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Anxious notes: Sophomore turns internal dialogue into public triumph

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Lola Miller-Henline becomes first SFCM student to win Jazz Education Network's Young Composer Showcase competition

December 1, 2020 by KBacellar

By Karen Meurer Bacellar

In a remote patch of land in the Sierra Nevada mountains, there stands a yurt. Inside that yurt is a small wooden stove oven. There is running water, and a trickle of electricity provided by solar panels.

Here, armed only with a cell phone for emergency use, a diary and her trusty electric keyboard, SFCM sophomore Lola Miller-Henline '23 in January composed the beginnings of "Mind of Its Own," a work that would win the Jazz Education Network's Young Composer Showcase competition for its creativity and expressivity. The award, announced in November, includes a professional-grade recording of her work and inclusion in a showcase of up-and-coming talent in the jazz world.

She spent a week of winter term in the yurt, writing in her diary and practicing, utterly disconnected from technology and humanity.

"Honestly, I was so scared," she said. "There was nothing that caused it, it was just in my head. I'd never been truly alone."

Miller-Henline, a 19-year-old San Francisco native in the Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM) program at SFCM, said that she is prone to feeling anxious, and that the idea of a dialogue between her rational and anxious mind came to her and became the seed of the piece. Faculty member and acclaimed vibraphonist Warren Wolf helped her flesh out the composition, and Jason Hainsworth, director of RJAM gave her a nudge to submit to the competition.

"She gives me hope," Hainsworth said. "To be so young and to be able to compose really mature sounding pieces of music that are relevant and socially aware is something special."

Hainsworth was instrumental in launching the RJAM program four years ago as a way to broaden the conservatory's offerings beyond their classical music. The program accepts only about 8-10 students a year, which allows for significant individual interaction between faculty and students.

"There's nowhere to hide in a program this small," Hainsworth joked.

The differentiating factor between RJAM and other university and conservatory jazz programs is its incorporation of many different genres of music. “The RJAM ethos is making sure all of our students have a strong sense of being able to play the standard repertoire but that they also understand where that music came from and that they understand the social component of where all of these musicians and composers come from as well," Hainsworth said.

This means that SFCM students in the program dig back farther, to the African roots of jazz, and trace its lineage to South America and the Caribbean and the U.S.

Composition is also a significant part of the program curriculum, as all students finish their first year with at least eight original pieces. This is what drew Miller-Henline—whose background includes classical composition as well as vocal training as well— to RJAM. While she considered attending classically focused programs, she loves the freedom and experimentation associated with jazz. She intends to build her career writing and performing her own music, and the Jazz Educators Network recording of "Mind of its Own" represents a strong stride toward making that dream a reality.

"As excited as I am, it's a little heartbreaking that it’s the COVID year," she said, noting that in a typical year her music would be played live and recorded at the annual JEN conference in January. That conference will be virtual in 2021, and her music will still be recorded.

"In jazz circles this win is a big deal," Hainsworth said. "We don't have the major composer competitions like the classical side as it's just not as established as the classical side. Lola's the first student in our program to have won. This is kind of a launch point for us."

Learn more about SFCM’s Roots, Jazz, and American Music program.