On Monday nights, 14 of the best jazz vocalists at CSUN gather in room 107 of Nordhoff Hall to rehearse as an ensemble. Before they start singing each week they set up the equipment in preparation for their class.
Big black boxes labeled “CSUN Jazz Department” are wheeled in from a nearby room containing two mixer tables, Yamaha speakers and a myriad of cords and microphones that seem to be just as confusing to connect each week.
While the singers are busy plugging in all their microphones, the rhythm section usually fine-tunes their instruments, which on occasion turn into a small jam session. When everything is set up, musical director Matt Falker either does some vocal warm-up exercises with his students or starts off with a song right away.
Had it not been for Falker, room 107 would have remained silent for two and a half hours every Monday night because the Jazz Department officially canceled the class before the semester began.
Every semester that the CSUN jazz department offers the vocal jazz ensemble class to its students the auditions fill up fast for Falker. With a limit of 14 vocalists, Falker has to turn down a number of the students who try out. Toward the end of last fall semester, students who had already passed the competitive audition received the bad news that the Jazz Department was going to cancel the class for the upcoming spring semester.
Falker said he felt it was important to keep the experience of the vocal jazz class going in the department so he reached an agreement with the department.
“The Jazz Department also decided they wanted the class to continue,” Falker said.
The students had to enroll in a jazz combo class instead of the canceled vocal jazz class.
They still met for two and a half hours every Monday night during the semester to rehearse as a vocal ensemble, just like they would have if their class was still available because it was all about the music, not credits or money.
There is no mystery that Falker loves what he does. On top of making a 60-mile commute to Northridge from his home once a week, he also teaches several classes at Glendale Community College and USC, where he is working on his DMA. Falker is also the musical director/conductor at Golden Performing Arts Center and the vocal jazz chair of the Southern California Vocal Association.
Falker had enough things to keep him busy without teaching his only class at CSUN this semester, but he said his love for the class made him want to teach it anyway.
Greg Dills is one of the singers in Epicenter, which is the name of the ensemble. He said he appreciates Falker coming to teach the class at CSUN.
“I feel like he’s coming here and opening my eyes to so much new knowledge,” Dills said. “He’s teaching us how to scat, how to blend with people and a lot of music theory.”
The vocal jazz ensemble class is very important for the students because it is where the singer gains experience to sing in public, said Dills.
“If we are not doing live music like that ? what’s the point of being a music major?” Dills said.
The relationship Falker has with his students goes beyond the average student-teacher relationship. The whole group is like a family, but Falker is more like an older brother than a father figure.
“We don’t call him Mr. Falker, we call him Matt,” Dills said. “He’s probably 10 years older than most of us in the group, but he’s still working on his doctorate so he’s still in that school kind of mode. We kind of look at him as one of our peers.”
In class, however, Falker is all business.
The quickest way to get on his bad side is to create a lot of noise during sound check, Falker told the class during one rehearsal.
Falker has an extremely sensitive musical ear. He can immediately hear if someone is doing something wrong. It is not unusual to hear him say: “Where are my altos?” or “tenors, you need to be louder in this part.”
If his students are lacking emotions or energy he lets them know about it.
“I’m looking for dynamics, people,” Falker pleaded to his students during a rehearsal.
“You make your softs softer and your louds louder, that’s how you create dynamics.”
Falker may be serious about his profession, but he is far from authoritarian with his students. A smile is never far away when the group starts singing.
Normally a rhythm section accompanies the singers during class. They have a bassist, guitarist, drummer and piano player providing the music for them. Sometimes, Falker, who is also a very talented piano player, takes command over the keys.
Andy Grammer, senior music industry major, calls Falker a musical genius and is almost dumbfounded when he speaks of some of the things he has seen his professor do in class while sitting down at the piano.
The determination of Falker to make sure his students had the opportunity to perform as a jazz ensemble this semester has led to more than appreciation from the department and his students.
Epicenter traveled to Reno on May 2 for the 44th annual Reno Jazz Festival where they won first place for “Best Four-Year College Choir.”
Genevieve Artadi, senior jazz studies major, also won an award for outstanding college vocalist of the festival.
When observing the students in class it is clear that all of the 14 vocalists enjoy being together as much as they enjoy singing. Jokes, laughter, hugs and butt slaps take place on a continuous basis throughout their classes. Falker occasionally has to hand out a warning if it gets too out of control, but usually they stay focused.
Falker said he has noticed the students appreciate the opportunity to be able to take the class this semester by all the hard work they have put in.
“They could have done less and gotten away with it, but they have a passion for this class,” Falker said.
Grammer was thrilled just to talk about the class that was not supposed to be available to him this semester.
“It’s great, man,” he said with a smile. “It’s really deep, intense and good stuff. To cancel this is like ? you can’t cancel this. It’s all people who don’t really need the class who just come because they love it.”
The students have different goals of what they want to do with their degrees in the future, but several of them want to stay in the music business.
Grammer said he plans on starting a record label some day, but wants to try out being an artist first.
Artadi wants to do it all, from performing to writing and arranging songs. At some point she also wants to teach at the college level, she said. She has already started on all of it.
Artadi arranged the chart for a song the group is performing at their May 17 concert at CSUN called “Mojo.” Whenever they rehearse this catchy vocal roller coaster of a song in class, it is Artadi who takes over the reins from Falker.
Dills said his calling is to help out struggling artists in the future by managing them.
Being the son of an artist who he said is also a bad businessman taught Dills the advantage of studying the business side of the music industry. After he graduates he plans on using his business smarts to manage promising artists. That way they can focus on their music and not worry about anything else, he said.
“I am a musician and I’m OK, but I’m not at that level,” Dills said. “I’ve sung with people in vocal jazz groups and in music school and said ‘those are musicians’ and I want them to sit and write music all day. My job would be to promote it and help them make a living.”
Whatever career paths they choose for themselves down the line, the joy they find in singing jazz together has created a strong friendship.
“I think we all have a really really good connection,” Artadi said. “We’re all silly people and I think we all enjoy each other and enjoy singing together.”
The Sound of Music
Grammer, who also sings in the
university choir, said there is a huge difference between singing in a regular choir and singing jazz. It sounds good, but it is much harder, he said.
“A lot of jazz singing is trying to sound like a big band, so you’re singing all the crazy solo licks that the trumpet would play? and that’s really hard,” Grammer said.
He said he sometimes feels like he is barely keeping up with the others in the group, but he still has more fun than when he sings in the university choir. Grammer does not exude any doubts of his skills as a jazz vocalist when he is in the classroom singing the solo part of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.” His energetic and animated performance captures the spirit of the song beautifully.
“I try to sell it as much as possible outside of the singing because everybody (in the group) can sing, so I think that’s one of the reasons I get to do it,” he said.
Singing in a jazz ensemble is also less forgiving because the microphones are quick to expose if anyone is off key.
“When you sing vocal jazz you sing on microphones and you can hear everything we’re doing,” said Dills, who is trained in classical opera. “If you’re the only one singing you have to have all your notes down and be perfect.”
With Falker’s guidance the group has been able to work most of their songs to perfection. He expects his students to not only know their own individual part of a song; they have to know it all.
“You got to know the whole score folks,” Falker shouts over the piano during a rehearsal. “It’s not enough to just know your part.”
The students listen because Falker knows how to bring everything out of them and he puts them at another level vocally, said Alvin Henry, sophomore music industry major.
For Henry the biggest challenge of singing in an ensemble is to vocally maintain his individuality within the ensemble, he said.
“It is very crucial that you don’t stand out over another part or that another part stands out over you,” he said.
Henry takes classical voice lessons as well as jazz, but there is no doubt of what he likes more.
“Definitely jazz,” Henry said. “I love classical music, I love singing it because it’s a great tool for the voice to demonstrate and show a lot of things, but jazz is from the heart. I can feel the beat, I feel the rhythm, I can move and I can express myself with it.”
The vocal range of this group seem endless when listening to them rehearsing the songs for their culminating show tonight. They let loose on “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” and then follow up with the angelic-sounding “Like Someone in Love” that sweeps around the listener like a soft veil of music.
They are somewhat reminiscent of the von Trapp kids, standing side-by-side singing beautifully in unison. Except they are an older and multi-cultural version of them.
The vocal jazz ensemble class is where the students get the opportunity to do what they love. To sing together. Had it not been for Falker, they would have been deprived of that.
“If you really love what you do, you’re going to find a way to do it,” Grammer said. “With Matt I don’t think he does it for the money, it can’t be. I think he generally enjoys our group and he has a close personal tie with all of us.”
Johan Mengesha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.