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Whitworth professor makes music his lifelong pursuit

Brent Edstrom, a pianist, composer, music arranger and teacher, relaxes in his basement studio at his home on Tuesday. (Jesse Tinsley)
Brent Edstrom, a pianist, composer, music arranger and teacher, relaxes in his basement studio at his home on Tuesday. (Jesse Tinsley)

Brent Edstrom’s job description sounds exhausting: college professor, author, transcriber, composer, performer.

“One of the things I always tell my students is that the music business requires an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Edstrom, who coordinates Whitworth University’s music theory and composition program and teaches jazz.

During the school year he spends roughly 20 hours a week arranging popular music for Hal Leonard Publishing’s piano division, as well as transcribing arrangements by piano jazz legends.

When summer rolls around, the writing workload crescendoes to full time.

If a headliner such as Motown artist Freda Payne calls, Edstrom eagerly hops on a cross-country flight to accompany the soul and R&B singer in concert.

Yet he’s just as willing to entertain a few dozen guests at a local wedding reception.

During a recent interview, Edstrom discussed how the music industry has evolved during the past 30 years and what it takes to succeed as a professional musician today.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Edstrom: In Marysville, an hour north of Seattle.

S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of live music?

Edstrom: We had an old upright piano, and I have fond memories of listening to my grandpa and great aunt jam when I was about 5. He played the fiddle and she played the piano.

S-R: When did you get interested in making music?

Edstrom: For some reason I loved the sound of the banjo. So when I was 6, my dad took me to see Eddie Peabody in concert. That was one of those life-changing moments. When I was 7, my parents rented a banjo for me to learn on, and later purchased a better instrument.

S-R: Were you an enthusiastic music student?

Edstrom: Mostly. There were times when I questioned it, even in grad school. But I’ve always had a deep love for music, and can’t imagine doing anything else.

S-R: Do you remember your first public performance?

Edstrom: It was probably in an elementary school talent show, when I was around 8 or 9. I think I played an old standard called “Five Foot Two” (aka “Has Anybody Seen My Girl?”).

S-R: When did you switch to piano?

Edstrom: In sixth or seventh grade. By the time I reached high school, I was playing in jazz and rock bands.

S-R: What drew you to WSU’s music program?

Edstrom: When I was still in high school, Greg Yasinitsky, the head of jazz studies at WSU, encouraged me to send him some of my arrangements, and he had the WSU jazz band play them, which was pretty exciting for a high school kid. I also took a master class with Loran Olsen, another faculty member.

S-R: What did you do after graduating?

Edstrom: I worked for two years as a freelance musician, then earned my master’s in jazz studies and contemporary media at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

S-R: How has your career evolved?

Edstrom: I started out freelancing with Hal Leonard Publishing while also playing gigs and teaching part time. I joined Whitworth’s faculty full time 16 years ago.

S-R: As a tenured professor, you don’t really need to do anything else, do you?

Edstrom: No, but performing professionally allows me to bring practical, real-world experience into the classroom. When I teach theory, it’s through the lens of using the stuff on a daily basis. If someone asks what I do for a living, I don’t say “teacher.” I think of myself as a musician.

S-R: When students express interest in professional music careers, what advice do you offer?

Edstrom: I encourage them to follow their bliss. But I also stress the need to be entrepreneurial. Higher ed tends to do a poor job of training students in that aspect. I understand that music is art, and we don’t want to cheapen it by focusing on the financial aspects. But we do a disservice if we ignore that side of being a musician.

S-R: How has the profession changed since you entered the field?

Edstrom: Technology has had a huge impact. Even as recently as 20 years ago, if you wanted to do studio work, you needed to be in L.A., New York or Nashville. Today, I can collaborate on national projects from my own humble home studio.

S-R: How else has technology affected the way you earn income?

Edstrom: It’s made me more efficient as an arranger. When I first started, everything was done with pencil and paper, which can be very time-consuming. Computers make it much easier. Imagine what someone like Bach would have done with today’s technology.

S-R: What about technology’s negative side?

Edstrom: One impact is less control of intellectual property. When someone downloads one of my books – like “Musicianship in the Digital Age” – without paying, that’s a problem.

S-R: What has surprised you about this career?

Edstrom: When I was younger, I either performed or taught, and that was it. Gradually I’ve realized how vast the industry is and how many opportunities there are.

S-R: Did the recession affect your business?

Edstrom: Actually, I stayed fairly busy. My understanding is that people tend to get into more lasting pursuits like music during hard times.

S-R: How many hours a week do you devote to your career?

Edstrom: That’s really all I do. Including listening, writing, teaching and practicing, I’d say I spend at least 12 hours a day.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Edstrom: The creative aspect – performing, improvising, arranging.

S-R: What do you like least?

Edstrom: Grading papers. Most professors would say that.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Edstrom: Besides teaching, my contributions as a transcriber. I compare it to archaeology. By painstakingly documenting performances by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans note by note, I help other musicians understand their vocabulary.

S-R: Is it intimidating to accompany great musicians?

Edstrom: Certainly. In the case of (Count Basie jazz trumpeter) Clark Terry, he was calling tunes on the bandstand, so we went out there not knowing what we were going to play, or even in what key. That was terrifying. But once you realize you can keep up, you relax and let the conversation unfold.

S-R: How many jazz standards do you know by heart?

Edstrom: Several hundred. Maybe more. I’ve never counted.

S-R: What are some advantages of a music career?

Edstrom: It’s thrilling to make music. If you’re passionate about it, what could be better?

S-R: Any disadvantages?

Edstrom: You have to be a scrapper if you want to be a freelance musician. Developing a career takes time, and you’ll probably never make as much money as a software engineer.

S-R: Are you ever hired to play music you don’t like?

Edstrom: Sure. In those instances, I still try to be the most supportive player possible. My goal is always to make the other musicians sound great.

S-R: How long can you do this?

Edstrom: Probably my whole life. (Composer, conductor, musician and historian) Gunther Schuller worked until the day he died. That’s the great thing about music.

S-R: If you are invited to a party, do you look for a piano when you walk in, or hope there isn’t one?

Edstrom: If I see one, I want to sit down at it.

S-R: What if the piano is out of tune?

Edstrom: (laugh) I don’t like that so much.

This interview has been edited and condensed. If you have suggestions for business or community leaders to profile, contact writer Michael Guilfoil via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.