Four SFCM master’s degree alumni have recently received important academic appointments; three from the Composition Department, and one from the Brass Department. They are: Jeffrey Parola, Professor of Theory at the Colburn School; Marko Bajzer, Lecturer in Theory and Composition at California State University Easy Bay; Eric Choate, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus; and Lindsay Brown, Adjunct Professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Through the experiences gained and connections forged during their studies, all four have gone on to successful careers mentoring, teaching, and giving back to the next generation of students and musicians. These are their stories.
“SFCM was a true family” — Jeffrey Parola ’05
Jeffrey Parola began playing piano with an instructor that was not much older than he was. At age ten, his teacher graduated from high school, and for a while, Parola was on his own. “I had no new pieces to work on, so I took to improvising and making up my own pieces, and that’s where it really began!” Once he had a new teacher, she began notating his improvisations and taught him to do the same.
Almost by accident, a composer was born.
Today, Parola is a teacher himself. He was recently appointed Professor of Theory at the Colburn School and takes professional inspiration from his time at SFCM, where he studied with David Conte, chair of the composition department. “David was one of the most supportive and caring teachers I ever had. He is a true mentor, and he takes very seriously the charge entrusted to him: to teach the next generation of composers. His artistic angle is grounded in a deep history of continuity, which I try to incorporate into my own artistic life.”
When thinking back to his days earning his master’s in composition in San Francisco, Parola recalls the closeness he felt with his fellow students and the faculty guiding them. SFCM felt like a family, and professors like Conte were a regular part of his road to becoming a complete musician. “David gave me composition lessons, mentored me in conducting, and asked me to assist with the chorus. He invited me to sign onto various recording projects, and I also served as an assistant on his film-score project for the movie Ballets Russes.”
As a professor, Parola is inspired by the talent, drive, and passion of his students. His classes are filled with young musicians who have already made names for themselves as performers, and he is overjoyed to be a part of their journey. “The thing I love about teaching is knowing that I am helping to keep the classical tradition going in the modern world. It gives me a great sense of purpose to pass the torch, and to see growth and illumination happen in the minds and hearts of my students.”
Parola describes how his rich experience at SFCM informs how he approaches teaching today: “The breadth of knowledge I gained at SFCM is in large part due to David’s direct influence, and I would not be the artist I am today without him. I carry all the lessons I learned at SFCM with me to the present day, and I impart them to my own students here in Los Angeles.”
“That feeling of elation from writing music” — Marko Bajzer ’15
Marko Bajzer began composing in high school, but the real moment of inspiration didn’t come until college. While in the throes of joining the music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia at the University of Cincinnati, the brothers asked him to write and perform a piece of music. “I threw myself into that piece, and that feeling of elation from writing music was something unlike anything I had experienced before.” By the end of the assignment he knew he was ready for a new chapter, so he took the leap and applied to SFMC’s composition department.
At SFCM, Bajzer earned his master’s degree, studying primarily with Dan Becker and Mason Bates. “I was Mason’s very first student, which was pretty exciting.” The connections he made with his teachers shaped his musical path. After graduation, he became managing director of Mercury Soul, the classical/electronica hybrid-performance series founded by Bates.
“The Conservatory did a great job of preparing me for life after school. Things like stage managing, learning graphic design, building a website, teaching through the Conservatory in Schools program, being the graduate assistant for the composition department, and producing a show at the Center for New Music through a membership I was awarded, all gave me skills that came in handy in future jobs. I had a relatively smooth transition out of school, which is I think the best thing you could ask for from a degree program.”
Since graduating, Bajzer has pursued several musical avenues, including teaching at California State University, East Bay and at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. “Many of my students have been interested in music their whole lives but have never had access to formal training. They are so enthusiastic to learn, and I find this very rewarding.”
When reflecting on how to create a successful music career off the stage, Bajzer offers one main piece of advice: Don’t stop performing. Why? “Performance exposes you to music you wouldn’t otherwise hear, and to people you’d never meet. So much about building a career in music are the connections made in school and beyond. All the jobs I’ve gotten over the years were at least in part because of a personal connection. Don’t ever stop performing.”
“I have been blessed to have so many wonderful teachers” — Eric Choate ’14
For Eric Choate, conducting, composing, and performing are all intimately linked. He cannot imagine his life as the artistic director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus without the decades he put in studying and practicing the piano. But even during those many years honing his technique and musicianship, Choate knew there was something more he was aspiring to.
“I've always been particularly drawn to the orchestral and choral repertoire. I find the symphonic power, color palette, and expressive capabilities of large ensembles to be absolutely thrilling.” That affinity for the sound produced by a large ensemble led him to think about his training not just as a pianist, but as a leader.
“As a conductor, one has the responsibility to make artistic decisions on behalf of the ensemble that not only helps to bring out the best in each performer, but also to help people unify their sound. Being a conductor requires particular mix of musicianship and leadership—qualities that I have intentionally worked to develop.”
At SFCM, Choate cites the mentorship of David Conte as formative. “David was so deeply committed to all of his students, and generously passed on the skills and methods that he learned from the great pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have encountered a teacher like him.”
The lessons Conte taught him in composition, says Choate, still inform his work today. What’s more, Choate cites Conte as the reason he has been able to make conducting his career. During his time at SFCM, Choate was Conte’s student conductor for the Conservatory Chorus, an experience which ultimately led him to become artistic director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
When giving advice to young musicians aspiring to be conductors, Choate prescribes two things: Become an excellent performer and find great mentors. “It takes mentors to help one enter this field. I’ve been extremely blessed to have so many wonderful teachers. I couldn’t have done it without David or the handful of other instructors who believed in me and were committed to helping me grow into this profession.”
“If you can succeed in music, you can succeed in any other field.” — Lindsay Brown ’08
Lindsay Brown has always been up for a challenge. In the fifth grade, his parents asked which band instrument he wanted to play. “The horn looked most complex, so I chose it.” It was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of musical, intellectual, and personal growth. “I continue to play the horn because it boasts one of the orchestra’s most complex, dynamic sounds.”
When he moved from the Midwest to San Francisco, it was to study with Robert Ward, SFCM faculty member and principal horn of the San Francisco Symphony. At SFCM, he found a community of faculty and students that helped him grow not only as a musician but as a person too. “The Conservatory nurtured my personal development as much as it nurtured my musical development. I am grateful to my many mentors, especially David Conte and Nikolaus Hohmann, who kindled my passion for the arts, helped awaken my spirit, and inspired me to greatness.”
But for Brown, mastering the horn was only the beginning. After SFCM, he went on to earn his J.D. at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and is now an adjunct professor there. This fall, he is teaching Basics of Contract Drafting.
Like the ten-year-old who savored the challenge of the horn, Brown was drawn to law for its multifaceted complexity. “Law offered me an opportunity to develop a new skill, pique my intellectual curiosity, and support the arts in different ways. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony may not change, but the legal landscape is in a constant state of flux.”
When comparing music school to law school, Brown is unequivocal in his assessment. “Unquestionably, music school was more demanding than law school, and the skills I developed to become a great musician—discipline, concentration, tenacity—are the reasons I have become a great lawyer.”
He encourages young musicians to build whatever career they are passionate about, and to think of music school as an investment toward their future. “If you can succeed in music, you can succeed in any other field. The Conservatory will teach you the skills necessary to flourish as a musician and teach you the skills necessary to thrive in any other discipline. Each hour is time well invested.”