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Aspiring musician combines composition, music theory, performance degrees

Vashawn Arora

April 23, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Vashawn Arora’s intellectual curiosity and musical drive have challenged him to explore snippets of musical styles that have intrigued him and led him on a path to create his own unique style.

Arora will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in performance (clarinet) and a Bachelor of Music in music theory and composition (theory). He will also graduate with honors from Barrett, The Honors College, and is the recipient of the Outstanding Creative Arts Award as a 2021 Outstanding Graduate.

“During this past year when many artists found it difficult to stay motivated with their work, my clarinet professors encouraged me to take the time to improve as an artist in new ways,” Arora said.

What began as his Barrett, The Honors College thesis culminated in an album of his music, “This is Jam Music,” that is scheduled for release on digital platforms later this year.

Arora’s thesis involves nearly every stage of creating an album — writing music, learning recording and editing techniques, performing and facilitating collaboration with his peers within COVID-19 restrictions.

“Vashawn's role as a theory tutor, his work on groove in minimalist funk and the impressive scope of his honor's thesis – which sought to combine performance and composition interests with his theoretical work on groove through a transcription, composition and album creation project encompassing both composition and theory – is remarkable,” said Kristina Knowles, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

In addition, Arora has conducted extensive research on the clarinet in the area of multi-phonics and other extended techniques to help promote an acoustical understanding of the instrument.

“Vashawn is a talented, driven and curious musician who has a great desire and drive to learn new music, as well as ‘traditional pieces’ from our repertoire,” said Robert Spring, professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “In addition to his ability to learn written music, he also has a talent in improvisation, and especially in American jazz, which he developed during his time at ASU through listening and transcribing.” 

In addition to composing and research, Arora performs in ASU’s top wind band ensembles and in the ASU Philharmonia Orchestra.

“Vashawn has grown to be an incredibly creative and skillful performer,” said Joshua Gardner, clinical associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “His recital performances have been polished, with attention to detail in not only his playing and collaborating, but also in his exploration and mastery of various musical genres and styles. He takes any opportunity he can find to perform, and if none are available, he will make opportunities, such as transcribing and recording to remain creative and productive.”

Arora received scholarships from the Obama Scholar and New American University Scholar programs.  He also received a full scholarship through Barrett, The Honors College to study abroad in eastern Australia for four weeks in summer 2019.

“The opportunity to study at ASU and abroad would not have been possible without this financial support and I am extremely appreciative,” Arora said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I have been inspired by many different musicians, educators and colleagues along the way that have shared their world of music. I am forever grateful to those people for giving me a framework to explore and express myself.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Through the last four years at the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at ASU, I’ve been exposed to different genres and musical environments that have positively changed my perspective on the function and purpose of music. For this, I have to say thank you to Samuel Peña, community engagement coordinator; Jeffrey Libman, clinical associate professor of jazz studies; and Jason Caslor, associate professor and director of bands. Each of these individuals, among others, have opened up my ears to new music that has inspired my own musical performances and compositions.

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’m originally from downtown Phoenix, so ASU was just a skip over the pond.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My clarinet professors, Robert Spring and Joshua Gardner, have been great mentors throughout my undergraduate studies. They have taught me so many lessons and have seen me grow as a person and a musician. During this past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than doing nothing during this time away from in-person collaboration, my clarinet professors encouraged me to improve as an artist. I took this to heart because it is a lesson that has a much broader meaning. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and do the hard work yourself, especially when everyone else seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Do what makes you happy!

Question: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I have a very dear friend from high school, Cole McLeod. He and I would play frisbee throughout the school year on the grass patches at Barrett. When that area was occupied, we would go to the SDFC fields or the front lawn of the School of Music. We would each become busier throughout the years, but we would always come back to these areas of campus to hang out and catch up.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be attending graduate school for a master’s degree in music. I have auditioned and been admitted into some great programs across the country and abroad. As of now, I’m still deciding which one to attend. I am very thankful for my clarinet and music theory professors, Drs. Robert Spring, Joshua Gardner and Kristina Knowles for helping me through this process.

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