Composing the future: The journeys of three DePaul musicians as they prepare for graduation

In about 18 weeks, more than 3,500 students will be awarded diplomas. For seniors, June 13 looms in the near future, marking either a transition into the job market or furthering an academic career.

For most, this is a time filled with thoughts of jobs and internships, cover letters and resumes. But for those graduating from the School of Music, the stakes are higher.

Whether entering into freelance work or applying for graduate school, the future means practicing, striving, shaking hands and creating opportunities for one’s self. And it can be scary.

Over the next few months, The DePaulia will follow three School of Music seniors as they prepare to transition into the next phase of their life. Told through their individual voices and the voices of those close to them, these profiles showcase the unique difficulties and triumphs of young performers as they push themselves from student to the stage.

Chrstine Roberts rehearses pieces in Italian and German as her instructor, Jane Bunnell, critiques her technique. Roberts will one day attend graduate school to pursue a future in opera. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)
Chrstine Roberts rehearses pieces in Italian and German as her instructor, Jane Bunnell, critiques her technique. Roberts will one day attend graduate school to pursue a future in opera. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Christine Roberts – Vocal Performance

Christine Roberts needs to breathe. Her vocal instructor, Jane Bunnell, tells her to take four deep breaths before singing her next passage, and she complies, sucking in air before her pianist sets down a chord. Together, they pick apart German, Italian and English diction, rifling over the proper tongue placement. Roberts squeezes her cheeks steady, allowing her jaw to drop as her vibrato tone soars in an arpeggio.

But more than technique, the vocal performance major must draw from her ambition to make it in the competitive world of opera.

“When I decided that this was what I wanted to do, my first voice teacher said, ‘You have to want it more than you want to breathe in order to make it,’” she said. “And I said, I think I do – I think I want it more than I want to breathe.”

With a laugh, she admitted first noticing opera after seeing the 2004 film adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” in which the main character is also named Christine. Inspired, she began voice lessons, but wasn’t convinced of her talent until gathering up courage and performing for others.

“I used to be really shy,” she said. I didn’t sing for anyone until I was 14, because I thought I was bad. When I was a freshman I got the lead in ‘Oklahoma,’ and I was like, ‘oh, I guess I can sing.’”

Roberts said she is someone who is intimidated by free time, and likewise, her time at her Witchita, Kansas high school was a whirlwind of AP classes and extracurriculars, everything from madrigals to mock trial to 20-some shows.  There was musical theatre — though she admits to never quite mastering dance — and thoughts of eventually attending medical school.

“I feel like I would regret more going to medical school and not trying this, than trying it, and then deciding I wanted to do medicine,” she said. “I have one shot — you’ve got to do it.”

Studying vocal performance isn’t easy, and nor is confessing her dreams to others. She admits people occasionally flash skeptical looks when she tells them her major. Truthfully, she said, fewer people have the money to spend an evening at the opera. But while it might be slightly declining, it’s also changing, with companies developing fresh approaches to seemingly antiquated staples like “Don Giovanni.”

Today, she owns the tradition. Lessons and practice, she said, are no longer an obligation, but a privilege, one that comes with difficult requirements like developing skills in foreign diction.

“I guess there’s this misperception that it’s easy, but it’s so hard,” Roberts said. “I came into college and I didn’t know languages, so there was trying to (learn languages) and knowing that when you sing a song, you need to know each individual word.”

After a summer abroad in Italy, a year of French and courses in German diction, she swaps between Italian and German pieces in the midst of her lesson without a second thought. As another student left the small studio to make way for Roberts’ lesson, she bid her farewell in German.

Beyond diction, there’s acting lessons, spanning show tunes to opera. The pedagogy her opera instructor preaches is that singing and acting are one in the same. Both require breath, proper pitch and engaging an audience.

In the next few months, Roberts must decide whether to jump into graduate school at DePaul or take time off and weigh the potential merits of other institutions. She said she might need time to feel out programs, and most importantly, understand if the potential vocal instructor would be a good fit. She said Bunnell is almost like a motherly figure.

Still, the statistics are jarring. Upon first meeting one of her instructors, he said those who pursue opera are more likely to be attacked by a shark than to make it big right away. Every year the Metropolitan Opera House takes three young artists.

“Everyone that you see on stage you know they got there somehow,” Roberts said. “Because they worked hard.”

Katherine Baloff (right) performs with the DePaul Symphony Orchestra. The group rehearses three days a week for two hours, though only counts for one credit hour per quarter. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)
Katherine Baloff (right) performs with the DePaul Symphony Orchestra. The group rehearses three days a week for two hours, though only counts for one credit hour per quarter. (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Katherine Baloff – Violin performance

Calling Katherine Baloff busy is an understatement. Hearing her describe her schedule —three jobs, orchestra,  chamber ensemble, practicing, private lessons and liberal studies courses — is almost exhausting in itself.

“I pretty much leave my house at nine in the morning and don’t get home until after midnight most nights,” the violin performance major said.

Her mother was a professional violinist and music therapist before she passed away, and both of her parents collected violins in their travels. Soon, after playing piano and tennis as a young child, Baloff and her brother picked up the violin.

But she’s less of a hobbiest, and more of a passionist. While a good student, she said even from a young age she never considered a nine-to-five, or a traditional academic career.

“When I played tennis, I wanted to be a tennis player, and then my dad took us out of tennis because he didn’t want to risk injury when we started to get serious about it,” she said. “So I was like, ‘oh, I’ll just do violin.’”

Around age 10, it began: the lessons, practicing and rehearsal. And while busy might not be apt to describe her, motivated might be. In the sixth grade she decided to audition for her first regional orchestra in Philadelphia, near her hometown.

“I would get up every morning before school and practice,” she said. “I think that was the most driven I had ever been.” And yes, she made it.

She chose DePaul to study with Ilya Kaler, the first violinist to win gold medals at the top three competitions in the world.

Today, her days are packed. Orchestra, only one credit hour, rehearses three days a week, for two hours. There’s also DePaul’s liberal studies requirements to fulfill and private lessons to attend. She works at a local sandwich shop, and organizes sheet music and files parts in the Music School’s library. Two students — a five year old and 30-something-year-old — learn from her once a week.

Michael Lewanski, director of the DePaul Symphony Orchestra, has worked with Baloff throughout her undergraduate career. He described her as “nearly an ideal student,” and a postive and hard-working musician.

Later this month, it will all come to a head: In hopes of pursuing a master’s degree in violin performance, Baloff is applying to graduate programs at seven schools across the country, including DePaul. Lewanski said this is a common decision, with an estimated 70 to 80 percent of his students pursue a master’s degree.

For two weeks, Baloff will hop from city to city, one audition and performance after another. And the entire repertoire of audition music — totalling over an hour — has to be memorized.

“It’ll be a lot, mentally,” she said of her upcoming schedule. A few work and academic obligations will be put on hold. “Recharging with one day in between and traveling — it’s going to be a lot of traveling.”

The goal is a full scholarship, a hefty task in the competitive world of violin. While she said the cutthroat atmosphere is not as present at DePaul, beginning at age 10 is considered a late start, compared to the children who begin with the famed Suzuki method.

Still, she said it’s not about beating others, but striving for a personal best.

“My outlook is just (to do) the best I can for myself,” she said. “It’s nice to get a good chair in orchestra, but that’s not really what I’m after.”

“We’re all trying to make it, trying to get better, trying to be the best that we can be.” (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)
“We’re all trying to make it, trying to get better, trying to be the best that we can be.” (Kirsten Onsgard / The DePaulia)

Zach Yanez – Jazz percussion

Beneath high ceilings in a basement studio space in the School of Music, the room is abuzz — quite literally. Ten minutes before Jazz Ensemble rehearsal, horn players quacked through their mouthpieces, music stands clanked and a few members cracked jokes.

Drummer Zach Yanez bustled around, rearranging furniture and settling behind his kit. He appeared a little hyped, like someone in his own element, sapping energy from a familiar environment.

Walking down Lincoln Avenue the day before, he said he sometimes wished he could just play the drum set for someone the first time they met. Playing together is communicative, though many musicians may not think of it that way.

“A lot of musicians think of music as a language,” he said. “You communicate with each other constantly. If I play my drums, it’s just like me speaking to you.”

An Austin, Texas native, Yanez is the son of a professional drummer who was raised among his father’s musician friends as they gigged and performed at theaters.

“I would hang out at the theater he worked at and a lot of those people he worked with, the musicians he worked with, and the singers, they all became an extended family,” he said.

His father initially pushed him into piano lessons until taking up drums around age 10.

But as he grew and improved, the competitive nature of classical percussion proved stressful. His palms would sweat at auditions for regional and all-state orchestras, and he saddled himself with pressure. It wasn’t the supportive, passionate community he initially sought.

So he switched to the drum set, just like his father, and found his passion.

“That was probably the biggest influence on me to play drum set, seeing how my dad made it work and wanting to do that,” he said. “If he can play music all of the time, and teach music all the time, and be fine and make a living, I can too.”

Chicago’s reputation as a rich music city weighed heavily on his decision to study at DePaul. In Austin, the scene is different, with fewer jazz performers. Here, the caliber is higher: dozens of clubs bustle with musicians who treat jazz as a craft each night.

“I don’t want to be pretty good in a pretty good market. I want to be really good in Chicago,” he said. “To do that, you have to develop your sound here, and ask the players around you to push you and make you a better musician.”

During rehearsal break, he and the ensemble’s bassist spoke like strategizing teammates, discussing passages and reassuring one another. Music is very personal and opens you up to vulnerabilities, he said. And screwing up hurts.

“We’re all trying to make it, trying to get better, trying to be the best that we can be,” he said. “In order to do that you have to have a lot of support. A lot of that support comes from your social group and the musicians you work with.”

For Yanez, drawing from this sense of community and building his network is vital, both to his musicianship and his career. After graduation, he will likely be balancing freelance gigs and teaching private lessons, and finding these opportunities is largely based on word-of-mouth.

“The people who are better at networking see more gigs than the person who sits at home,” he said.

It’s more about shaking hands than who’s willing to sign off on a letter of recommendation: one performance leads to a connection, a satisfied student could spread the word. It’s also about being a social and kind person who’s fun to hang out with, as well as an exceptional musician.

For now, that means playing everything from bars to pep band, in addition to four DePaul ensembles and six other bands. The hope, he said, is that the transition from student to professional is seamless: without class work, it opens up time for more gigs and teaching.

Sure, it’s risky. But for him, it’s better than pushing papers.

“Sitting down at a desk all day would drive me nuts,” he said. “So I wanted to do the furthest thing possible: play drums and make a bunch of noise.”

“When I play drum set, that’s the most fun thing I could possibly do at any part of any day,” he said. “That’s just who I am now. That’s the most fun thing I can think about doing, playing drum set with people I love. That’s what it is: the fun and the excitement and the personal connection.”