Things are happening at SUNY Schenectady’s School of Music and Dr. Christopher Brellochs, the new dean, couldn’t be happier.
“Our fall 2022 enrollment was up 13% compared to fall 2021 and our spring 2023 enrollment is up 17% compared to spring 2022,” he said.
That means the department had 113 music majors this year when the spring term opened on Tuesday. While most of those musicians are vocalists, guitarists or pianists, because of initiatives in the curriculum, the school is now attracting students interested in composing, becoming audio engineers, working in musical theater and teaching music.
Much of this new direction comes from Brellochs, who became dean in May 2021.
“I was chair of the academy of music at SUNY Dutchess and had been aware for 14 years about this school of music through Bill Meckley,” Brellochs said. “I was very impressed with what they were doing.”
When the opening for dean came up, he immediately applied. Because the school was recovering from the pandemic and a slow enrollment decline, one of the questions he was asked was: could he be a visionary?
“I knew the school had a long history of music — it’s been accredited since 1984 — and the administration was highly supportive,” Brellochs said. “I was interested and intrigued to take it to a new chapter, so I gave them some ideas.”
One of his first was that there was no musical theater offered.
“They needed to have that to expose students to be able to study . . . to be a triple threat,” he said.
Starting last spring, students were allowed to take one-on-one lessons not only in classical music but music for musical theater, jazz, R&B. Coming in the next year or so is foundation work for those who want to learn to act and dance in musicals.
“The school also didn’t want to be in an ivory tower where only music that was written 100 years ago was taught,” he said. “Composition has to be related to contemporary mediums as a business, such as used on Amazon, television, film, or video games. You need to stay current and relevant to technology. I want to welcome pop composers to SUNY.”
So Brellochs suggested composers study the latest in digital programs such as Pro Tools to learn to write jingles or work in audio recording. He also learned that the program Abelton Live was not only a good software for composition but also for lighting cues for live shows — a great tool for bands.
Some students might only want to study for a year and then go to work in their related field. There are now two options depending on whether a student is headed into producing or teaching.
“The one-year certificate makes it easier to expand into a two-year program. But the new requirement is that the study must be on a collegiate level and the student needs to take a jury in front of a panel as an audition if they wish to move into a degree program,” Brellochs said.
The school, however, still only offers a two-year associate’s degree. This is fine for those students who either because of financial concerns or are not interested or ready for the more competitive performance levels generally expected at conservatories such as the Eastman School of Music or the Juilliard School. A community college is also unique in other ways.
“If you want solo opportunities with an ensemble or chamber group, you don’t have to contend with upper class competition. And if you want to major in electric bass, for example, we allow that. Most music schools don’t,” Brellochs said. “With the school’s size, which over the decades has averaged between 100 and 170 students, you won’t get lost in the crowd such as at a conservatory. And teachers talk to each other. They’re always looking for opportunities for outstanding students.”
Sometimes, too, many students do decide to go on to more competitive situations and a four-year degree. The most popular transfers are to SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Purchase. Some students have also gone to Ithaca School of Music.
But Brellochs had something else in mind.
“We needed new ideas on how to reach out to the community, to local schools,” he said.
Allyson Keyser, the school’s trumpet/brass teacher and conductor of its wind ensemble, began to go into local public schools to help with their ensembles, give lessons, get the kids to like to practice and generally make music exciting.
“They see that the Schenectady School of Music has an amazing faculty. They take the college seriously as a place to go. It lets the local teachers and students see what SUNY is doing,” Brellochs said.
This was further expanded to creating the first High School Jazz Competition, which the School of Music ran last spring. Working with A Place for Jazz, which recently finished its fall season at the school, the competition was open to all enrolled students in nine Capital Region schools for any instrument or voice. There was no entry fee. The four judges included Grammy-nominated pianist Geoffrey Keezer, vocalist Gillian Margot and SUNY teachers Dylan Canterbury and Kevin Grudecki.
After a couple of rounds over the summer and early fall, the grand prize winner was announced in October. He was Niskayuna High School drummer Kiemon Noel, who got a recording session, a $1,000 scholarship to SUNY Schenectady as music major, and a concert date May 3, 2023 with the college’s jazz ensemble. The two runner-ups — Niskayuna High School tenor saxophonist Nathan Yan and Guilderland High School alto saxophonist Bohdan Kinai — each received the same scholarship amount and the May 3 performance date.
And what with all this positive momentum, there is one more success story and this from an alumnus: recording engineer Charlie Post (Class of 1993) received a 2021 Grammy Award for his work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on its recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar.”
In a profile on the college website, Post credited his SUNY Schenectady education and music faculty with preparing him to ulimately transfer to Fredonia.
“Mr. [Brett] Wery was a great influence,” Post said of the former music school dean. “He was a fantastic professor and he taught me saxophone as well as clarinet. It was amazing preparation for my Fredonia audition,” he said.
A music history course with Meckley sparked Charlie’s interest in reading music scores. “Dr. Meckley got all of us really excited about orchestral music,” he said. “I would borrow scores from the music library to follow while listening to large-scale symphonic works at home. I learned notation, instrument groupings, how to read melodies and harmonies, and orchestration. These skills propelled my career recording orchestras and helped me to be a strong candidate for my current position.”