Collaborations inspire music graduate to compose music for stage, film, dance ensembles

April 23, 2021

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

Alicia Castillo is a composer, guitarist and singer-songwriter. Her compositions range from concert music to guitar works and her collaborations encompass various interdisciplinary mediums. Alicia Castillo, photo courtesy of Neil Schwartz Download Full Image

In May, Castillo will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in composition.

From a young age, Castillo knew she wanted to be involved in music but was unsure what field to pursue. After taking a few music courses, including composition lessons, at Phoenix College, she delved deeper into composing and participated in her first collaboration with a poet and vocalist to create her first art song, “The Meadowlark.”

“When I heard the first performance of the piece I composed, I knew that composition was what I wanted to pursue," she said. "The moment of hearing my own music being performed and the joy and wonder I felt is one that continuously inspires me and something I still feel every time I collaborate with other performers and artists to premiere a new work.”

“After transferring to ASU, Alicia enthusiastically dove into all the opportunities that the School of Music, Dance and Theatre had to offer,” said Jody Rockmaker, associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “She has written music for the stage, film, dance and various ensembles. It has been a joy to see her rapid growth as a musician as she extends her technique and develops her own unique voice. We are excited that Alicia will continue her studies in the master’s program.”

“I have had so many great collaborations during my time at ASU, but my proudest accomplishment was when I composed the music for 'The Snow,' a 2020 ASU theater production that was later nominated for the 2020 ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence for Original Score,” Castillo said.

Castillo said the collaboration taught her how to work with a director as well as work within a large design team to bring the story to life. Sitting in on the first cast reading, attending various rehearsals, finalizing the music during tech week and teaching the actors songs to perform all opened her eyes to potential career pathways available to her as a composer, as well as the collaboration opportunities available at ASU.

In 2020, she composed a new work, "RISE,” through a virtual collaboration with the ASU Philharmonia and ASU dance studio. Outside of the concert world, she is currently in the process of producing and recording her debut singer-songwriter album "ODDS and ENDS."

Castillo studied guitar with Jeff Libman, Dan Davis and Ji Yeon Kim (who goes by Jiji) and composition with Karl Schindler, Rockmaker and Christopher Norby. She received scholarships from John G. Sperling, a Special Talent Award and the Richard and Babette Burns Classical Guitar Scholarship.

“I am grateful beyond words to have received this funding as it helped me to put my education first,” Castillo said. “Because of this funding, I am also able to continue the next journey in my education and pursue graduate student at ASU in the fall.”

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

Answer: After transferring to ASU, I was most surprised at how large and diverse the student body was. I quickly learned that being surrounded by so many students with different experiences and backgrounds was so enriching for me. Though intimidating at first, I found that it was easy to meet students who shared similar interests and who were eager to work on projects together.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I decided to attend ASU after visiting campus for the music audition experience and attending a few staff and student recitals. Meeting and talking to a few of the talented music students about their experiences made me aware of the wonderful community and great opportunities at ASU. I knew that it was the perfect place for me to grow as a student and have a lot of support throughout the journey.

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

A: I learned so much taking private composition lessons with Professor Dr. Rockmaker, but what stuck with me the most was when he encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone as a composer – to continuously seek new experiences and to be unafraid to try new things. This has helped me grow tremendously as both a student and an adult and to make the most out of my time at ASU.

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

A: Take advantage of the opportunities while in school and seek out collaborations with other students. You truly get out of your education what you put into it. For me, collaborating with other students in the same field and in other departments enriched my educational experience in so many ways – to build relationships, learn from others – and you never know what future opportunities it may lead to.

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

A: My favorite place on campus has definitely been Organ Hall in the music building, where the guitar studio meets. It is a beautiful hall to perform and hear concerts in, and it is also where I have met some of my closest friends and colleagues who share the same passion for music that I do. It is a space where I have learned to improve my own performance skills while surrounded by a supportive community.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be continuing my studies at ASU pursuing dual master’s degrees in composition and guitar performance pedagogy. I am so excited to further my relationships with my wonderful professors and colleagues, as well as continue to seek new opportunities and collaborations at ASU.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would focus specifically on global access to quality education. It is so important that every child is given the chance to grow and succeed, regardless of their background, as well as have access to the support, resources and development that education provides. Children are the future and if given the opportunity and access to quality education, who knows who they can become or future challenges they can conquer. As a future educator, I am excited to work with students and have an impact on them, as my own education has impacted me.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music, Dance and Theatre


Aspiring musician combines composition, music theory, performance degrees

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. Vashawn Arora Download Full Image

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.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music, Dance and Theatre