Instructor Spotlight: Louis Rosen
Louis Rosen has been teaching Music Appreciation and Music Theory at 92Y School of Music for over 30 years. What began as a part-time gig to make ends meet when he relocated to New York as a young composer resulted in the Chicago native becoming a faculty fixture. His career as a musician and composer blossomed, too. Louis’ partnership with Broadway actress Capathia Jenkins yielded three albums and return concert engagements at New York venues such as Joe’s Pub, Birdland and Iridium Jazz Club, along with tours that took him from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Harare, Zimbabwe. His work also includes a recent solo album, four musical theater pieces and over 30 scores for plays produced on and off-Broadway and in major regional theaters. Most recently, he composed the score for Lincoln Center Theater’s Act One, which opens on Broadway tonight.
Here, Rosen talks about the similarities between Bach and the Beatles, seeing 92Y change over the years, and the student that inspired him most.
How have you seen 92Y evolve in your 30 years teaching here?
The more 92Y integrates new ideas and reaches out to new audiences, the more successful it is. My sense is that the institution is a bit more nimble now; we’re more able to adapt to changes in the culture and look beyond the present in planning for the future. This is certainly true of the 92Y School of Music.
You’ve taught everything from Bach to the Beatles. What do you see as the link between all these genres?
The most important connection that links all of the music that I teach, whether it’s Bach, Beethoven, The Beatles, Gershwin, Ellington, Dylan or contemporary concert composers such as Glass, Adams or Reich, is that all of these artists have written terrifically well-made, expressive music. Good music is simply good music. Period. And all of this music comes out of a particular place and time; so when one studies the music of a particular composer or era, one is also studying history. When I was in high school, I briefly considered becoming a history teacher. One could say that I did, indeed, become a history teacher; it’s just that I teach history through the endlessly fascinating lens of music and art.
What kinds of New Yorkers take Music Appreciation and Music Theory?
Music Appreciation students range from avid music lovers and concert-goers to people who want music to be an important part of their life, but feel their lack of knowledge regarding the technical elements or history of music is a barrier. The age range is broad—from thirty-somethings to senior citizens—usually folks who are in a moment in their lives when they’re able to pursue interests that take them beyond career and family. My students are usually very accomplished people who bring a lot into the classroom, and that makes the classroom a very interesting and vibrant place.
The same groups of people also tend to take our Music Theory courses; but Theory also attracts the passionate amateur musician who is taking lessons on a particular instrument, or playing in a rock band or classical chamber music group, some of whom even aspire to professional work in the field. The age range among students goes from late teens and twenty-somethings to senior citizens. And our Music Theory classes, similar to Music Appreciation classes, study works across all genres. Our more advanced classes have analyzed the work of composers including, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin, Paul Simon, The Beatles, Harold Arlen and much more.
What was the most inspiring story to come out of your class?
There have been many. I’ve taught musicians in their teens and twenties who have gone on to have thriving professional careers. Perhaps the most delightful story is that of a fellow who began studying both theory and appreciation with me at the age of 68, and who after four years of work decided to return to university and get a Bachelor’s of Music degree. He was 76 when he walked down the aisle to collect his diploma. Before he came to 92Y, he had never touched an instrument in his life.
Who were your musical inspirations growing up?
I was raised on popular music. My father’s favorite singer was Frank Sinatra. He also loved the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein. This music, along with all of the pop music I heard on AM Radio, was my pre-adolescence soundtrack. Classical music wasn’t at all part of my growing up. But it was a small group of songwriters who were prominent in the late 1960s that inspired me to become a musician: Paul Simon, The Beatles, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, all of the songwriters that I teach. I actually only began to study music formally when I was 18 years old. That’s when I discovered classical music. Copland, Bernstein, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin, the theater music of Stephen Sondheim—they could all be added to the list of important influences after I began studying. And I was fortunate in my mid-twenties to have the opportunity of studying in master classes with Bernstein and Sondheim.
You’ve been teaching here for 30 years. What fuels you today?
I’m invigorated by my students. People return to study with me semester after semester, and that allows me to continually explore a vast range of music and history. It keeps me learning. And when I learn something new, I want to share it. That excitement—the wow factor of learning about something and sharing— hasn’t gotten old for me.
Hear Rosen’s original music in the new Broadway play Act One at Lincoln Center Theater, as well as his new solo CD Time Was. Sign up for a class with Rosen in either Music Appreciation or Music Theory.