Eastman School adds jazz vocal track

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The Eastman School of Music is expanding its undergraduate jazz and contemporary media degree program to include a jazz voice track. Tasked with building and designing this new program is Sara Gazarek, the school’s recently appointed associate professor of jazz voice.

A two-time Grammy-nominated vocalist, Gazarek joins Eastman after 12 years at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. Her experience as an educator and performer has allowed her to work across the United States and Canada as a clinician, adjudicator and performer at universities, jazz camps, and jazz festivals, including the Rochester Jazz Festival.

Sara Gazarek
(Photo by Lauren Desberg)

Currently in her first year of appointment, Gazarek is collaborating with Eastman staff to spearhead the creation of the jazz voice track. Through periodic visits to the school, Gazarek has observed classes and met with fellow professors to get a sense of the current program and find new ways to adjust course offerings to best serve the needs of incoming jazz voice students.

“My hope and intention is to build our classes in such a way that our students get a snapshot of what concepts are available to them as they start to develop the artists they want to become,” says Gazarek. “That way we can cultivate individuals and not just a brand of student that graduates from the program. Hopefully this will present an educational experience for our students that can’t be replicated elsewhere.”

Gazarek has identified challenges and goals in developing a program that best serves the vocal community at large. The first challenge: building a curriculum that bridges the gap often found in music academia between instrumentalists and vocalists. In order to promote unification, Gazarek has looked at the current jazz and contemporary media program to incorporate vocalists. 

She hopes to adapt the program so vocalists feel prepared and empowered to participate in all available classes. Gazarek also is building new courses for jazz voice students, from history and repertoire to jazz theory and improvisation.

Gazarek also is keen to take on student recruitment. She hopes to apply her experience as an educator and her work with state jazz choirs and festivals. Gazarek has knowledge of high schools and pre-collegiate jazz programs that typically have graduates that move onto pursuing higher education in music.

With the help of Eastman’s admissions department, Gazarek has identified schools and programs to spread the word, offering free virtual lessons to interested prospective students. She would like  students in this program to graduate not only feeling equipped and capable, but also as individual artists. 

In her second year of appointment, Gazarek will begin teaching the first class of jazz voice students. She finds the opportunity to build the program to be rewarding, and has been met with support from her Eastman colleagues.

“Everyone on faculty in the jazz program is open minded and trusting of this process and supportive of finding something that feels empowering for our incoming vocalists and is also able to integrate with the existing instrumental track as well,” says Gazarek.

“To be given the chance to say I have a vision and create something that hasn’t previously existed using my experience as an educator and performer is the most exciting. You don’t come across this chance very often.”

It is a big reason why Gazarek decided on Eastman, in addition to the school’s reputation.

“It is a small community in the professional jazz world, and there’s a longstanding legacy and reputation for Eastman as one of the best music schools in the country,” she says.

Gazarek has an upcoming performance with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall. She also is organizing a performance at Eastman for her vocal ensemble, säje, in the spring. The Grammy-nominated ensemble, in which Gazarek performs and is a founding member, is a group of four female jazz composer-vocalists who do their own arranging and writing. The ensemble also released its debut album in September.

Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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