The “You” You’ve Needed to Be: An Interview With Two Graduating Music Students

By Becky St. Clair

Matthew Guevara, trumpet major, is set to graduate in June with a degree in music performance and having completed the requirements for the pre-veterinary program. He’s finishing up his final quarter from home in Vallejo, California, where he’s sheltering-in-place with his parents, brother, and sister. 

Kelley Polite, voice major, completed her coursework for a degree in music performance in March. Her plan this quarter was to spend time with family and friends and do some traveling while she waited for graduation in June. Instead, she’s sheltering-in-place with her parents and brother in Oakley, California, where she’s lived all her life.

We will definitely miss these students with their fantastic sense of humor, easy laughter, cheerful attitudes, and significant contribution to our ensembles and music program as a whole. 

Congratulations, Kelley and Matt! Please come back and perform in Paulin Hall again very soon!

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Matt

When I was around four or five years old, my family went to visit some family in Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks. Because it was a long trip, we took our dog, along with her favorite toy. During play one day, her toy was thrown into the street and of course she chased after it, but she was hit by a car in the process. Her back legs were broken and I remember watching my aunt and my mom bandage her up and try to splint her legs, and I knew at that moment I wanted to do that. I was going to be a veterinarian. 

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Kelley

When I was a kid I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I had my own little doctor kit I would use on my stuffed animals. But after I found out what you had to do to help animals that were hurt and how hurt they could be, I knew it wasn’t for me and my dream went to being a baker. I even thought about going to culinary school for it.

When did you first realize you loved music?

Matt

I don’t know that there was anyone moment when it was revealed to me; it’s just always been part of who I am. Even before I was born my parents were always playing classical music and I was born into music. It’s just always been there.

Kelley

I’ve always loved music, but I think the moment that I fully recognized it was when I watched The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway when I was 18. It was the first musical I saw live and it’s my mom’s favorite musical so I grew up listening to the music and watching the movie adaptation a lot. I almost cried when I heard the first opening notes from the orchestra and continued to just be so emotional throughout the show. Experiencing the orchestra, singing, and dancing in person changed everything for me. It was like seeing the music come to life and it got me thinking that I’d love to have a job making music and giving the experience I had to someone else.

How did you settle on which instrument you wanted to major in?

Matt

As I said, I’ve always loved and been around music, and through the years I’ve tried my hand at several. I can play the piano–which was my first instrument–trumpet, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, tuba, euphonium, and French horn. 

The funny thing is that for most of my early childhood, I thought I was going to play drums. The summer before fifth grade we traveled to Nicaragua to see family and I spent the entire trip bragging to my cousins about how I was going to be a drummer. Then, two weeks before school started, my dad showed me a video of someone playing the trumpet, and I suddenly knew that was what I wanted. I was going to play the trumpet. I never looked back.

Screen Shot 2020-05-22 at 12.58.57 PMKelley

Voice wasn’t really an option for me until I was 17. My first instrument was the piano and it was only after my brother had started playing did I see how cool it was and when my brother stopped playing my parents really pushed me to continue. While learning piano, I also took up the flute in elementary school and played until high school when I switched to playing mallet percussion. I took piano for eight years before making the decision to quit because I didn’t have enough time and the passion to play wasn’t there anymore. After that I didn’t think of taking lessons again until my parents suggested it. 

I had always liked to sing and was in choir all through elementary and high school but always felt too small and shy to commit to lessons. Then when I was 17, my dad found a studio in Walnut Creek and convinced me to take a trial lesson with a couple of instructors. I clicked with one of them–Nancy was her name–and I took lessons there for about a year and a half until it closed.

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Describe a music-related experience that changed your life.

Matt 

When I was in high school, the music department took us to Disneyland where we recorded a film score. I’d never had an experience like that before, and I suddenly realized I could do more with trumpet besides casual church playing. Everything I thought I knew about music shifted.

Kelley

In my senior year of high school I was in my school’s performance of The Sound of Music. It was the first musical I had ever done and I will always cherish it. I had never acted or auditioned for a show before so it was all new and scary to me. It was a huge learning and growing experience for me but I’ll never forget it. We practiced for almost a year and I put everything I could into rehearsing and the two performances we did.  

Tell us about someone whose positive influence has helped you get to where you are today.

Matt 

Definitely my trumpet teacher in high school, Ian Cochran. My old trumpet was falling apart and not playing well at all, and I desperately needed a new one. One night my dad came home with a Stradivarius trumpet–the gold standard–and he said I could have it if I took actual lessons and got serious about learning the instrument. I agreed. 

I remember my first lesson when Cochran asked me what my goals were. I said I didn’t know and he just started playing crazy things I didn’t even know were possible. I was awestruck. He made it look easy and it was remarkable. Even looking back now I realize how amazing he was, and he was only 25. He started showing me how to do some of the crazy things he’d done, and in every lesson I learned something new. He pushed me to where I am today and I wouldn’t be here without him and the time he took to get me here.

Kelley 

I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve had so many people help me to become who I am today and I feel bad to only choose one. So I’m going to cheat and say, two people. 

Singing-wise, Chalena and Chanelle have given me the most push to get me out of myself to sing. I’ve never told them, but ever since I met them I’ve always looked up to them. Their voices have just been my goal. They have the type of voice and presence on stage that when they sing you gotta listen. When I started wanting to sing in the praise band they took every opportunity to shove a mic in my hand and say, “Sing this.” No matter how much I protested they wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I think that’s the kind of push I needed back then because after that I can’t remember saying no. It was a shift in myself that I don’t think I fully recognized until now but their pestering and pushing has gotten me to where I am today.

How did you choose music as a major?

Matt 

I started out as a biology major, but it quickly felt like something I’d been pressured into doing and I wasn’t enjoying it. It didn’t seem to fit completely. When I realized what did fit, it was music. Music was something I enjoyed wholly and it helped me through some tough times those first few months of college. I realized that if music helped me, it could help others, and I could be the conduit, so I declared a music major. You never know what someone is going through, no matter how happy they seem, which I fully understand. I know music can touch people in ways nothing else can, so every time I give a concert, I have a little prayer in my head: “Let my music show the light at the end of the tunnel to those who need it.”

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What surprised you about college?

Kelley

What surprised me most about college is how different it was from how people said it would be. I had teachers and my brother telling me senior year of high school how hard classes would be and I got it drilled in my head that it would be so serious and hard all the time. Then I got here and realized I hadn’t been told about all the fun I would also have! Don’t get me wrong: the classes were hard and I had to study and practice a lot, but I also had so. much. fun. I’ve met so many people who are really important to me now, done things I wouldn’t have done otherwise and have grown so much. I’m really happy with the time I’ve spent at PUC.

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Tell us about a class you weren’t sure you’d like but that ended up teaching you something invaluable.

Matt 

Orchestration. I expected it to be just “okay” but I had such a blast in that class and I learned so much. I find myself now writing random stuff, orchestrating random pieces. It was a really useful class in the end, and I’m glad I took it.

Kelley

I hate to say it now (especially since Matt just did) because I actually really liked the class when it was done, but…Orchestration. It’s funny now because there were three of us in the class and none of us said much, but I learned a lot. Initially I didn’t know what to expect but there was a lot more to it than I thought. Learning about each family of instruments and how to write for them individually and collectively gave me so much more appreciation for orchestras and bands. I listen to each now with more comprehension and admiration for what is happening during pieces. 

Before we all had to go into social isolation, what were some of your favorite on- and off-campus activities?

Matt 

I absolutely loved nightly room checks as an RA, when I got to see all my residents. I love those guys–they’re my second family. The friends I’ve made here at PUC are brothers to me. When we went off-campus we’d usually go to the movies, ice skating, or grab some food in Napa. 

Kelley 

I liked to check out lots of different places in the area, but the only real regular spot I went to was the Friday farmer’s markets in St. Helena. My roommate and I went almost weekly to get coffee and a pastry, walk the market, and just chill. I did have favorite places to study, though; my usual spots were The Grind, the Napa RoCo, and the third floor of the PUC library. 

What is one of your favorite pieces you’ve performed, and why?

Matt 

Definitely and without hesitation Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major. I’m a romantic classical performer–that’s how I can express myself the most and it’s what I like to play. I love all the romantic arts and music, and this particular piece combines everything I love: The technical difficulty, the range, the dynamics. You have to have it “just right” to sound good, otherwise, it’s just a blob of everything and it’s not pretty. Making it pretty is what makes it different, and I love it. It’s the piece I was most excited about for my senior recital, actually, and the piece I’m most sad I can’t perform for a while.

Kelley 

My all-time favorite piece I’ve performed is The Monk and his Cat by Samuel Barber. I remember getting the music from Dr. Wilkes (my voice teacher) and looking it over and being so excited that I got to sing a song about a cat and it is, like, a “serious” piece of music. It was supposed to be a challenge piece for me and something she thought I would like. Me, not being so observant, thought, “Ok, two pages and in English: No problem.” Then Ellen (my accompanist) pointed out that there was no time signature and the piano played something totally different than what I would sing, and I panicked. But learning the piece was so fun and learning to portray the story of the song made me absolutely fall in love with it. If Dr. Wilkes would’ve allowed it I would’ve performed that song everywhere.

Speaking of performing, Kelley, because you finished the quarter before COVID-19 made gatherings impossible, you were able to give your senior recital. How did it go?

Kelley
Funnily enough I don’t remember much about it! When I perform I put myself into this mode where I give everything that I can and for some reason it makes me blackout until I’m done, lol! I do remember how relieved, overjoyed, sad, and full of disbelief I was when I was done. I had so many emotions because it’s the moment I had been preparing for since sophomore year when I started with Dr. Wilkes. I couldn’t believe that I had done something so huge before, and sad that it was over. 

There were three things that I was really worried about before my recital. I worried about the French set that I was doing because that is the hardest language for me. The second was one of my German pieces. It was the newest piece of music for me and for the life of me I couldn’t get it committed to memory. The other thing I worried about was the thank-you speech I gave. I never like doing speeches, public or otherwise, so it was really tough for me. I went onstage with a written-out speech and when it came time to talk it stayed folded up in my hand the whole time. 

The thing I was most proud of was how I held myself on stage and handled doing a whole concert by myself. Second to that was my performance of My Dear Marquis at the end of my recital. I was so anxious to see how people would receive it and see me go all out for that song. I had so much fun with that piece and I loved that the audience didn’t know where I was going with it.

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And Matt, you actually didn’t get to do a senior recital–yet! Are you going to come back and show off your skills when we can gather again?

Matt

Ha! I sure hope so. I worked really hard on all of my music, and I was really looking forward to performing the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto. Raboy has mentioned to me that they want me to come back next year and give my recital, and I hope that works out.

Let’s talk about how COVID-19 affected your senior year. I know that’s a challenge because it’s pretty much turned everything upside-down for everyone, but what has affected you most, do you think?

Matt 

Honestly, it’s plagued my life. It took away my degree recital, my last quarter of college…if I’d known last quarter was the end of normal college, I would’ve done some things I now won’t get to do. I don’t know if I’ll see some of my friends again, and I don’t get to perform my senior recital–at least not before the school year ends. I already had Senioritis, and now the whole online education thing has made motivation even more difficult. In some ways there seems to be more pressure, in other ways less…it’s just a whirlwind experience that I can’t say I’m enjoying!

Kelley 

It’s been a really strange period for sure. I had no idea what was really going on with COVID-19 until I heard that other colleges were being shut down and even then I didn’t think it was that serious. I had just performed for my last General Student Recital and was preparing to take part in the NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] singing competition and do my drama final (two things that I was really excited for) that weekend, and 3 days later I’m moving out of my dorm room. I had to deal with so much information at once with finals being online and leaving college so suddenly that it honestly didn’t feel real. It felt rushed and incomplete. I was sad about leaving the music building for the last time. It’s been the building I’ve practically lived in since I started in college. 

I don’t like saying this but I felt like I was robbed of the things that I was expecting to do during this time. I was planning on doing some traveling during the gap quarter I had. See friends in L.A., a road trip to Seattle and maybe go up to Canada, stay out in the Santa Cruz mountains with my auntie and live life a little slower. But instead I’m confined to my house with my family who works during the day so I can’t really bother them and a weekly shopping trip to look forward to. I’ve missed a lot over this time and some days I’m sadder over it and other things than usual, but I’ve also gained different perspectives during this quarantine so I choose to focus on those and make something positive out of what I am given. 

Tribute time! What final words do you want to leave for your teacher?

Matt

Sheesh I don’t even really know where to start. Actually that’s a lie. Freshman year was really rough for me because of some things that were happening outside of school. Early on, Dr. Davis could tell something was up and she was there to help pull me out of it, not only as a musician but just as a person. She encouraged me to never lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s something I keep in mind every single day. 

I was also a pretty shy guy when it came to performing, and she pushed me out of that shell. She would always tell me that a good trumpet player has to act like you’re the best person on the stage at any moment, even if that’s not how you feel. She made me learn to be confident and command the stage, and that’s something I also keep in my mind. 

 

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As for Raboy, oh man… He pushed me in ways I didn’t know I could be pushed hahaha. He was tough but it was always to help me become a better trumpet player, especially the last year of college. Originally my degree recital had an entirely different repertoire that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about, and he was helping me prepare for it. He could tell I wasn’t feeling the rep so he told me to go out and find pieces I want to play, so that’s what I did. I practiced them for a while, got pretty confident in how I was playing, and then we started having weekly coaching sessions. I remember that first session. I went in thinking I would be ready to play the show in a week, but man he broke the pieces down in a way that made me reevaluate that, which of course is a good thing. I was happy with how I was playing, but after even just a few sessions, Raboy had me feeling like Wynton Marsalis on that stage. 

Both Davis and Raboy pushed me to become the musician I am today and I promise you I wouldn’t be here without them. They were tough when they needed to be, and a friend when I needed one and for that I will be eternally grateful. I hope that I’ll be able to pass that forward someday.

Kelley

Aw man, I can’t even begin to express how much thankfulness and love I have for Dr. Wilkes, but I’ll try. I met Dr. Wilkes in a time where I needed someone like her in my life. With her big aura and personality that you could literally feel the moment you stepped into her office. She gave me a safe space where I could work and experiment without fear of anything. She basically took the small, introverted girl, put her in front of a mirror, and slowly but surely showed her what she could do and be. She essentially said, “This is what I see, and I’ll help you see it too.” She gave me the pieces, tools, and education that would get me there. 

Dr. Wilkes, if you ever read this, know that you have taught me so much more than how to sing and I’m so so so grateful for everything that you have done for me. I only wish to one day have the same aura you do that people can feel when they enter the same space as me. 

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So, let’s move away from school for a minute. What are some of your hobbies? (When we’re not sheltering-in-place that is!) 

Matt 

Baseball, basketball, soccer…anything sports-related. Actually, speaking of sports, I have a shoe collection, too, which is probably my biggest hobby. It’s mostly Nike, except for the dress shoes, and I have almost 70 pairs now, still in their original boxes. I wear all but four pairs on a regular basis; those four pairs are limited editions I don’t want to mess up. For dress shoes, I prefer Italian-made. They’re just better quality.

Kelley 

I love to read. I haven’t had the time since I started college, but that hasn’t stopped me from buying books over the years. I also really enjoy watching period films and old movies and musicals. Baking is a big favorite of mine, too.

What plans do you have as soon as life resumes a bit of normalcy? 

Matt 

I’m actually taking next year off and working at the SPCA in San Francisco, then I’m hoping to get into UC Davis’ dual program so I can get a degree in music rehabilitation as well as veterinary medicine. My plan is to combine them in my career, which many people don’t realize you can do–veterinary medicine and music? But a lot of times the animals who come into the clinics are really scared, hyped up, and anxious. I want to be able to use music to help them relax and comfort them, and then ultimately help heal them.

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Kelley 

As of right now I have two things that I really want to do when this is all over and things are more normal. I want to have a get-together with family and friends and be able to stand next to them and hug them instead of the current 6-feet rule and no touching. I would also like to just wander around any and all stores that would be open then so that I can just experience shopping with others again. 

Work-wise, my dream career is to be an actor. I would love to be on-stage in opera, musical theatre, or both. Also, if I ever got the opportunity to voice a Disney princess I would so do it, no questions asked. But as of right now I don’t know where I’m going. I’m looking for jobs with theatres and other performing opportunities that could get me in the right direction. It’s a little scary right now but I’m finding my way. And I’ll stick to music while I get there.

If you could go back to Freshman You and encourage them, what would you say?

Matt

There’s a lot I would say. Something like, “Don’t let the naysayers get in your head. There’s gonna be a lot of challenges, but just push through. Never give up. Don’t take anything for granted–take the chance. Do it. You don’t want regrets later.”

Kelley 

I would tell her that even though it has been a rough year there are better things coming. “What happened this past year was a lot and it’ll take a while to feel normal and happy but it’s coming. Experiences and moments that will build you back up and then make you grow–grow into the you that you’ve been needing to be. It’s coming, I promise, just wait.”

 

 

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