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Music: a tool for emotional expression

Music and psychology major Kylie Capella plays guitar to unwind after a long day.

Most days, second-year Kylie Capella can be found in the music building with a psychology textbook in one hand and sheet music in the other. Capella officially added the music major to her psychology major this quarter, and between music classes and rehearsals for her acapella group, she practically lives in the music building.

“We all joke that we live in the music building,” Capella said. “It’s our home.”

When she can steal a few minutes of downtime from her studying and rehearsal plans, Capella can be found singing her heart out in a practice room.

“Going in a practice room when there’s no one else in the music building and just playing and singing whatever I want, knowing that no one cares and no one’s there to hear me feels really cool,” Capella said.

Capella often uses music as a tool for emotional expression. When she sings in front of an audience, she “need[s] to hold back from crying a lot of times,” she said.

Capella felt most connected to a performance when she sang L’a bbandono during Cal Poly’s winter voice recital. The recital took place in the choir room in the music building.

“Performing in [room] 218 was so intimate because you can see everyone’s faces… I could look into their eyes and really connect with them. It was like I was having a conversation,” she said.

Capella expressed that she enjoys emotionally connecting to music, and she’s not alone.

Shane Williamson, a second year physics major transfering into the music major, explained that he also uses music as a way to express his emotions.

“There’s an instrumental piece on piano that I composed and… I play it as an emotional release,” Williamson said. “I’ll sit down at the piano and play that composition just because there was a lot of emotion that went into writing it, so I can really express myself and feel what I’m playing.”

It’s no secret that people have strong emotional connections to music, but why? It turns out that listening to music causes the brain to release dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward, according to Berkeley’s science magazine The Greater Good.

Dopamine is released during emotional climaxes in a song, which could explain why people feel emotional during loud and expressive sections of music, according to Nature Neuroscience.

Additionally, the brain releases small amounts of dopamine before these climaxes in the song, so when a person listens to a song they’re familiar with, they receive more dopamine, the journal explained.

Williamson’s most memorable performance was when he sang Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon for his high school choir concert.

As a kid, Williamson would sing Sinatra in the shower with a shampoo bottle for a microphone and a rubber ducky as his audience. His senior year of high school, he traded the shower for the stage, and he couldn’t have been happier.

“That performance was so impactful and powerful to me as a musician because it was the realization of this dream that I didn’t even really think was attainable.”

Williamson enjoyed performing this song to express the joy and pride he felt for bringing the song to life, he said.

“I remember just being on stage singing those notes and letting everything spill out,” Williamson said, smiling at the memory.


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A music major plans for the future

With graduation approaching, students like music sophomore Anya Restivo can’t help but wonder about the future.  

Restivo transferred from philosophy to music at the beginning of spring quarter, and has been contemplating what to do with her degree. Though Restivo enjoys playing the clarinet, she’s not interested in a career on the stage; she’s drawn to instrument repair.

“I really like doing hands on things… and I feel like that’s a very practical way of doing something hands on,” Restivo said.

When Restivo graduates, she hopes to attend trade school to learn the craft. Until then, she plans to become more familiar with the clarinet.

Instrument repair technicians are often encouraged to play the instruments they fix. If a technician understands the technique used to play the instrument, they can properly advise customers how to care for their instrument to prevent further damage, according to the Berklee College of Music.

The music major is often associated with performance, but graduates can pursue a variety of careers with the degree. Along with performance, Cal Poly music graduates pursue teaching, careers in music technology and even law school, according to the music department chair Dr. Spiller.

“Many … people craft rewarding careers in music without it being in performance,” Spiller said.

The Cal Poly bachelor of arts in music is “designed for the student who wants a broad education in music,” according to the music department website.

“We have a very healthy and intensive balance of academics and performance,” Spiller said. “Students can craft their studies, and particularly their senior project, to go off on their own paths.”

While Restivo prepares for the future, she enjoys the present by playing clarinet.

Three Ways to Tackle Stage Fright

Marston sings “Why God Why,” the song he’ll use to audition for the music major.

From the Grammys gilded stage to the Cal Poly choir room, performers experience stage fright. 24 percent of musicians encounter mild to moderate stage fright, and an additional 13 percent experience severe performance anxiety, according to a journal published in the US National Library of Medicine.

Even Beyoncé grapples with performance anxiety. In fact, Beyoncé was so nervous to perform with Prince at the Grammys that she forgot to give him the microphone on stage, according to Billboard Magazine.

Stage fright is correlated with perfectionism and feeling unprepared for a performance, according to the US National Library of Medicine. 91% of the survey respondents recommended deep breathing, positive self talk and holding practice performances as tools to combat stage fright.  

At the end of May, third year construction management major Chris Marston will audition for the music major. Marston enjoys his music classes, but has experienced his fair share of performance anxiety this year.

Learn Marston’s three tactics for overcoming stage fright here.


Studying Music Improves Brain Function

Studying music alters the structure of the brain to improve focus and decision making abilities, according to Natural News.

“To make music is kind of a synthesis of other things,” Cal Poly choir director Scott Glysson said. “You’re having to use the mathematical aspect of your brain, the scientific aspect, the language part of your brain, but you’re synthesizing all of that to make an expressive art form.”

White matter is a type of brain tissue that, similar to a highway, provides a continuous pathway for information to different parts of the brain, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Alternatively, grey matter helps process information delivered by the white matter, according to Medical News.

Additionally, increased amounts of grey and white matter help the brain process information and make decisions more efficiently, according to Natural News.

Studying music affects other areas of the brain, too.

Not only is music healthy for the soul, but it’s healthy for the brain, too.

A musician changes her tune – and her major

Music major Misti Webster flaunts her favorite hat.

A backpacking enthusiast drawn to the outdoors, Misti Webster began her Cal Poly career as an earth science major. Freshman year, she changed her major to chemistry, but had to drag herself to labs, dreading the monotony of testing the same products every day.

Webster decided that chemistry wasn’t the major for her, and transferred into the music major her 4th year at Cal Poly. For the first time in a long time, she was happy.

“When I decided to switch, I was really struggling with whether I wanted to even keep going in college,” Webster said. “Even though I had one year left, I almost dropped out of school. Then I switched, and I’ve been on dean’s list every quarter since.”

The College of Liberal Arts (CLA) is an importer college, meaning more students transfer in than transfer out, according to CLA Dean for Student Success Penny Bennett.

Students are especially attracted to the music department because it’s small and well connected, Bennett said. As of 2017, there were only 61 undergraduate students enrolled in the music department, according to the Cal Poly Fact Book.

“The music department will call me on the phone, [and say,] ‘Hey, we haven’t seen Travis lately, can you reach out to him?’” Bennett said. “They’re that small and tight knit.”

Webster was immediately drawn to the intimate feel of the department. She described her classmates and teachers as “family.” Even before she switched, the music building felt like her home.

In class, Webster discovered Schubert’s symphony, The Great C Major no 9.

“I listened to it and I was like, oh my god, this is amazing,” Webster smiled at the memory. “I knew this is really what I wanted to do. It clicked.”

Webster loves music because it allows her to express herself.

“I love being able to play a slow piece and really just be able to pour your heart out into it,” Webster said.

“As human beings, it’s inside of us to express ourselves musically,” Cal Poly choir director Scott Glysson said. “To be able to tap into that is really important.”

Initially, Webster’s mother disagreed with the choice. She wanted Webster to remain in a more practical major.

Parents can be reluctant to allow their students to switch into liberal arts majors because they think career paths are limited, Bennett said.

Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of jobs available in music, Glysson said. Yes, it’s difficult to make a living as a performer, but there are multiple opportunities to work in studios, arts management and as teachers.

Eventually, Webster’s mother supported her decision.

Now, as a 23-year-old fifth year, she’s older than most students in the department, but she doesn’t mind at all, she explained.

“It’s interesting making friends with all the youngins, they’re like 19 years old and I’m 23 so I’m like grandma,” Webster laughed. “I got to experience a bunch of people through the major.”

The music major gave Webster’s life direction. In the future, she hopes to conduct a college orchestra, and this year, she organized a chamber ensemble to practice conducting.

“There’s this stigma that chemistry is a practical major and music is not, where it’s the opposite for me, because I had no idea what I wanted to do with chemistry, but I do with music.”

Webster has found her place at Cal Poly in the music department, and when she graduates, she hopes to find her place in the world through music, too.