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ASU Launches Ambitious Popular Music Program in Metro Phoenix

Erin Barra-Jean heads the popular music program at ASU.EXPAND
Erin Barra-Jean heads the popular music program at ASU.
Caesar Jean

It’s been a tough six months for musicians who make their living performing, amid canceled events and venues temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19. Even so, the School of Music at ASU decided to launch a popular music program this fall, with just over 30 students taking part so far.

“The School of Music has been aware that many of its students lead shadow lives, working as musicians playing more popular music even as they study traditional classical music,” says Steven Tepper, Dean for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU. “The program really came about through the interest of students.”

But it’s also a reflection of the changing music landscape. “Flourishing in the 21st century requires a more eclectic approach to music-making that incorporates classical and contemporary and popular and digital forms,” he explains. “Opportunities in the music world are growing, and being a jack-of-all-trades is useful for navigating one’s career.”

The popular music program is headed by Erin Barra-Jean, a musician and songwriter who describes herself as a “creative Swiss Army knife.” She started playing piano when she was 4, and recalls growing up with parents who listened to both classical and contemporary music — as in Dvorak, Mendelssohn, The Doors, and Bonnie Raitt.

Barra-Jean graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2006, then discovered some shortcomings in her classical training. “I didn’t have much of an employable skill set and I was desperate to make money.” So, Barra-Jean turned to YouTube and other platforms, watching tutorials that honed her digital skills. Today, she considers herself an electronic musician, although she’s recently resumed piano training after taking a 14-year break.

The popular music concentration within the bachelor of arts in music degree is designed to foster musical and entrepreneurial skills. It’s open to both people who play music and non-instrumentalists such as producers and DJs. “Musicianship manifests itself in so many ways,” Barra-Jean says. She’s excited about the mix of skill sets and viewpoints in Phoenix, and working to forge connections between ASU’s program and the local music scene. “I’ve been really impressed by the community of musicians that already lives here.”

She’s already working to grow the program. By next fall, Barra-Jean would like to have 100 students enrolled, and she’s hoping to reach 200 participants within two years.

Rendering for an ASU residence hall and entrepreneurship center being built in downtown Phoenix.EXPAND
Rendering for an ASU residence hall and entrepreneurship center being built in downtown Phoenix.
Studio MA/Capstone Development Partners LLC

For now, the program is based in Tempe. But it’s scheduled to move to downtown Phoenix for fall 2021, where ASU is currently building a new residence hall and entrepreneurship center on Fillmore Street. The first three floors will include recording, performance, and other spaces. Student housing will go above them.

Popular music will share space with fashion, as well as design and architecture. It’s an approach designed to allow for plenty of collaboration. Tepper notes that music is an integral part of multiple industries, including advertising, film, gaming, health, and retail. “We’re in an experience economy,” he says, “where digital technology and digital media in all its forms are powerful tools for storytelling.”

It’s all part of the larger context at ASU, which includes building additional facilities for interdisciplinary programs. Tepper says a science and technology building taking shape at Rural Road and University Drive in Tempe will include “some kind of space for arts and design” and a facility near Mesa Arts Center that’s scheduled to open in January 2022 will include film, immersive media, and digital culture. They’re even renovating the historic Herald Examiner building in Los Angeles, where they plan to bring film and journalism programs, as well as performance spaces, on board in 2021 or 2022.

Meanwhile, Barra-Jean is working to grow the popular music program, thinking about the all the ways ASU students could make an impact on the cultural landscape in metro Phoenix and beyond. “They’ll be part of creating a more vibrant and exciting music scene for years to come.”

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