A Magical Run: UNH’s Pipeline to the Grammy Awards
A Magical Run: UNH’s Pipeline to the Grammy Awards

by Jackie Hennessey

The late blues rock legend Johnny Winter loved to perform live, and when he recorded, he didn’t like wearing headphones. That presented a challenge for Brendan Muldowney ’04, the tracking engineer on Winter’s last album, Step Back, as he was in charge of capturing all the sound on the record. “Typically you don’t want any outside noise at all,” he said. But he piped music through speakers in the Carriage House Studios in Stamford as Winter sang the vocals. “I had to get crafty,” Muldowney said.

Crafty, as it turns out, paid off well. He got the sound he wanted; Winter loved it, and the record – Winter’s last – won last year’s Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. Step Back features many well-known guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, who were influenced by Winter, and Muldowney worked on capturing all of their sounds.

It wasn’t Muldowney’s first experience with the Grammys; he was nominated in 2011 for his work on Seth Glier’s The Next Right Thing in the Best Engineered Album – Non-Classical category. He walked the red carpet, attended the ceremony and, while he didn’t win, chatted up musicians and producers at the after-parties with his wife, Sarah. This year, though, because the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has rigorous rules about how many nominees can attend, Muldowney and his wife streamed the show live on their laptop, watching from their Fairfield home as he won the prestigious prize. “It was an incredible moment,” said Muldowney, who was a music and sound recording major at UNH.

The Grammy arrived in late May. “I wasn't home when it arrived, but my wife signed for it from FedEx,” he said. “We thought it was really funny – what a big deal it is on TV, and here I am pulling it out of a cardboard box in my living room! It was a really fun experience to get it, as I'd never held one before. It was kind of cool to think that the first one I would hold would have my name on it.”

He keeps it on his piano in his home office.  Shortly after he won, he wrote to Michael Kaloyanides, professor emeritus of music and former chair of the division of performing arts and the department of music, to let him know that his professors at UNH “are on my list of people to thank for this award.”

“They encouraged me to become the best musician I could be, and music is the language that’s spoken in the studio,” said Muldowney, who has worked with Elvis Costello, Gov’t Mule, Dave Brubeck and Violent Femmes. “People think of engineering as a technical job when it’s really a music job. It’s great to be able to fix a computer if it breaks, but what’s more important is to speak the language of the people you are working with.”

'Our Education Goes Far Beyond...'

It’s been a magical run for the University’s music department, as Muldowney was the second graduate to win a Grammy in the last three years. John Horesco ’95, an audio engineer who owns his own studio, One Up Mastering, in Atlanta, was nominated for Grammys for his work as mastering, mixing or tracking engineer on records by Mariah Carey, Usher and Monica. In 2013, he won a Best Gospel Album Grammy as the mastering engineer on Lecrea’s Gravity.

And this spring, the Academy informed Jason DeGroff, director of the Chargers Marching Band and director of bands, that he is a quarterfinalist for the Music Educator Grammy Award, chosen from among thousands of nominated music educators across the country. The semifinalists will be announced this fall.

            Jason DeGroff

Kaloyanides called DeGroff  “an inspiration to our students and faculty.” When DeGroff arrived at UNH a little more than five years ago, there were 13 students in the marching band. This fall 260 students, representing every college and many academic departments – an unheard-of 5 percent of the student body – will be playing at halftime at the Charger games.  “Under his direction, the UNH marching band has become one of the leading marching bands in New England,” he said. “He rejuvenated the department performance ensembles and developed new music groups.”

For a small department at a mid-sized university to receive such Grammy acclaim is “amazing,” according to Kaloyanides. “We are absolutely thrilled for them,” he said. Muldowney and Horesco “are doing excellent work on prestigious projects,” he said, but he’s hardly surprised, as “they were driven and committed students who took their studies seriously in a program that provides lots of opportunities to master musicianship, their critical thinking skills and their technical skills.”

“Our education goes far beyond learning how to push buttons and twirl nobs,” he said. “It’s a deeper understanding of how music is mediated and transmitted and how this impacts the art form.” 

Thanks to the University’s emphasis on experiential education, music and sound recording majors intern in recording studios and venues all over the country. The University has a thriving network of alumni working in Nashville, and others are in the industry in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Atlanta and smaller markets across the U.S. 

For Muldowney, DeGroff and Horesco, it’s always been about the music, and each said he’s grateful to have arrived at a University that encouraged and nurtured those dreams.

Muldowney: UNH Was a Perfect Fit

From the moment Muldowney sat down at a piano when he was a little boy, he was taken with it. He began lessons at seven and soon was playing classical music. He still practices an hour every day. In high school, he also fell for jazz and rock, picked up guitar and played in rock bands. By then, a career idea was taking shape. “When I was in high school, I had a little four-track tape recorder, and I was always trying to make my recordings sound like the records I heard,” he said. “I wanted to know, How did these records I liked sound like that? I became obsessed with it.” 

“I’m still like that,” he chuckled. 

UNH’s music education and sound recording was a perfect fit, he said, with its mix of technical courses and music theory. His professors were very real about what was ahead, that this was a highly competitive field and he’d have to be nimble, wearing many hats. “But you’d also have to create a niche for yourself, and it was a given that you had to be great at it,” he said. “Our professors encouraged us to never stop learning. That inspired me.”

His career began at a small studio in Chelsea, “a sweep-the-floor-make-the-coffee-don’t-say-anything kind of job.” He later interned and was a production assistant at Avatar Studios in Manhattan, a sprawling studio where he met many people in the business. But he started to wonder if the career was for him. So he left to play in rock bands, touring around for a year until an opportunity to work as an assistant engineer at Carriage House came up. Just a couple of months into the job, Fahir Atakoğlu, a renowned jazz pianist, was slated to record there, with many top jazz musicians playing on the record, and the engineer suddenly had to back out. Muldowney dove right in. “That got everything started,” he said. 

He’s worked as a producer and tracking engineer but has carved a niche as a mixing engineer, mixing the recorded sound much as a film editor blends and merges film. “It’s much more creative artistically, and it takes a lot longer to break into it,” he said. “You have to gain people’s trust, prove to them you can put out the vision they want.”

The Grammy is an incredible validation for Muldowney. But because he works 100 percent freelance, he’s always working and looking for work. Not resting on laurels, he sends 25 emails daily, checking in with folks in the industry so the next time they need an engineer, they think of him.  He says he sometimes has to stop and shake his head over the life he’s created. He and his wife have a daughter who’s nearly two, and he has work he loves. Like that afternoon, when, after doing a recording session with Elvis Costello, Costello stayed around the studio a while. “He sat there and drank coffee with us and told stories,” he said. “It was great.”

DeGroff: 'There's Something About Marching Band' 

Jason DeGroff says he’s “honored and humbled and blown away” to be nominated for a Music Educator Grammy. “But it’s really all about the band.”

All summer it’s been about the band: ordering uniforms and instruments, perfecting the musical arrangements and the drills for the new Styx and Stones program, making sure all the music gets out to each band member so they arrive with it memorized, checking in with the 110 “newbies,” to make sure they are ready to start band camp in August, checking in with the more than 100 members of the band’s parents group, who make piles and piles of eggs and bacon and pancakes for tailgating breakfasts for the band before each home football game.

From the moment he arrived and met the 13 students in the marching band, DeGroff was recruiting all over campus and around New England. Stephen Klepner ’15, who recently accepted a graduate assistantship at Castelton College and will work with their marching band, recalled his freshman year, when DeGroff  “dragged clueless me around a field teaching us drills by hand.” Later, he said, DeGroff “trusted me to work on design and took my ideas very seriously,” and in doing so, he said, “he changed my life.”

What is the magic, DeGroff is often asked, needed to create a band with such a presence on campus that Rebecca Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs, has called the Chargers “a University jewel”? Or that would prompt Nick Sullivan of Massachusetts to send an email to University administrators after taking his granddaughter to a band exhibition? “All Sara could talk about for the rest of the day was how great New Haven's band was,” he wrote. “We spent the last few days collecting as much information as we could on your school and the admissions process, and you should know that her new #1 goal in life is to attend your school and join that amazing marching band.”

DeGroff said the “extraordinary support” of the administration, the department and the UNH community has played a vital part. It’s happened because he also works daily to create a “home away from home,” a feeling of community in the band, just as his own middle, high school and University of Massachusetts band directors did. DeGroff took up the trumpet when he was young and really liked it; he loved playing football too. During his freshman year in high school, he tried doing both, but it proved difficult. He faced a choice, and the horn won. “Since then, band has been my life,” he said. He met his wife in band. She was in the color guard, and their oldest daughter joined the UNH Color Guard this fall. 

“There’s something about marching band; it’s movement; it’s music,” he said. “It’s working together; it’s pageantry and art and dance. When you are in the trenches with your buddies to the left and right of you and you put it all together, it’s something you can’t describe…you become friends for life." 

At one of their first all-day practices in the hot August sun, DeGroff tells band members that during every performance they must reach out into the stands and connect with one person and perform for him or her. “I tell them, You are going to be in a place where no one knows you, and in 10 minutes they’re going to go from not knowing you to loving you; you’re going to move them in some way and make them laugh or cry. They’re going to cheer and stand up for you. And once they experience it, they love it and they understand.” 

Drum Major Alec Smith ’17 does. It happened at the New England Collegiate Marching Band Festival, when the crowd connected with them and “we realized the potential of the marching band is infinite.”

“He creates a space that is accepting, disciplined and a source of pride for the UNH community and the greater New Haven area,” Smith said. “The Grammy Award would be a wonderful ode to his accomplishments.” 

"Jason’s passion for the band, his boundless energy and creativity is absolutely infectious,” added Lourdes Alvarez, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It has been such fun to watch the band grow and watch the routines get ever-more intricate and elaborate.”

Horesco: 'I Got Goosebumps...'

                                          John Horesco '95

John Horseco can remember that day when he was sitting with producer Jermaine Dupri going over potential singles and album sequences on Mariah Carey’s album The Emancipation of Mimi.

“I got goosebumps listening to the finished mix of ‘We Belong Together,’” he said. “I always knew it was going to be a hit song, but listening to it loud on the huge monitoring system at the studio, it drew me in. It went on to be one of her biggest songs and was later named Billboard’s `Song of the Decade.’” 

That moment of discovery, he says, is the very best part of his job. “When the musicians are locked in a groove, a singer hits an amazing run, a songwriter figures out a perfect melody for the lyrics, and sometimes even a tiny mistake that gives a performance personality… it touches some kind of emotion deep inside,” he said. “Watching something being born right in front of you and being one of the first people to witness it, I can only describe it as a combination of anxiousness, butterflies, goosebumps and pride all wrapped up together.” 

For 10 years, Horesco was the head engineer for Dupri before establishing his own studio in 2010. He likes not punching a clock and being his own boss. When he’s immersed in a recording project, the job can run 24/7, but then, he’s familiar with that. When he was a music and sound recording major, he practically lived in the UNH studio. “I would try to record everyone I possibly could,” he said. He called Kaloyanides, Albert Celotto and Guillermo Mager “great resources.” “I always tried to pick their brains about techniques,” he said.

Horesco is still very much a studio guy – he took up gardening just to get outside in nature during daylight hours more often – and he continues to work on songs that become hits. He was the mastering engineer on “Cheerleader” by Omi, a song that spent much of the summer at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list and was dubbed by many in the media as the “song of the summer of 2015.”

Horesco is quick to point out that there were songs he thought would make it that “never saw the light of day, and that’s a little frustrating because you feel a certain attachment to them, and it is as if a part of you gets left behind,” he said. “But there is always a new song tomorrow.” 

Horesco, DeGroff and Muldowney all say they are happy to have work they love. “It’s been quite a journey so far,” Muldowney said. “Sometimes I realize, ‘Wow, I used to dream about meeting this person, and now I’m working with him.’”

Fall 2015

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