Category Archives: Uncategorized

Interview: Rebekah Heller, bassoonist

Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic solo and collaborative artist. Called “an impressive solo bassoonist” by The New Yorker, she is fiercely committed to expanding the modern repertoire for the bassoon. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings (featuring five new pieces written with and for her), 100 names, was called “pensive and potent” by The New York Times and her newly-released second album, METAFAGOTE (also entirely made 1up of pieces created with and for her), is receiving wide acclaim. As Artistic Director and bassoonist of the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Rebekah performs all over the world. Not only is she committed to advancing the music of our time, she is deeply engaged in working with younger musicians to continue the ICE-y legacy of fearless exploration and deep collaboration. She is also a committed advocate, through platforms like ICEcommons (a free, crowdsourced index of newly composed music), for underrepresented voices and outrageous experimentation.

When you graduated from your undergraduate program, what were your goals and where did you see yourself headed?
I actually wasn’t so clear on that. I went to Oberlin Conservatory because they had a dual degree program, so I got both a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance. I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be in my life. I liked playing music, but I had a lot of other interests. I was at a crossroads. I was also broke (which many people are after college), so I auditioned for the Fellowship program at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a stipended program – a free masters program plus a stipend to work on things that were really interesting to me, such as commissioning a new piece with a professor, and doing research. I got that fellowship, and that’s a big reason why I decided to continue doing music. 

So I spent two years in Austin, then I moved to Chicago where I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra and freelanced for a year. From there I got into the New World Symphony. I was on a very traditional orchestral track. I played with them from 2005 to 2008. That’s the time when I was flirting with the idea of moving to New York and playing with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). I had visited a few times in New York, but I didn’t have a lot of contacts there yet, so I wasn’t feeling ready to make the move. I won the job as Principal Bassoonist in the Jacksonville Symphony and played with them for one season. Getting a job in an orchestra really made it blatantly clear that that kind of job just didn’t suit me. It gave the courage to move to New York and be broke, bartend, and wait tables while I sought out the collaborators and the music that I wanted to make, which at the time was primarily with ICE. 

Why did you decide to leave the orchestral world?
For me it felt really limiting being told on a weekly basis what I was going to play and how I was going to play it. The only agency you have in those situations is over your small piece of the puzzle. I was really interested in collaboration, playing the music of living composers, solo playing, and chamber music playing. It just wasn’t deeply fulfilling for me. I really wanted to be able to choose who I was playing with, what I was playing, and why. It became clear to me that I needed more agency, more excitement, and more connection with the music I was playing.

Do students need to move to New York to make a career in contemporary music?
There are audiences all over the country and all over the world who are hungry for new art and new music. I don’t think it is necessary to move to New York, or even a big city, but it is necessary to find that community and activate it and be active within it. I know a lot of young musicians who are starting new music ensembles in smaller cities across the country and are getting amazing responses from community members who are excited to see really relevant, new work being produced in their hometown. It’s really exciting what is popping up all over the country.

What are your current are your solo projects?

Rebekah with U-M Bassoon Students in Fall 2018

I am in the process of commissioning works for my upcoming album. This will be my third album, and it will be focused on bassoon ensemble as an instrument. My last album has a piece on it, Metafagote by Felipe Lara, for seven bassoons. It can be played live, or I pre-recorded all the tracks so I can play it as a soloist. I actually played that piece with University of Michigan students of Jeff Lyman’s studio during ICE’s residency in October 2018! It was a beautiful concert, and I realized it was a great way for students to dip their toe into the water of extended technique and experimental sound-making in the relative comfort and safety of the group. Not only that, the bassoon choir has an incredible sound. The overtones created by that many bassoons in one room is really strange; it almost sound electronic. I became almost obsessed with that sound, so I am commissioning a set of pieces for that ensemble. I’ll be doing a show to give the world premieres of all these pieces, and the album will come out next year!

What was it like creating your first two albums?
Each album was a slightly different process. Both were entirely made up of pieces written for me and in collaboration with me. They’re pieces that feel like belong to me just as much as the composer, which is really special and that’s what I love most about commissioning. Being able to record these works and memorialize them over time was really exciting. 

It was also really scary! I remember listening to the final mixes of both albums, and feeling all of these fears and insecurities about releasing this thing into the world. I was worried about how differently I played those pieces now because my interpretations have evolved since recording them. I had to start thinking of these recordings as photographs –  snapshots in time. Those recordings will always exist, but that doesn’t mean that’s the musician I am now. That part of the process was harder than I imagined it would be.

What advice do you have for current students?
Follow your gut. The safest thing you can do is to listen to that deepest part of you that tells you why –  why you want to make music, why you want to choose this path. Follow that and let that be your leader, because that’s the only thing that matters in the end.

New Young Creatives Book Club Tackles Imposter Syndrome

How do you find the confidence to get past imposter syndrome and get down to business?

Right now, the new Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) is tackling this big, relevant question. The book of discussion is Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk: and other truths about being creative by writer, artist, and curator Danielle Krysa. Check out her TED Talk on the topic here!

Here are Danielle Krysa’s 4 Strategies for dealing with your inner critic:
1. Copy the experts.
2. Give your inner critic a name.
3. Say “thank you”
4. Translate & Rewrite

The idea to launch this book club was conceived by Melissa Coppola, a DMA Student and EXCEL Program Assistant. She says, “The aim is for like-minded, creative SMTD students to meet, socialize, and have fun through a communal learning experience. The staff has been thinking for the past two years about how EXCEL can host more casual gatherings of students interested in the topics of entrepreneurship in a welcoming and casual environment, and this idea has stuck with me. I’m so excited to be helping to lead the new program!”

Young Creatives Book Club Sticky note activity!

The first meeting of the Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) was Tuesday, September 17th. The group watched the TED Talk, then they followed Danielle’s advice to answer the question, “What are the things your inner critic says?” They then put them into the various “Buckets of Lies” that the book describes as primary categories for these thoughts. Finally, the group reflected on how similar many of these thoughts were, and then took the post-it notes back to turn them into positive thoughts. For example, “I’m not good enough” might be turned into “I am trying my hardest and am exactly where I should be right now.”

Participants of the first session really appreciated the opportunity to discuss self-criticism with other artists. “I love the community formed,” one student shared. “We are not alone. We all struggle with these sometimes paralyzing thoughts.” Another student commented, “This topic is very important but rarely touched on in school.”

Young Creatives Book Club (YCBC) meets again on Tuesday, October 1st at 7 pm in the EXCEL Lab. Anyone is encouraged to attend, even if you weren’t at the first meeting or haven’t started reading the book! RSVP for the meeting on Handshake so we know how much food to order.

For an exciting culmination of the series, the third meeting will be Wednesday, October 16th at 7 pm. AND, author Danielle Krysa will be joining via Skype! YCBC is crowdsourcing questions for Danielle, so you can add any of your questions for her to this Google Doc. You do not want to miss this exciting event! BUT – for those who are interested but unable to attend, the Skype call will be recorded and available to watch later.

We hope to see you at a YCBC meeting! Questions about the Young Creatives Book Club? Stop in and ask at the EXCEL Lab, or email

Michael Malis on Self-Employment and Living In Between Genres

A graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Michael Malis (b. 1988) is a composer, pianist, and music educator based in Detroit, MI. He performs as a jazz musician, composes for the concert stage, and contributes to multidisciplinary collaborations. In 2019 and 2018, his compositions were commissioned by organizations such as Chamber Music Society of Detroit, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, and the Great Lakes Music Festival. In 2017, he released an album of duets with saxophonist Marcus Elliot, entitled “Balance.” The album was praised by the Detroit Metro Times as “contemporary jazz of the highest order, a benchmark for where the genre can go.” He has been lauded for his scores for film and theater, which have garnered awards, critical acclaim, and have reached international audiences. He has shared the stage with such luminaries as Marcus Belgrave, Tyshawn Sorey, William Hooker, Jaribu Shahid, John Lindberg, Dave Douglas, A. Spencer Barefield, Ken Filiano, J.D. Allen, Andrew Bishop, Dennis Coffey, and Marion Hayden. He is currently adjunct faculty at DIME (Detroit Institute of Music Education) where he teaches piano and music theory.

When you were at U-M, what program were you in?

I did a double major in Jazz Studies and English.

Were you involved in the classical side of the school at all?

Not really. I took piano lessons from a classical DMA student and took a couple composition classes, but generally speaking I wasn’t involved at all. That entire strand of what I am doing only came in the last 3-4 years. Of course I’ve always listened to and loved classical music, but I wasn’t involved in it until recently.

What inspired you to start playing and writing more classical music?

I think what it has come down to is that I’m interested in finding new sounds and following my ears. This is just where my ears have led me. When I decided to go back for my Masters at Wayne State University, I knew I didn’t want to go for a jazz degree. Not because I don’t love jazz, I mean, it’s the central area that I work in, but I wanted to treat it as an opportunity to do something that I’ve never done before, to really grow, and to find myself uncomfortable again. I had started to feel complacent in what I was doing so I needed something really different. That’s what drew me to being in a composition department, and being in composition opened me up to a whole lot of different things.

Were they receptive to you navigating between both genres?

Yeah. I was able to write whatever music I needed to write and do a lot of different work within the school. I even did a lot of work with the jazz department, including a trip to Japan with Chris Collins with a group from the Detroit Jazz Festival. A lot of the work that I was doing at WSU was focused on improvised music. Working at the border between composed and improvised music continues to define what I do. To be clear, I am by no means a classical pianist. I play a little bit at home for fun, but I would never do a recital of classical repertoire. That’s just not who I am. But I really respect people who can go both ways and I try to work with musicians on both sides of playing.

So when you were an undergraduate student at U-M, what did you see yourself doing for a career?

I wanted to play for a living. I wanted to be working as a jazz musician. I don’t know that I had the foresight to be thinking about a career. I was thinking only one to two years ahead, and I was thinking, I’m going to move to Detroit and I’m going to try really, really hard to work with older musicians, because I wanted the mentorship of older musicians. So that’s what I did. That period of time was when I really started discovering what it is I want to do and how I want to do it.

Is there anything that you are doing now that you never would have thought you would be doing for a living?

Yeah. For starters, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be writing chamber music. That concept would have been totally foreign to 21-year-old Michael.

What would have also been surprising is that I’ve had to really learn how to relate to 6-year olds. I’ve had to get good at teaching young kids how to play piano and read music. My first gig out of college was teaching at a music school and I had around 40 students. I continue to do a lot of private teaching and I have a wide range of students. Some are adults getting back into playing, and some are serious musicians working on music theory skills, but other than that it’s mostly kids ages 5-15. I’ve also been able to do some really cool interdisciplinary work with theater and dance, which has felt really good and I’ve tried to do as much as I possibly can.

How did you get involved with interdisciplinary collaborations?

The first meaningful collaboration was with a theater company called Fratellanza. The founders, Paul Manganello and Jim Manganello are brothers and both U-M graduates. I’ve worked with Fratellanza on two shows and with Paul on another, which we just wrapped up at Cleveland Public Theatre back in April.

What else do you do as part of your career?

I spend a lot of time just gigging. Often times it is creative, and sometimes it’s not. For example, I play organ at a church and I also play weddings. But if you want to be a working musician, you have to be able to create your own opportunities. It can’t always come from the top down, sometimes it has to come from the bottom up. That DIY, entrepreneurial spirit is one of the hallmarks of the city of Detroit. I feel like every time I book a show under my own name, it has come from the mentality of me just getting out there, pounding the pavement and making it happen. You need to decide how important this is to you, and are you willing to put yourself on the line to make it happen.

How do you network?

Oh man. I feel like I’m bad at networking when I’m trying too hard at it, and always better when it’s happening organically. The best thing you can do is just be honest and genuine and be yourself. Doing things that are just good things to do that might not seem like networking can actually be the best networking, like showing up to people’s show, being a substitute for someone, or giving somebody a ride to the airport. Be the person that can show up for people. The music business is a people business, so you have to be a person that others want to be around. You have to make the people around you look good, feel good, and sound good. Just be a friend.

What is your advice to current SMTD students?

Get yourself financially literate as soon as you possibly can. In this business you are probably going to be self-employed, and self-employment means all the finance stuff gets even harder. And it continues to get harder as you make more money and you take on more responsibilities. It is never going to get easier, so start implementing systems that work for you as soon as possible. Money is a huge stressor, especially for people in our profession, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. That’s something that 31-year-old me wishes he could go back and tell 21-year-old me.

Malis is recording an EP of original music this fall. Look for a winter release date!

EXCELcast: Project Trio

Project Trio is an eclectic group from Brooklyn, NY, whose music defies genres and expectations. In this EXCELcast with Jonathan Kuuskoski, the group discusses tactics on establishing a unique performing business, the “cosmic whole note,” and some important aspects of their work as a group.

The Trio also discusses how they were founded. “We all had an eclectic taste in musical styles that we like to listen to,” mentions Peter Seymour, group member, “We take from rock, hip hop, and the methods that bands use to come together to learn how to run our business.”

Listen to this EXCELcast for more great advice and to get to know the amazing Project Trio.

EXCELcast: Christopher Koelsch

In this EXCELcast Christopher Koelsch, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Opera, talks about his own position as well as transitioning from a performing arts student into an entrepreneurial role.

Jonathan Kuuskoski, Director of EXCEL, discusses ideas and themes with Koelsch such as: going into such an important and powerful position, making a change within an organization, dealing with discipline in entrepreneurship, and simple first steps to make progress in the arts from day one of studies.

Check out this great EXCELcast, which gives fascinating tips to aspiring artists and entrepreneurs alike!

EXCELcast: Paolo Debuque

Follow Melissa Coppola and Paolo Debuque in a conversation about the Meridian Vocal Ensemble. This EXCELcast features some of Paolo’s thoughts and inspiration for creating the ensemble, as well as in what direction it is heading.

Debuque explains how he and his co-founders wanted to bring choral music to local audiences and create a real community for collaborators and artists. The ensemble today is between 8–12 singers who want to re-shape the vocal cannon for the 20th century.

Find out more about this incredible ensemble, how it was formed, and some of Debuque’s thoughts on forming this ensemble.

EXCELcast: Yarn/Wire

Yarn/Wire is a percussion and piano quartet, and one of the laureates of the MPrize. In this EXCELcast, they talk about their origins as an ensemble, as well as the many important aspects that go into sustaining a career in new music.

Some other important themes brought up in this EXCELcast include: how to engage with an audience or use space, what to do when you don’t know what should happen next in the ensemble’s career, when to discuss ensemble aesthetics as a group, and creating a career with momentum by turning short-term savings into long-term investments.

Take a look at this interesting and informative EXCELcast, hosted by Jonathan Kuuskoski.

EXCELcast: Britt Baron

In this EXCELcast, EXCEL director Jonathan Kuuskoski interviews with Britt Baron, SMTD Alumna and cast member of the Netflix series: GLOW (Glowing Ladies Of Wrestling). Baron discusses the process she went through in order to get through the audition and in the series. She also gives great tips to those who are interested in auditioning for larger roles in film or theatre.

Some other themes of this EXCELcast include: learning to adapt to such an iconic theatrical role, getting over any fears in acting, the auditioning process, and her own life story: how she got to where she is now.

Check out this EXCELcast for even more great tips and stories from Britt Baron!

EXCELcast: Aaron Dworkin

In this EXCELcast, Aaron Dworkin—former Dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance—discusses his 2017-2018 courses offered at the University. Aaron Dworkin is the founder of the Sphinx Organization, an incredible organization dedicated to promoting diversity in the Arts.

Dworkin explains the difficulties and effort that he went through in order to form the Sphinx organization, and both discuss the opportunities that can be found through the University and EXCEL today. Dworkin’s class on Creative Entrepreneurship highlights how to think like an entrepreneur, establishing a mindset in order to turn ideas into stable enterprises, and much more.

His second class—Arts Leadership Forum—brought in well-known artists and entrepreneurs to talk to students about getting past those initial barriers in starting an organization. Dworkin expands on the opportunities that students can look for today in pursuing entrepreneurship through the arts, and he furthermore gives inspiring advice to those who wish to follow through with ideas they might have for the future of the Arts.

EXCELcast: International Contemporary Ensemble

The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is an ensemble that is “transforming the way music is created and experienced.” In this EXCELcast, follow Jonathan Kuuskoski as he asks ICE members Ross Karre and Claire Chase about their experiences forming the group and running it at an international level.

Some highlights of this EXCELcast include: defining cultural advocacy vs cultural entrepreneurship, international collaboration, the term “sustainability,” and some fantastic tips on running your own unique, collaborative arts ensemble or collective.

To find out more about the ensemble and to get helpful tips for your own ensemble or artistic journey, check out the EXCELcast video!