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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.


Finding a home through music

Rosa López singing at Cal Poly’s Día de Los Muertos celebration.
*Photo provided by Rosa López *

Political science and ethnic studies third year Rosa López is always singing. She can be found singing soprano in her acapella group, belting mariachi at Cal Poly’s Día de Los Muertos celebration or even humming to herself while studying.

“Music is my life. I know a lot of people say that and it’s really cliche, but it’s everything to me.”

Rosa López

Like many music major transfers mentioned in previous blog posts, López found support in Cal Poly’s music community.

“Music has connected me to my peers and Cal Poly because I have That’s the Key acapella,” Lopez said. “Without that community, I don’t think I’d be connected to music nor the Cal Poly community in general. It’s basically been the grounding force in my time at Cal Poly.”

That’s the Key (TTK) is a student run acapella group on campus, and López joined the group her sophomore year of college.

That’s the Key laughing during their annual photo shoot.
*Photo taken by Cody Capella*

Music and psychology sophomore Kylie Capella also found support in That’s the Key.  

“The music department definitely has provided a home to me though TTK,” Capella said. “They [members of TTK] would go eat lunch with me, or even just sit with me if they weren’t eating… It’s those little things that mean a lot.”

López explained that one of her favorite parts of singing is telling a story through her voice and facial expressions, and she encourages the rest of the group to do so as well.

“Rosa always makes sure in the midst of making music we remember the purpose of the song; so our music isn’t just music, but that its delivering a special message – and a good one at that,” That’s the Key beat-boxer Brian Ebisuzaki said.

Music has been a refuge to López at Cal Poly, as she’s encountered many obstacles on her educational journey.  

López arrived at Cal Poly while her identity as a Mexican-American was under attack. During her first quarter of freshman year, López found herself in the crossfire of the 2016 elections.

“[Trump] started off by announcing his candidacy by saying that all Mexicans were rapists, so coming from a daughter of immigrants and being Mexican … that’s a direct attack at who I am and who my family is,”  López said. “Of course I’m going to take offense to that.”

Trump’s rhetoric followed López from the television screen to her classroom, and the day after the elections, the ramifications of Trump’s presidency became all the more real.

“When I was in class … we debriefed the election results and it was still pretty fresh and raw for me,” López said. “I remember one of my classmates saying, ‘well you know, it’s about time they get the illegals out of this country, they all need to be gone.’”

When López explained to her classmate that, by his definition, her parents immigrated to the U.S. illegally, he replied, “‘We don’t want you here.”

Outside of the classroom, there were occasions when students told López to “go back your country,” even though she was born in the United States, she said.

“[I felt] shame for being who I was, and not just being who I was, but for being visibly identified as an ‘other.’ Looking different from my peers was one thing that they could use against me if they felt hostile towards me.”

Rosa López

While López contemplated transferring out of Cal Poly, a friend referred her to Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEXA), a student run organization designed to support Latinx students in their pursuit of higher education.

“From the moment I walked in those doors … I knew that it was basically my home away from home,” López said. “Listening to the music that I grew up listening to, talking about foods that we all missed from home and just getting to bond over certain things that I knew no one else would be able to relate to. That was the big thing for me, was knowing that there were other students like me.”

López at a rally with MEXA.
*Photo provided by Rosa López*

Though MEXA has provided a home for López, she recognizes that Latinx students who are not Mexican-American may feel excluded by the club.

“There’s kind of this unsaid model of being Mexican-American that you have to fit under. Like, you have to like conchas … you have to speak Spanish, you have to listen to Spanish music,” she said. “You have to have these similar experiences or you don’t fit in right, and that’s very alienating for a lot of folks.”

At a national level, MEXA has debated changing its name to make the organization more inclusive, according to a Mustang News article.

The word “Chicano,” used to be a derogatory term, but in recent years Mexican-Americans have reclaimed the word. Now, it represents their pride in their Mexican ancestry, so some club members don’t want to remove it from MEXA’s title, López explained.

Featuring Chicano in the title of the organization, however, inadvertently excludes non-Chicano Latinx students from the organization. The purpose of changing the name would be to make the club more welcoming to these students, López said, but she’s still skeptical of the name change.

“Ultimately, I don’t know how much good a name change would accomplish, mostly because you can say that you’re trying to be more inclusive, but it’s not about talk – it’s about action,” she said.

As co-chair of MEXA next year, she plans to incorporate workshops and events into the club’s schedule that reach out to both Mexican-American and non-Mexican-American Latinx students.

“What I’m hoping to do in my position next year is to do everything we can … to make those folks who would traditionally feel left out know if they wanted to find a home with us that we are there for them,” she said.

Now that López has found her home at Cal Poly, she is committed to helping other students find a home, too.

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.

Access the full info graphic 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 pursue a career in conducting 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.