Gatepost Interview: Christian Gentry, assistant professor of music

Can you briefly describe your resume and educational background?

Yeah, I come from undergraduate, University of Utah in Salt Lake City, in music composition and I did work in piano performance as well, and then a master’s degree in music theory and composition at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. And then I did my Ph.D. in music theory and composition at Brandeis University just down the road from here.

What sparked your interest in music?

I was brainwashed at a really early age. I come from a musical home. My dad’s a music educator, so he played the piano, taught the piano, composed, taught high school choir, musicals, voice students. My oldest sister plays the piano – she’s a music educator now. My other sister – violin. Another – vocalist, horn player, guitar, I come from a pretty big family, but there’s just music always going. And so, I never felt any pressure to do anything musically, but I did when I started playing piano on my own. My dad didn’t say, “You need to learn the piano,” or anything. And then I started making things up – improvising. And that’s what struck my interest in being a composer. There’s one moment in particular that I remember, that I can really pin down as when I wanted to write music. And that was, I think I was around 14 or 15, and I remember I was at my high school library going through the library catalogue, and I found a brief biographical sketch or something, I can’t remember. I remember what it looked like. It was about Aaron Copland and saying that he wanted to become a composer and he made this choice when he was in his teens, like he was 14 or 15, and I remember thinking at that time, “Yes! That’s what I want to do!”

You teach Jazz as one of your classes, correct?

Yes, I teach a survey course that introduces Jazz and its history.

Why Jazz?

Actually, to be honest, it’s because when I came here, I came here as a V.L. teaching some of the more classically oriented classes like Romantic Music class, Classical Baroque class, Music Appreciation and Music Theory class. But it’s primarily because they needed someone to teach the Jazz class because unfortunately, you may be aware of this, this position used to be held by the late Professor Ed Melegian. There’s a long history here of teaching jazz because he was a jazz performer himself – a pianist. So my background in jazz is a little more oblique. I’m not a trained jazz musician, but I know its history rather well and I know the performance practice of improvisation through composing and through an experimental improvisational band that I play in every once in a while – we have like two gigs a year, it’s not like a big thing. So it’s because there was a need to be filled and I brushed up on my knowledge a little bit more, started really, really investing a lot of time into it, and that’s why. Out of practicality. It needed to be taught.

Do you think every student should take a music class at some point during their college career?

Oh, definitely! I think it should – obviously, like I have skin in the game and I think that students should, because, not as a way to kind of, “Oh it’s nice to get cultured,” and all of that, but I actually think it’s an integral part of the world in which we live. I think every student should be involved with music in some degree or another, primarily because you take a small survey of anybody that you know, and you won’t find anyone that actually hates music. So why I think people should take it is to explore this idea of why do we like music, what makes us like it and how can we explain this experience in a more rigorous way, so that then when you experience music after you take a course that I teach or that Professor Burke teaches, that it wasn’t just like a one-off, like, “Oh, that was cool. I learned that. That’s great, I forget about it.” It’s actually something that then your ears are totally changed when you hear the music, and not only do you appreciate it more, but you actually get more out of the experience and you’re more skeptical of what you’re listening to, and you’re more aware of the process that goes into what you’re listening to. The reason why everyone should take it, is because music is in everybody’s life – it’s a part of everyday life.

What advice would you give to your students?

As far as life?

As far as life, or anything. Or maybe if they’re not sure about music.

Well, let me start with life. As an advisor as I feel like if you really, really like something, like if and you feel a great passion for it, first of all, really dig in and try to understand what this “thing” is about. Why do you want to do it? And if you can’t find the answer, and you still want to pursue a life passion, really look closely at the consequences. Oftentimes, what people do is, when they have to make a decision for a major, they start to weigh things in the balance. “What can I do with it? What can I do with this degree?” And what they mean by “do” is, “What kind of job can I get?” And what they mean by “What kind of job can I get?” is “What kind of lifestyle can I live?”

Do you see what I mean? It’s like this causal chain of decision-making. And unfortunately, a lot of these decisions are based upon some sort of unforeseen future lifestyle. And if you want a particular lifestyle and you feel passionately that that will make you happy, well then follow it. But if you feel passionately about something and you start to see that the lifestyle won’t be luxurious or whatever, don’t let that hold you back. I guess that’s what I would say.

Don’t treat something you’re passionate about as a hobby because that will not make you happy. What makes you happy is if you treat your passion as your life’s work. So, however that applies to music – I mean, we don’t have music majors here, but there’s a lot of people who are interested in music and Dr. Burke and I both are really trying hard with the support of our department to make music a bigger thing, and give people more opportunities, so that they continue that path in some sort of way, and so they don’t have to just abandon it.

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