Robbie Weisshaar has had a lot of incredible moments as a Blugold, but nothing can top hearing for the first time a group of professional musicians playing music that he composed.
“I was in awe,” Weisshaar says of listening to yMusic play his piece for the first time. “This is the first time I have written a piece of this length, and for this caliber of musicians. They took dots and lines on paper and made them into something real. I have never experienced anything like that before.”
yMusic is a virtuosic chamber group that includes six instrumentalists who met while studying together at The Juilliard School in New York City. The ensemble describes itself as operating in a space where “pop and classical worlds” overlap.
UW-Eau Claire music students have been working with members of the ensemble as part of a yMusic residency program, a yearlong program that brought the musicians to campus for three multi-day visits during the 2018-19 academic year.
Through the yMusic residency, UW-Eau Claire music students — from composers to performers — are having the kinds of high-level transformative experiences that often are available only to graduate students at large music schools, says Dr. Gretchen Peters, chair of the music and theatre arts department.
“It’s a rare opportunity for undergraduate students to work closely with professional musicians at this high of a caliber,” says Dr. Chiayu Hsu, an associate professor of music composition.
The yearlong residency will culminate this month with a special yMusic concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 22, in Riverside Theatre of the Haas Fine Arts Center.
The April 22 concert will include performances by four UW-Eau Claire student chamber groups that were coached by members of yMusic.
Also, during the concert, yMusic will perform six original pieces written for them by Hsu and five UW-Eau Claire students, including Weisshaar.
Blugold composers whose work will be featured at the concert include Hsu; Weisshaar, a senior bass performance music major from Oswego, Illinois, who will graduate in May; Parker Layton, a senior applied saxophone performance major from Minnetonka, Minnesota; Joe Krause, a senior music in piano pedagogy and composition major from Bloomer; Ben M. Phillips, a junior music in composition major from Eau Claire; and Levee Stadel, a senior music composition major from Jackson who will graduate in May.
“I'm excited for the concert,” says Weisshaar. “I know they will do a great job performing the piece.”
The composition aspect of the residency was an incredible opportunity for students to learn about the composition process from accomplished professional musicians, Hsu says.
During each of their visits to campus, yMusic members worked closely with the composers, offering them important feedback and support, Hsu says.
Students had time to consider and implement the feedback they received before yMusic’s next visit to campus, Hsu says.
“It was invaluable,” Hsu says of the ongoing interactions. “It made a tremendous difference that this residency was divided into three visits, which allowed composers to receive feedback from the musicians while work was still in progress.
“That the residency now will culminate in a final performance of six brand new works by UW-Eau Claire composers is incredible.”
Throughout the residency, the musicians challenged students to communicate in a more direct and professional manner, better preparing them for future success, Hsu says.
Weisshaar agrees, adding that the lessons he learned will be valuable anywhere his career takes him.
“I learned everything from how to express an idea using music notation, to how to pace myself with big projects at hand,” Weisshaar says.
Layton says it was interesting to see the process the musicians use when taking a piece of new music from its first read through rehearsals and finally to a performance.
“It was great to see how they work as a group, from the first time they see a new piece of music, to getting it performance ready,” Layton says. “These are working professional musicians who have loads of experience in so many different settings, so they really know what works best for them and how to be the most efficient with their rehearsal time.”
Working with the musicians helped him think about the process of composing music differently, Krause says.
“Working with yMusic on my own piece, as well as listening to my friends working with them on theirs, taught me something important about the nature of composing: we're not writing music, we're writing instructions,” Krause says. “They helped us understand how to clarify our intentions through our notation and provided lots of insights about the pieces.”
He was impressed, Layton says, by how seriously the musicians took their work with the students.
“Not one of them acts superior in any way, and they all respect each other and just have a genuine excitement about playing new music,” Layton says. “Not once did they question the professionalism of the compositions, just because we are in college and less experienced.”
The musicians were impressed and surprised by the quality of the Blugolds’ compositions, especially knowing that they were written by undergraduate students at a public university, Peters says, noting that yMusic residencies typically involve graduate students at prestigious music schools.
Working alongside the yMusic team has made him more confident, which will help him in the future as he builds his career in music, Layton says.
“A big takeaway for me is confidence,” Layton says of the residency. “I realized that often throughout this process I brought them music that I hadn't sold myself on yet. A lack of a vision can cause uncertainty for both me and the performers on what the goal is with the piece.
“Confidence is key when working with high-caliber professionals. Even if you don't feel like you are ready for a high-profile opportunity like this, you need to act like you're ready.”
Hsu and the student composers are excited that in addition to performing their pieces during the April 22 concert, yMusic also will record all six compositions written for them.
During the group’s final visit to campus, April 22-24, yMusic will record the original compositions at the state-of-the-art recording studio at Pablo Center at the Confluence.
Having their compositions recorded by professional musicians will be a valuable addition to the Blugolds’ portfolios as they begin to apply for jobs or to graduate schools, Hsu says.
“I'm proud of what my colleagues and I have achieved,” Layton says. “I’m really looking forward to the concert because it will be a great time to reflect on how much more I know now than I did before the project began.”
Weisshaar, who will move to St. Paul, Minnesota, after he graduates next month, says that UW-Eau Claire has given him the knowledge, experiences and confidence he needs to be successful as he launches his career.
“UW-Eau Claire has changed my life entirely,” Weisshaar says.
Photo caption: Original compositions by Blugolds (from left) Joe Krause, Chia-Yu Hsu, Parker Layton, Ben Phillips and Levee Stadel will be performed by yMusic during Monday’s concert. (Student composer Robbie Weisshaar is missing from the photo.)