Katie Cavera’s Meandering Major

Katie Cavera’s Meandering Major
The well-schooled Katie Cavera. (photo courtesy Katie Cavera)

Jazz Travels writer Bill Hoffman turns over his column to Katie Cavera this month:

Spend two minutes (or less) with Katie Cavera and you’ll know why she’s called the California Sunshine Girl. I met Katie for the first time at the San Diego Jazz Festival last November. I may have seen her once or twice before, but we live 3,000 miles apart, so any meetings or sightings are bound to be few and far between—unfortunately for me.

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I sent Katie a list of questions. One in particular intrigued her, and it became the basis for this article: Did you major in music in college? Here’s her answer.

Right now I have a lot of friends with kids who are starting college, and I’ve also started working with a relatively new band at Disney that includes a few recent college graduates. So I’ve been reflecting on that time in my life and how it shaped the person I am today.

By the time I finished high school, I had acquired modest piano skills. I had started learning Dixieland banjo. And I had picked up the trombone so I could play with my high school marching band, which was the only music program my very small Catholic high school had to offer. I loved musicals and had ideas of someday composing shows for Broadway. On my own, I dabbled in composing and I would recruit friends in the band to play and record things I wrote. At this time, I didn’t fancy myself much of a performer—in fact I vehemently hated the obligatory piano recitals and would much rather play with the band or in a small group. So as I finished high school I had thoughts of becoming a music composition major—whatever that meant. All I knew was that I wasn’t interested in teaching, and I wasn’t interested in getting a major in music performance, so this seemed like a reasonable and interesting third choice.

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I auditioned for a few different colleges as a music major. My first choice was Indiana University which has a very good, very competitive music school. I was not accepted and ended up going with my second choice, Ball State University. Not only did they accept me in their music program, but I received a small scholarship as well. Ball State (also in Indiana) is a much smaller college and is recognized as having a good education program, so most of my fellow classmates were music education majors. At Ball I took all the core music classes—theory, history, ear training.

Since I was not interested in music education I was required to follow the piano performance track—I couldn’t declare composition as a major until the third year into my studies. That meant that at the end of each year I was required to pass a piano jury. This absolutely terrified me. I had to play some prepared pieces and then get tested on some basic piano skills: scales, sight-reading, and such. I have no recollection of doing this except that I was a nervous wreck and didn’t pass. I also remember being angry that I had to be “tested” in such a way that didn’t have anything to do with my personal goals as a musician. I was allowed to remain in the music program one more year on the condition that I if I didn’t pass my jury the following year I would have to leave the program and declare a different major.

In spite of this nerve-wracking experience, there were a lot of things I loved about being a music major. My music history teacher had a love of opera that was infectious, and to this day I count myself as an opera fan in part because of his class. Theory was difficult but I enjoyed the challenge of it. Ear training was perhaps my favorite class. Not only did I have a knack for it, my teacher took a liking to me and encouraged me as a composer. She was a flute player and had me compose and then arrange a piece for an ensemble she led. The ensemble then premiered my composition at its spring recital. Slowly I started building a portfolio even though I wasn’t technically allowed to declare myself a music composition major.

At this time I also started getting a few paid gigs as a banjo player. Through a friend’s recommendation I was asked to play in the pit for a local production of Oklahoma. I originally thought I would play my five-string banjo which I’d started on when I was nine and played about as much as my four-string at this time. But after the first rehearsal it was clear to me that with the frequent and strange key changes (Ado Annie needs her song in G flat!) and music that moved along at a pretty brisk pace I’d have to use my four-string. Through the run of that show my four-string banjo skills really improved and they even gave me a solo spot—which didn’t seem quite as terrifying as playing solo piano. At any rate, I had a wonderful time and I ended up doing another show for that same company while I was still a student at Ball State.

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In my second year at Ball, I had a friend who was looking for someone to take over her lease on an apartment she shared with three other girls, who were all theatre majors. Up to this point I’d lived in the dorms and this seemed like an exciting change. I hit it off instantly with my new roommates and they started asking me to write music for different shows they were involved in. I added the things I wrote for them to my portfolio and at this point I thought maybe I should re-audition for Indiana University. For my second audition for IU, I saw the composition professors first. They looked over my portfolio, made some polite comments, and informed me that they couldn’t do anything for me until after I passed my piano audition, which, once again, I failed. My skills were really no match for the high-caliber piano performance majors who were also auditioning. But I decided I wanted to go to IU anyway and this time I had a plan. I transferred to IU as a theatre major (which meant I didn’t have to do another jury at the end of my second year at Ball) and just trusted that things would work out.

When I entered IU, one of the first things I did was introduce myself to the director of the main stage show for the fall, which was The Taming Of The Shrew. I told him I was a composer and I could create original music for his production. He thought this was a terrific idea and told me to get to work. I’d never tried anything of this scale before and it was now up to me to figure out how to make it work. I went through the script with him and we decided where music would be appropriate and how much we would need. Most of it was for scene changes but I also had a very nice spot where music would underscore the title character’s big monologue at the end. I then inquired at the music department and found that IU had a small baroque music ensemble. I crashed one of their rehearsals and talked them into performing my music for the show. They were really excited to work with me on this project because, I imagine, they didn’t get a lot of requests like this. The last thing I did was find another student who was a recording engineer and talked him into recording the music we needed so I could then give it to the person doing sound for the show and have it integrated into the play.

By the time the play opened I had recorded about a dozen original songs that were presented each night during the show’s run. And I was proud of myself for having persuaded my way into a position that allowed me to do this for a show or two a semester for the rest of my time at IU. The style of music I wrote was always dictated by the show, so I got to try a lot of different styles (jazz, classical, country, even experimental music in the spirit of John Cage). And on a few occasions I’d even perform live or work with live bands in the context of the play. In a lot of ways, I feel this may have been a better education for myself then sticking to the prescribed music composition major track.

Now I haven’t talked so much about how jazz works into all this. In my first week at IU, I walked by the president’s house and from behind the wall I could hear a Dixieland band playing. I could also hear that they didn’t have a banjo. I went to the school of music and found out that it was a student-led band, so I contacted the leader and talked him into letting me play with them. This band worked a lot and was a favorite with the alumni association. So we played everything from private events and fundraisers to tailgate parties and alumni gatherings. I was making a nice side income playing the banjo and learning a lot of Dixieland standards at the same time.

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Also, in my first semester there I met David Baker, who was the professor of jazz studies (I had signed up for one of his general ed jazz classes) and he took a liking to me. His top jazz ensemble was rehearsing a special presentation of Duke Ellington masterworks for a performance at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. And he asked me to play banjo with them on the first half of the concert, which covered Ellington’s earlier material. I had a terrific time and he was very complimentary about my playing. After performing with his ensemble, he allowed me to take classes with him that I would have been otherwise barred from because I wasn’t a music major. I’ll always be grateful for the kindness and encouragement he gave me as a student.

At the beginning of my college education I started out thinking that to have a career in music, I needed a music major degree. In my last semester in college I remember talking to a friend who was an actual music composition major. He was lamenting the fact that he didn’t really get to showcase his compositions until his final senior concert. And that in contrast I’d been writing and showcasing my music multiple times every year I was in school. My theatre degree allowed me to focus on what I wanted to actually learn and find my own path. And as I side benefit I learned a lot about performing, stagecraft, lighting, and a lot of other things that have served me well once I was out of school and realized that I may actually enjoy performing (as long as I did it on my own terms). I value the experiences I got in school much more than I value the piece of paper that declares I have a degree in theatre.

So here’s the one thing I’d like to tell anyone going to college to study music: everyone doesn’t get from point A to point B the same way. I currently work with a small ensemble at Disneyland. We play Spike Jones-style arrangements of songs from the Pixar movies. Some of the band members have jazz backgrounds while others are classically trained. And everyone’s education runs the gamut from Doctorate of Music to others like me with no music degree at all. While going to college to study might be useful to some (it was for me), for others they may be better off gaining experience performing and following their chosen career right away. From what I can see the only thing that guarantees a person a career in music is the tenacity to make that happen.

And even though I didn’t end up writing musicals on Broadway, I feel as if I put the skills I learned in college to use every day. I could go into detail about that but at this point I feel I’ve gone on long enough and I’m sure that could turn into another essay on its own.

As a writer, I love interviewees who write my columns for me! Thank you, Katie!

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