Central students record professional music videos of original songs.
It was a dream Gabriel Espinosa cherished for years. The ‘80 Central grad and associate professor music wanted to push his ALMA students to write original songs. Formerly known as Vocal and Instrumental Combos, ALMA students perform in a style familiar to many music lovers, that of the small band (guitars, drums and piano) and a vocalist. Pop hits, Broadway standards and jazz favorites were all a part of their repertoire. But Espinosa wanted to go further.
“2016 was my 20th year doing combos, and I thought maybe it’s time for us to try writing our own material,” Espinosa says. “Throughout the years, some students have expressed interest in writing their own songs.” In 2016, a larger number of students than usual wanted to write songs, and they showed Espinosa their compositions. He saw potential. The students worked hard polishing their songs and ALMA performed some of them at concerts throughout the year.
“I had encouraged students to get to the next level, and they had delivered,” Espinosa says. He wanted to reward the students and told them their songs would be recorded in some form. But he didn’t yet know how.
Espinosa turned to a former student making a name for herself in the Chicago music world. Molly Lehr ‘08 participated in ALMA (then combos) as a student. A psychology major, she says she never really believed she could have a career in music—until she met Espinosa.
“I was pretty skeptical of a career in music while I was at Central,” Lehr says. “Gabriel was a mentor to me and said I needed to consider doing this.” After Central, Lehr studied vocal performance and arranging at Berklee College of Music in Boston, then moved to Chicago where she taught general music in schools and also performed as a singer and songwriter. In 2016, Lehr opened Red Cloud Studio in Logan Square, Chicago. She teaches voice and piano lessons, and the studio is thriving. Without the push into music from Espinosa, Lehr says her career would have gone in a different direction. So when Espinosa called looking for help with the music video project, she was happy to jump into action.
“Gabriel has visions for things and makes them happen,” Lehr says. “He gives a lot to students. Nobody supports students the way he does.”
With funding provided by the Central music department, and logistics help from Lehr, Espinosa arranged for four students plus Lehr to record their original songs at a studio in Chicago with professional musicians. They traveled to Chicago in July and hit the recording studio.
Sam Moss ’18 says, “It was humbling to be surrounded by so many smart and talented people. I think it helped me grow a lot — to work with professionals in addition to my peers.”
Espinosa hopes having professional music videos will help the students to compete in a time when artists need to have a presence online. “Today, lots of people get their recordings out with social media,” he says. “If we get them to the point where they have something to share, that’s a good step for them. Then it could go anywhere.”
That’s part of the reason Espinosa changed the name of the group from Vocal and Instrumental Combos to ALMA, which means “soul” in Spanish. He says no matter where students end up, there is one thing he wants them to remember: “Make sure everything you do with music, you follow your heart and your soul.”
Current career: Owner and teacher at Red Cloud Studio in Chicago
During undergrad at Central, Molly Lehr wasn’t sure a career in music was possible. But Gabriel Espinosa encouraged her to pursue her passion, and she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston for graduate school, studying vocal performance and arranging. Lehr then moved to Chicago where
she taught general music at an elementary school and performed as a singer and songwriter. In 2016, Lehr opened Red Cloud Studio in Logan Square, Chicago, where she teaches voice and piano lessons.
Lehr still writes and performs her own music as well, something she wanted to devote more time to now that Red Cloud is off the ground.
“Opening my studio allowed me to be creative with music in a new way. Now that the studio has some momentum, I can turn that creative energy back to writing music,” she says.
Her song, “Come Back Home,” is “a moody love song to the little acreage I grew up on,” she says. It’s a story of growing up in the country, moving to the city, and wondering what makes a home.
It takes guts to sing your heart out in an empty room, says Sam Moss. She’s been singing and interacting with live audiences for nearly ten years, but recording her own music offered a new challenge.
Moss started writing songs as a sophomore at Central, while learning classical composition in class. “I didn’t know it would be so good to express myself until I did it,” she says. “And then I was hooked. It was a personal form of therapy—and I got to share my music with others.”
It wasn’t long before Moss got her friends excited about writing their own music too. Then Gabriel Espinosa shared his big idea. “He said, ‘We are going to record your music. We will find a way,’” Moss recalls. “He was determined to make a case for the investment, and it worked out better than I ever expected.”
It’s too easy to write a sad song, Moss says, and she decided to challenge herself with something upbeat. “A Little Bit of Everything” is inspired by the friends she lives with on campus—women who bring light to each other’s lives. “It’s about someone imperfect, but so fun to be around,” she says.
After graduating from Central, Moss plans to keep writing, becoming a better musician, and exploring possibilities in music therapy.
A frustrating moment inspired Elizabeth De Vries’ original song, “I Need You to Stop.” “I was talking to someone after class,” she says, “and as the song says, I needed to say, ‘I really need you to stop and hear what I am saying.’ I sat down one day, and this song just came out while I played with a few progressions.” (Spoiler alert: De Vries says, “This person is actually one of my best friends now.”)
De Vries began writing songs while studying music education, composition, theory and performance at Central. She is a member of A Cappella Choir, Chamber Singers, combos and Dutch Boom Drumline.
It all started, De Vries says, when she auditioned for a scholarship with a popular song. Pianist Paul Kovacovic, then assistant professor of music, accompanied her during the audition, then introduced her to Gabriel Espinosa.
Espinosa offered De Vries a place in ALMA then and there. De Vries remembers, “He said, ‘We’ll perform concerts with songs you hear on the radio.’ No school had anything like this. I wanted to be here, and I wanted to do that.”
De Vries plans to be a music teacher after completing her K-12 endorsement and hopes to show students of all ages what music can do.
Cody Walter has been singing forever but didn’t become part of a vocal group until his senior year in high school. At Central, he performed with A Cappella Choir, Chamber Singers and ALMA, where he also sang his first-ever solos.
When director Gabriel Espinosa challenged students to write their own songs, Walter said the group also enjoyed a new sense of competition. “It was awesome,” Walter says. “Everyone got into it, and we fed off each other’s drive.”
So, what inspired Walter’s song? He isn’t sure, but when inspiration struck, the song was nearly complete in a matter of minutes. “I knew I wanted to write a love song,” he says. “I think I’d been trying to express that song for a while. Then it all came to me at once.”
Before this project, Walter had recorded songs with his own equipment, but this was a completely new experience. “This was totally different,” he says. “It was really cool to watch the song take shape as professional musicians hone in on what you want in your song and express that. It was an incredible experience, and I’m really happy Gab pushed us all to succeed and create our own music.”
After graduating from Central last spring, Walter has been working at Mercy Medical Center and planning for his future ambition of medical school.
“I’ve been singing with my dad since I could talk,” says Mack Fuller. However, she didn’t share any of her songs with listeners until last fall, when Gabriel Espinosa invited her to perform one in a combos concert.
Studying music at Central is an adventure in finding your own sound, Fuller says. “My professors helped me find my own voice—to discover the sound of Mack Fuller. Professor (Sarah) Van Waarduizen encouraged me to use my understanding of anatomy to pursue better singing—there’s a powerful effect from using the right muscles! One day, I went in to sing with Professor (Mark) Babcock, and something came out of me, and I was like—whoa!”
Fuller took on Espinosa’s challenge to write a new song each week. “Some are good, and some are really bad,” she says. In any case, Fuller says her experiences at Central were rich with inspiration for “More than Mistakes.”
When she started at Central, Fuller declared a theatre major. “I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted—and I was wrong,” she says.
Now, Fuller is on track to graduate with majors in music and biology as part of Central’s pre-medicine track. “If that doesn’t say what Central can do for you, I don’t know what does,” she says. “Central helped me realize what career I really wanted—and gave me the courage to say it out loud.”