Music majors complete senior capstones virtually


Photo from the CSUSM Music YouTube channel

Senior music students will complete their capstone projects virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured is Sarah Lehman singing.

Anneliese Esparza, Editor-in-Chief

Ten music students specializing in vocal performance, composition, piano, bass guitar and more performed or will perform in three livestreamed recitals this month. An additional six music seniors performed their projects during their capstone class.

Performances came from homes, backyards and CSUSM’s concert hall without an audience. The performances were pre-recorded, edited together and livestreamed from the CSUSM music department’s YouTube channel.

Music lecturer Dana Burnett taught the capstone class this year. Burnett has taught at CSUSM for 11 years and is the pianist and co-artistic director for Camarada, a local chamber group. She credits her experience with Camarada for teaching her how to host successful virtual performances.

Burnett described her role as more hands-on than in a typical year, as she accompanied some students on piano herself. Despite facing some challenges, she found it rewarding and was impressed by what the students had come up with. 

“There’s just so many different kinds of performances, from metal to jazz to classical vocal, a very poignant collage of music to tribute to Black Lives Matter, there’s reference to family members who have passed; it really turned out to be a very heartfelt project,” said Burnett. 

“I just told [the students], ‘Be as creative as you can; think outside the box,’ and they did more than that. I’m really proud of these projects,” said Burnett. 

I hope a lot of students watch [the recitals] and get really inspired. There are some really world-class performances in this.

— Dana Burnett, CSUSM music lecturer

“The desire to perform and express was there far more than if I had lined them up in a recital hall and said ‘OK, do your recital,’” added Burnett.

Performing virtually came with some technological hurdles, but Burnett said that students with more technical expertise stepped in to make the virtual recitals possible. “We helped each other, that was what was marvelous about this,” she said. 

“I hope a lot of students watch [the recitals] and get really inspired,” said Burnett. “There are some really world-class performances in this.”

Below, we’ve spotlighted three students who performed at a virtual recital this year. To see all ten performances in the three recitals, go to the YouTube channel “CSUSM Music.” 

Rachael Groeneweg, voice

Rachael Groeneweg is a vocalist that can belt out a soulful ballad and sing an aria with equal expertise and confidence. “Opera, R&B, soul, gospel, musical theater, I love it all, I think there’s a time and a place for it all,” said Groeneweg.

Groeneweg had always enjoyed singing as a child, but it wasn’t until middle school that she began her vocal career in earnest. 

“I was in choir, because I had to. There were auditions for this cute little Christmas play, and I just belted it out one day. My teacher was like, ‘Where did that come from?’” said Groeneweg.

Rachael Groeneweg has always loved singing and she navigates a variety of vocal genres and styles with ease. Groeneweg is pictured with her husband, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps.(Photo courtesy of Rachael Groeneweg)

For her capstone, Groeneweg sang a medley of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a French aria from the opera Roméo et Juliette and an original song based on the film The Help.

The latter earned Groeneweg the honor of becoming a finalist for CSUSM’s 2021 Symposium on Student Research, Creative Activities & Innovation. That wasn’t Groeneweg’s only award this year; she was also named the 2021 CHABSS Scholarship & Creative Works Champion.

This past year, Groeneweg has missed being with fellow music students in person. “There is something to be said about making music together in person that just cannot be replaced. It’s definitely been a challenge,” she said.

However, she said that she and the other music students have tried to make the most of it by continuing to make meaningful music even though they’re not in the same room.   

Groeneweg loves how music can bring people together and how it can serve as an escape. “I had a rough upbringing … and whether I was singing [music] or watching someone else sing, it just served as a release. If I can be that release to other people, I think that’s a beautiful thing, and I’m honored to be able to have that gift to do that,” she said.

Sawyer Brown, bass guitar and composition

Bassist and composer Sawyer Brown’s capstone was titled “In the Garden,” named after where it was performed. Three of his pieces were played on the bass and the fourth was an experimental electronic composition.

Sawyer Brown had taught himself bass, guitar and mandolin by 9th grade. He says that music is the thing he loves the most. (Photo courtesy of Sawyer Brown)

Brown’s bass pieces spanned multiple genres, including classical (a Bach cello suite for bass), jazz (the song “Moanin’”) and folk (an original arrangement of “Amazing Grace” using advanced techniques). 

Of the latter, Brown said, “I’ve been working on that piece for a year and a half now trying to get the arrangement properly, the way I like it, and I’m really, really satisfied with the way it’s come out.” 

“It’s incredibly challenging, but I like playing challenging things. It’s just such a beautiful song. I’m a huge fan of it,” added Brown.

Brown’s musical journey started when he began piano lessons at age four. By ninth grade, he had taught himself to play bass, guitar and mandolin. “I’ve always been playing [music]; I like to say I got dropped on my head as a kid and my bell got rung, and it hasn’t stopped ringing,” said Brown.

While he listens to jazz himself, Brown has played in styles as diverse as reggae, hardcore and pop-punk. He is currently in a cover band called BJ and the Bizz, which performs from neighborhood driveways taking song requests from listeners.

Sawyer Brown (right) is the bassist for cover band BJ and the Bizz. (Photo from BJ and the Bizz’ Facebook page)

After graduation, Brown plans to write an EP or album. “I’ve been writing and composing a lot for various instruments, and I’d like to get something out there with my name on it,” said Brown.

A few years ago, Brown was in and out of the hospital and had to drop out of college. When he recovered, he decided to pursue music. “Life’s short, I’ve only got one good shot, so I might as well do the thing I love the most,” said Brown.

To follow BJ and the Bizz, go to their Facebook page. To keep up with Brown’s musical journey, follow him on Instagram or Twitch @sawyeronbass. 

Sarah Lehman, voice 

Many people often associate certain songs with a specific, significant time in their life. For her capstone, singer-songwriter Sarah Lehman compiled such songs into a project called “The Pivotal Melodies of My Life.”

“The pieces I chose had a deep meaning in my musical upbringing and career,” said Lehman.

Lehman’s first piece was “Cardigan” by Taylor Swift. “I had to do a Taylor Swift piece because she is definitely the reason I started music. When I was younger, I remember hearing one of her songs for the first time, then I just remembered being taken aback by it … I kept listening to her music and I kept begging my parents to buy me a guitar so I could write my own songs,” she said. 

Sarah Lehman released an original song, “Could Be,” in 2019 under her artist name Ila. (Screenshot of Spotify’s website)

Her second piece, “Could Be,” showed the next step in her musical journey, as it was an original song that Lehman released under her artist name Ila. She co-wrote and co-produced the song with her friend Tristan Gudino, another CSUSM music senior. 

“It was an incredible experience to get to record one of my own original pieces of music, so I definitely wanted to include that,” Lehman said.

Lehman also performed “Aloha ‘Oe” (a nod to her Hawaiian ancestry) and “My Future” by Billie Eilish. “I had to include that as one of the pieces, just because I’m graduating and my future is wide and open,” she said. 

Her last two pieces, “La Mi Sola, Laureola” and “The Light in the Piazza,” were classical to reflect the training she received at college. “Before I started school, I never sang classical music as solo pieces … [CSUSM professor] John Craig Johnson was a professor who really opened my eyes to the classical world and motivated me to work on something as huge as ‘The Light in the Piazza,’” she said.

Sarah Lehman hasn’t decided which musical path she will take after graduation, but she is confident that she will enjoy making music for the rest of her life. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Lehman)

Lehman admits she was initially disappointed that she couldn’t perform the songs in person, but credits Burnett, the capstone class professor, for encouraging her to think positively and see this as an opportunity. “As soon as [Professor Burnett] started talking about different ideas, I started getting really excited about it,” she said. 

With the virtual format, she was able to get more creative with her performance (such as recruiting two of her musician friends to accompany her for some songs, or wearing a Taylor Swift cardigan during her performance of “Cardigan.”)

“What I’m very grateful for is that I have this video that I’ll always have, and it’s a nice video that I put a lot of effort into,” she added.

Lehman isn’t quite sure what comes next for her. She’s planning on taking a gap semester to decide between graduate school, forming a band with her musician friends or even auditioning for American Idol. 

Either way, she knows that she is in the right field. “Music is my passion … it’s something that I will have fun doing for the rest of my life,” she said.

Video Links

CSUSM Music YouTube Channel

May 1 Capstone Recital (Sawyer Brown, Elisabeth Hoeft and Sarah Lehman)

May 7 Capstone Recital (Tristan Gudino, Rachael Groeneweg and Christoph Rayburn)

– May 13 Capstone Recital (Jared Friedrichs, Tyler Hess, Kyle Scarcia, Cooper Balfour and Alex Goodman)

“You Is (Kind, Smart, Important),” an original song by Rachael Groeneweg based on the movie The Help

“Could Be,” an original song by Sarah Lehman under her artist name Ila

Cougar Chronicle interview with Christoph Rayburn, a CSUSM music senior, from September 2020

Anneliese Esparza is a senior literature and writing studies major serving as The Cougar Chronicle’s Editor-in-Chief. She also freelances for local publications.  After graduation, she hopes to become a reporter (and eventually an editor) for a mid-size local newspaper. In her free time, Anneliese enjoys playing piano, reading, spending time with her family and hanging out with her three cats. Twitter handle: @a__esparza