The first graduates of IWU's new Contemporary Musicianship major relish how the program
has equipped them for multifaceted and independent careers as professional musicians.
Story by NANCY STEELE BROKAW
Roll over, Beethoven.
Meet classmates Ryan Donlin and Tommy Bravos, who this May became the first two graduates
of IWU’s new Contemporary Musicianship (CM) program. Launched in 2015, the major is
designed to give students with wide-ranging musical interests a foothold in the quickly
evolving world of professional music. At the same time, it harkens back to old masters
like Beethoven who composed and performed across musical styles while administering
their own careers.
“Contemporary Musicianship is the first comprehensive major of this type that I’m
aware of in the U.S.,” says School of Music Director Mario Pelusi. “It builds on the
University’s traditionally strong emphasis on performance and adds coursework in composition,
improvisation, world music, recording techniques, music technology, and music entrepreneurship.”
While many Illinois Wesleyan music students will continue training for a more specialized
career — for example, in opera or orchestral music — others can now choose to be generalists.
The barriers between types of music, which were never watertight to begin with, are
all but gone, according to David Vayo, Fern Rosetta Sherff Professor of Composition
and Theory. Think of Yo-Yo Ma, who is continually expanding his playing field. Increasingly,
young, classically trained musicians are performing in clubs and other non-traditional
venues as often as in concert halls, “and they are comfortable playing a wider variety
of styles than their predecessors of previous generations,” says Vayo.
Donlin and Bravos leave IWU ready for all these situations, notes Vayo, who helped
develop the CM program. Through the CM major, students also learn music entrepreneurship
as a means to develop practical, self-reliant skills. They can self-produce, record,
and market their music. They know how to relate to audiences in a live setting. And
they are able to manage the business sides of their careers. No need for an agent
to book their gigs; they can do it themselves, says Vayo, “which is a good thing,
since the agency-management model has ceased to be relevant for many young musicians.”
Selecting the CM major was a clear forward step for Donlin and Bravos in their eclectic
musical journeys. For both, the journey began as first-graders plunking piano keys
in private lessons.
Donlin, who grew up in St. Louis, hated those lessons, and finally convinced his mom
to let him quit after four years. But music remained in his life, from the contemporary
Christian music played in his home to an endless variety of tracks obtained from a
failed radio station’s database by his father. From this database, he was especially
drawn to heavy metal bands like Metallica before getting hooked on Radiohead, admired
by Donlin for their “soft, sad songs.”
In junior high, Donlin formed a basement band with several classmates. He sang vocals
and also learned to play bass to complete the group’s rock sound. By high school,
he had picked up a variety of instruments: drums, acoustic bass, electric guitar —
and even the once-dreaded piano.
He also began writing original music, finding inspiration in early 20th-century composers
like Arnold Schoenberg who “expressed mourning with the grittiness of what it is to
be alive.” For his high school senior thesis, he composed, transcribed, and recorded
eight non-traditional instrumental pieces.
A campus visit that included conversations with Vayo convinced him Illinois Wesleyan
was a roomy fit for his musical ambitions. He settled on composition as a major but
continued performing, including playing the double bass with IWU’s Symphony Orchestra.
When the CM major was announced his junior year, he leapt at the chance to focus his
diverse musical interests into a single course of study.
As Donlin’s musical brother at IWU, it’s no surprise that Bravos shares a similar
background. Growing up as one of four musical siblings in St. Charles, Ill., Bravos
also took piano lessons and sang in school and church choirs. By high school, he added
madrigals and vocal jazz to his repertoire. He also joined a band and wrote music
for a friend’s lyrics, a talent that quickly grew. By his senior year of high school,
Bravos had scored an eight-song theatrical show.
On his first IWU visit, Bravos was considering several non-music majors but went ahead
and auditioned in voice. As a gamble, he says, he had brought along scores of his
music — and got a chance to show them to Vayo.
“It was the first time I’d ever received professional feedback,” Bravos says, “and
his ideas were so great.” It sealed the deal, and Bravos enrolled as a composition
What he wanted then, and still wants most, is to write and perform pop music. To do
that as well as he could, Bravos felt he needed classical training as part of his
foundation, including theory and music history. He was also active in groups such
as the Collegiate Choir, Chamber Singers, and Opera Theatre. When the CM major came
along he saw that its course requirements were “what I wanted to take anyway.” Like
Donlin, he seized the opportunity.
Pioneers, with more to follow
Students with a major in Contemporary Musicianship must present junior and senior
recitals: solo or ensemble pieces performed and curated by the student, in consultation
with faculty, that incorporate innovative programming or presentations. In essence,
CM majors are expected to create a signature musical event — placing these recitals
in line with ongoing initiatives across the University for every student to have a
signature experiential component of their education prior to graduation that will
help better prepare them for their future careers.
“If you think about the word signature — meaning a distinguishing, identifying mark — it helps explain the uniqueness of
this capstone experience,” says Pelusi.
As juniors, Donlin and Bravos hosted the first-ever CM recital at Westbrook Auditorium,
performed with backup from fellow School of Music students. It was provocatively titled
Love and Violence, in Color — with the color provided both by twinkle lights and by Donlin’s robe, fashioned from
sheets of construction paper.
“The appeal was to make myself a dehumanized abstraction,” Donlin explains, adding
with a laugh that he experienced some wardrobe malfunctions as the performance progressed.
A year later, for his senior recital, Donlin chose the Young Main Lounge for the venue,
turning it into a candlelit, meditative performance space. Included was his original
composition, “Teeth,” featuring a string quartet, a rock band, and a choir, mixed
with choreographed and acted sections. It was a flip on an animal tale about a fish
named Johnny who should have been given sharper teeth. Donlin says it reflected his
own personal struggles.
Bravos’ first senior recital featured him at the piano, playing and singing his original
piano pop tunes, assisted by the talents of Donlin and fellow CM major Robby Kuntz
’18. Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Buechel ’15 — who is now in Chicago after receiving her
master’s in music from the University of Wisconsin — returned to campus to perform
a song cycle Bravos composed for her. Several weeks later, Bravos performed a second
recital, this one in classical vocal-performance style.
And now it’s off into the wider world of music for Illinois Wesleyan’s first ever
CM majors, whom Vayo calls “true pioneers.” They will have in their back pocket what
Vayo terms the “liberal arts version of a professional musical degree.” It is thus
the kind of interdisciplinary heuristic degree institutions like IWU are best equipped
to create. It will hopefully enable them to build a career of their own choosing rather
than following a more restricted path dictated by external factors.
Will they make it?
Well, few doubt that being a success in the arts requires a lot of hard work, and
this pair have already juggled a complex major, performed countless outside gigs,
had a busy extracurricular life, and graduated cum laude.
Bravos recorded an album after graduation and has a summer internship with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra, where he is working in the marketing department. He has some commissioned
pieces to compose, a few for IWU colleagues and one for international performance.
He may also pursue a master’s in vocal jazz or contemporary performance. In the meantime,
you can catch him performing his original music — with influence from Ben Folds’ style
and the suave demeanor of Panic! at the Disco — in Chicago. That music, including
the orchestrated pop anthem “Parking Garage” and booking information, can be found
on his Facebook page.
Donlin is also headed to Chicago and perhaps eventually to graduate school for audio
recording. He’s looking for a job as a composer — for example, at a startup radio
station that focuses on composing for mood manipulation. He’ll also be trying to go
big time with his band Red Scarves, one of two student pop bands who performed original
music with the Illinois Wesleyan Symphony Orchestra during the 2015-16 academic year.
They’re already achieving success, Donlin says, with a unique sound that reflects
diverse influences like Bob Dylan, The Strokes, Talking Heads, Dawes, and New Order.
Band members include Ayethaw Tun ’15, Eric Novak ’15, Braden Poole ’16, Kuntz, and
Donlin. Their poppish, bossa-nova flavored song, “Waiting on the Day,” is on Spotify,
with its trippy accompanying video now on YouTube.
Meanwhile, several students besides Kuntz are following Bravos’ and Donlin’s footsteps
as CM majors. Pelusi is certain the major will attract many new musicians to Illinois
Wesleyan as word of this innovative program spreads.
The School of Music has enjoyed a national reputation for producing talented performers,
composers, music educators, and scholars for more than 15 decades. This new CM major
puts them at the vanguard for what comes next. So, same song, brand new arrangement.