Zuniga, who is still taking some classes at the college, said he makes $150 per event working as a sound engineer at clubs and other venues in the Dallas area. In addition, he has earned enough to buy his own equipment so that he can record and produce music for other artists – and he charges $70 per hour to do that work.
Steve Browne, professor of recording technology at Cedar Valley, said he has been cultivating relationships and pushing for internships for his students with people in the music industry, and his efforts have yielded good results.
“There is a vibrant need out there to pull in our graduates,” Browne said. “We work hard to ensure we have cutting-edge equipment so our students can train with modern gear that has real world applications. That’s important.”