Faculty Spotlight

Chad Cygan
Instructor of Music

Sept. 2021

Would you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to teaching? Was music always a passion?
My background is a bit strange and spread out, which is why I play guitar, piano, clarinet, voice, mandolin, bass, and many other instruments. I began working in a music store at age 12 and have since earned music degrees from University of Illinois, the Juilliard School, and a soon-to-be-completed doctoral degree from the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition to performing, I have also been teaching privately and publicly for over 20 years at levels from elementary teaching to leading doctoral instruction. Music has always been a passion for me, but connecting the meaning of the why/how of music to everyone has been my more specific passion. This is why I've sung at the Metropolitan Opera, built a synthesizer from scratch, and fronted a ska-band sporting a pink mohawk.

Would you tell us a bit about the History of Western Music course that you'll be teaching in the spring? What are you most excited about sharing with your students? What kinds of activities will they be doing?
This History of Western Music covers major historical periods of "Western Music" but also intentionally links the musical examples to parallels in modern and global music. I am most excited to share with my students how all music can be embraced, analyzed, and appreciated from different perspectives: Beethoven can be enjoyed as disco; Radiohead is really just a Renaissance Music cover band; Jazz isn't really American.

We will be actively finding links and parallels between social structure and music styles/construction. We will use the magic of MIDI realization to turn all listening activities into VISUALIZATIONS to better understand the composition of sounds. You do not need to be able to read music to succeed in this class, but we will feature some notation.

You also teach Chorale in NCSSM's residential program, and vocal-direct the school musical. That must be really difficult during the pandemic. What are the challenges you and your students have faced, and how have you kept the music going? Any cool technologies you can tell us about?
Oddly, I believe teaching in the pandemic has become somewhat easier in the vocal music and guitar and piano courses I teach in the residential program. Producing a musical was quite difficult, but through Apple's Logic Pro (audio software) and Final Cut Pro (video software) we were able to get five separate casts recorded for separate movies last spring. We even had an online student as a lead role in our production of "The Last Five Years"!

We have been able to keep the music going because it is a great social outlet for students (and faculty). Pandemic restrictions have been mostly isolating, but music opportunities can offer a window out of solitary study. Students have been putting in hours of learning, practicing, and recording their performances during the pandemic. While this has been a unique time investment, it better helped prepare students for where the future of the arts is headed.

I'm a very "Apple" person, so I have leaned on Logic/Final Cut for prepping video and audio for learning. Students have different platforms, and we have found ways to connect PC users into recording (Audacity -- free audio software) and implementing MIDI piano and guitar.

Your professional performance background includes opera, oratorio, musical theater, and recital work. Would you tell us more about your career?
I actively work to continue performing wherever I am. Living in New York for over a decade led me to sing recitals, opera, musical theater, and to record backing vocals on countless albums. Being an active community member in the arts usually leads you from one opportunity to the next, which is how I ended up singing at the Metropolitan Opera -- which subsequently led me to a recording studio to lay backing vocals for many popular music artists we all know. Since I have a tough-minded business wife and three little kids, the focus is on performing to support our life together. This focus hasn't prevented me from singing all over New York, California, Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee, Austria, Russia, Germany, and France. Instead, my career diversity has helped me realize that music is not about me or you -- it is about us. In our music history class I hope we will get to learn more about how other people interpret music than textbooks "tell" us about it.

Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in pursuing a career in music performance, composing, theater, or other arts?
Be multi-faceted, flexible, and comfortable with failure. The music industry is savage and the wages are low. You will need to be willing to do hard work with little financial gain to succeed, and it's okay for it to be a secondary part of your "career." Not being cast, or failing in an audition is a good thing. It simply means that was not the right opportunity for you. While the financial gains may be limited, the social and psychological benefits of performing and composing in the arts are second to none. Learning new ways to express and interpret only helps us understand one another and ourselves, regardless of our career titles.

Last, everyone (even your core instructors) has an opinion about something in the arts that they feel they are "unqualified" to say. The only qualification for participation in the arts is a heartbeat. Everyone's input and interpretation has value = you are qualified.

What are some of your interests beyond music and teaching?
I love to cook and to grill/smoke food. Since music is just like a recipe, cooking feels natural to me. Depending on the weather, you just may see brisket during our seminars.

What's a "fun fact" that your students don't know about you?
I turned down a full-tuition scholarship from an Ivy League school to attend another university (I'm still glad I chose that), and I have never lost a game of foosball in my entire life.

Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
When we meet and discuss music, I want us to feel comfortable to risk sharing what we really think. There is rarely a "wrong" in music analysis, but there is always an additional, new way to interpret something. Consider putting together a playlist that you are familiar with BEFORE we meet for class. If I can utilize your music interests in my curriculum we will have even more success together.