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Music trumps medicine for sax player

Doctoral student steps away from science and forms a new USC Thornton ensemble

saxophone quartet, USC Thornton students
John Hallberg, Isaac Lopez, Emma Reinhart and Andrew Harrison, from left, met at USC Thornton. (Photo/Randall Harrison)

A class project led to the formation of Fiero, a new saxophone quartet at the USC Thornton School of Music. However, the ensemble might never have met if doctoral student Andrew Harrison, Fiero’s founder, didn’t love the saxophone.

“My parents groomed me to enter the medical field,” said Harrison, whose group includes doctoral students Isaac Lopez and John Hallberg as well as undergrad Emma Reinhart. “I started college as a pre-med major, and I took saxophone lessons for fun because I had a small music scholarship. Saxophone really didn’t enter my life until I was 15, and I knew I wanted to be a doctor since I was about 6 years old. But I realized I enjoyed music so much more than my science classes, and everything blossomed from there.”

With the help of his professors at La Sierra University in Riverside, Harrison began applying to conservatory programs and music departments at top universities across the country. He eventually enrolled at the University of Texas, where he earned a BA and MA in saxophone performance. Harrison began his doctoral work at USC Thornton in 2012.

During his second year at USC, Harrison decided to augment his musical studies with courses from the school’s Arts Leadership (ARTL) program, directed by faculty member Ken Foster.

Designed for individuals engaged in any of the arts disciplines, the program is aimed at artists, arts administrators and cultural workers who want to develop the necessary skills to become successful leaders in the arts. Courses are highly individualized, with emphases on research, discovery, theory and current practice. Harrison pointed to this holistic approach to teaching the “business” of the arts as a major motivating factor to enrolling in the courses.

A band is born

“I know how to play, I know how to perform, but what I don’t know is how to manage an ensemble,” he explained. “Things like booking gigs, how to market, how to create an aesthetic that appeals to an audience — I didn’t know any of that before taking the Arts Leadership classes.”

From these courses, Fiero was born.

“All of the ARTL students have projects they try to accomplish throughout the year,” Harrison said. “For me, the saxophone quartet was the only project that stuck out of several ensembles I tried to form.”

We’re trying to take the music wherever we can and play new works in hopes that people get interested in classical music again.

Andrew Harrison

Although a relatively new ensemble, Fiero has an impressive lineup of concerts scheduled through the end of the year, including a performance with the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble at Bovard Auditorium on Sept. 28. According to Harrison, the group wants to break away from traditional, classical-oriented performance venues in hopes of exposing a wider audience to the rich history of the saxophone.

“Our goal is to play for general audiences,” he said. “Saxophone is heavily involved in the contemporary music scenes, but some people don’t know that classical saxophone exists. We’re trying to take the music wherever we can and play new works in hopes that people in our generation, and those younger, get interested in classical music again.”

Learning the music business

Harrison credits two ARTL courses, “Issues in the Arts and the Contemporary World” and the “Arts Leadership Practicum,” with offering the insight he needed as a performing musician to approach his career in a more professional and business-minded manner.

“My ARTL classes offered me a bunch of skills I didn’t have as a musician,” he said. “It essentially turned me into a businessman. Those tools are more valuable in the performing world than knowing how to play one’s instrument.”

For now, Harrison hopes to use the knowledge from his ARTL courses to further establish Fiero as an exciting new local presence on the Los Angeles music scene.

“Ken Foster has been mentoring us on the business side of running an ensemble,” he said. “We want to be an LA-based ensemble, and this is a great place to do so. When you’re a grassroots organization, it’s important to build a fanbase where you live and branch out from there.”

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