CSUN alumni write, produce, perform and immortalize the songs of our time, from opera to pop and rock. Most trace the roots of their success to the university’s acclaimed Department of Music. Here is just a sample of the thousands of alumni bringing music to our lives.
Matador alumna and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung ’09 (Music), Hon.D. ’10 has performed in operas all around the world. She debuted with the New York Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras under Sir Colin Davis. She also has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. DeYoung is touring internationally in 2017 and part of 2018, with plans to perform in Sydney, London and Hong Kong. DeYoung grew up in Colorado and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., before continuing her studies in 1990 at CSUN, where one of her music instructors encouraged her to pursue opera at the age of 20. If she hadn’t made it as a professional by age 25, she said, she planned to change career paths. But no change in course was needed. Her most treasured memories of studying music at CSUN, DeYoung said, were participating in music recitals. “Oh wow, being in the shows, that was a really great memory, the concerts and the recitals,” said DeYoung. At CSUN, her favorite courses were voice lessons with beloved music professor Curt L. Allen, who passed away in 1993. “I had a wonderful voice teacher, Curt Allen, and I had a lot of opportunities through the music department. It was really incredible,” she said. She was in the middle of her studies at CSUN when her musical career took off. DeYoung won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1992, earning a place in the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program. “I won the Met competition while at CSUN, and I left before I graduated with my Bachelor in Music,” DeYoung said. “I then finished that online, then they turned around and gave me an honorary degree (in 2010).” Later in her career, she won three Grammys and released her first solo album, Songs, on EMI Records. DeYoung then turned her focus to touring. In 2015, she had the opportunity to come home to CSUN, when she was asked to sing at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (formerly the Valley Performing Arts Center). It was a very special moment in her career, she said. “It was fantastic, it’s such a fantastic hall. It was a lot of fun. It’s always great to come [to CSUN], because I have so many friends and family that live around there. It was a really great experience.” —B.F.
Diane Warren ’78 (Music) is one of the most accomplished contemporary songwriters of the past 30 years. A Grammy, Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner and an eight-time Academy Award nominee, Warren has penned memorable hits for and with pop music’s top artists — including Lady Gaga, Elton John, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Cher, Aerosmith and Celine Dion, to name just a few. In 1997, Warren won a Grammy for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television, for the No. 1 hit “Because You Loved Me,” performed by Dion. The song was also nominated for an Academy Award. In 2016, Warren was nominated along with co-writer Lady Gaga for an Oscar for Best Original Song, for “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. The sobering documentary explored the topic of sexual assault on college campuses, and her song also won an Emmy in 2016 for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. Warren has been named American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Songwriter of the Year six times and Billboard’s Songwriter of the Year four times. In 2001, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2010, CSUN honored Warren with a Distinguished Alumni Award for her lifetime and ongoing achievements in music. On May 18, Warren, whose first hit was 1983’s “Solitaire,” performed by Laura Branigan, was honored with ASCAP’s Founders Award. The society’s most prestigious honor is presented to songwriters and composers who have made pioneering contributions to music by inspiring and influencing their fellow music creators. —Bridget Fornaro
Singer / Composer
The name Daryl Dragon is hard to forget. But it’s his moniker, “Captain” — which he earned from The Beach Boys when he played as their backup keyboardist, for his ever-present boating cap — that made the singer, composer and actor famous in the 1970s. Dragon is best known as the “Captain” half of the duo Captain & Tennille, with his ex-wife, Toni Tennille. The pair’s pop song cover of Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was ubiquitous in the mid-1970s, and it won them a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1975. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and it sold more than 1 million copies. Dragon was born in 1942 in LA to legendary composer Carmen Dragon and his wife, Eloise. He attended Los Angeles Valley College and then transferred to what was then known as San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) to study piano from 1963-66. He left college to form an instrumental jazz band with his brothers, which released music through Capitol Records. In 1967, he took a gig as a backup keyboard player for The Beach Boys. Band member Mike Love dubbed Dragon “Captain Keyboard,” and the first half of the nickname stuck. Dragon met singer and musician Toni Tennille in the mid-1970s, and their act soon took off. The couple married in November 1975 and separated in 2014. They made music and performed together until the 1990s. Today, Dragon lives in Prescott, Ariz., and he no longer performs. —B.F.
A native of Los Angeles, Jim Berk ’81 (Music), Hon.D. ’11 began his career as a high school music teacher in South LA. His passion for the power of music to positively impact students’ lives led him to found the Academy of Music at Alexander Hamilton High School. The academy grew into one of the city’s largest public school magnets. In 1990, he became the youngest principal in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District when he assumed the helm at Hamilton. Most recently, Berk served as chief executive officer of Participant Media, a multiple Academy Award-winning global entertainment company that focuses on socially relevant film, TV, publishing and digital media. During Berk’s almost nine-year tenure at Participant, 67 films were greenlit, including The Kite Runner, Waiting for Superman, The Help, Lincoln, Beasts of No Nation, He Named Me Malala, Bridge of Spies and Spotlight. In 2015, he returned to CSUN to speak about how disruption can inspire creativity and new opportunities during the Commerce of Creativity Distinguished Speaker Series. “Jim Berk’s prestigious career over three decades has included an incredible impact through public education, as well as entrepreneurship, executive leadership and groundbreaking work in the arts and entertainment industry,” said Robert Gunsalus, vice president for University Advancement and president of the CSUN Foundation. In 1992, Berk became founding executive of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Foundation. He later moved on to the private sector, where he led education, hospitality and media companies as president and CEO of Gryphon Colleges, Fairfield Communities, and was managing director for the Rank Group PLC. In 2006, he combined his talents as a teacher, business leader and entertainment executive to become CEO at Participant. In 2007, Berk was recognized with a CSUN Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2011, he received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the university. —Carmen Ramos Chandler
Producer / Songwriter
Producer, songwriter and musician Mike (Miguel) Elizondo is best known for collaborating with rapper, producer and NWA legend Dr. Dre for more than a decade. But Elizondo’s credits also include producing and writing songs for Eminem, Carrie Underwood, 50 Cent, Maroon 5, Mary J. Blige, Ed Sheeran, Twenty One Pilots, Sheryl Crow, Rob Thomas, Eric Clapton, Natasha Bedingfield, Switchfoot and Pink. Elizondo studied music at CSUN from 1990-94 but decided to leave school before completing his degree when career opportunity knocked. After nearly 11 years working with Dr. Dre and Eminem, in 2011 Warner Bros. Records hired Elizondo as senior vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R) and as a staff producer. Since then, he has signed bands such as Echosmith, the Regrettes, Phases and many more. Elizondo said his goal is constant growth as a musician and member of the industry. When he was a child, Elizondo said, he knew that music was the right path for him. At age 9, he learned how to play the accordion, and at age 12, he added the tenor saxophone and other instruments to his arsenal. As a teen, he attended the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, playing in bands and wondering how musicians wrote their lyrics. It was at Hamilton that Elizondo met CSUN music professor Gary Pratt, who guest-conducted the school’s jazz band. Elizondo later spoke with the professor and learned that Pratt played bass. Pratt also encouraged him to apply to CSUN’s music program. Pratt drew Elizondo to CSUN, as did the opportunity to stay close to home and play professionally in LA. The music professor gave him bass lessons and invited Elizondo to play in CSUN’s acclaimed jazz band while the teen was still in high school. Jazz appealed to Elizondo as a music student, but he also explored classical music when he enrolled at CSUN. As an undergraduate, he played bass in the school orchestra and played in various chamber groups. “The big thing for me was being more involved in the classical department,” Elizondo said. “I was already deep in my studies with jazz and other types of music, but I have a huge classical background. So, going to Cal State Northridge and playing in the orchestra and some of the college productions was really eye-opening to me.” The freedom of picking his undergraduate classes and choosing when he was going to practice was liberating, Elizondo recalled. After he left school in 1994, Elizondo met Dr. Dre through a mutual friend. Dre took him under his wing, and subsequently made Elizondo his prodigy. During their work together, Elizondo and Dre helped create Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), which included the smash hit “The Real Slim Shady”; Mary J. Blige’s 2001 album No More Drama, which featured “Family Affair”; and several tracks on 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2003), including co-producing the rapper’s breakout hit “In Da Club.” That hit, Elizondo said, made him a household name throughout the industry. It also gave him opportunities to work with Maroon 5 and Fiona Apple. —B.F.
Singer / Songwriter
Singer and songwriter Andy Grammer ’07 (Music) released a new single, “Give Love,” this past summer before launching a tour in September, which took him from San Diego County to Australia and New Zealand. The tour followed his second album, Magazines or Novels, and 2015 hit song, “Honey, I’m Good.” That same year, Grammer strutted his stuff on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and sang the national anthem at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series. His biggest role yet — and maybe the most daunting — came this year: fatherhood. Grammer and his wife, fellow musician and alumna Aijia (Guttman) Grammer, welcomed their first child, a daughter, Louisiana K. Grammer. The new dad reflected on CSUN’s impact on his life and career. “The network of friends I made was the biggest takeaway,” said Grammer, 34. “I met my wife, my current guitar player and a bunch of our lifelong friends.” He noted that he began street performing on Third Street in Santa Monica “a little bit while at CSUN, but started doing it full time the day I graduated.” As for the new mom, who performs under the name Aijia Lise, she competed on The Voice in 2016 and has worked as a backup singer for Selena Gomez. She’s also done backing vocals for Colbie Caillat, Hilary Duff, Jack Black and her husband. —Cary Osborne
Singer / Dancer / Reality TV Star
Anyone who watched Fox Television’s hit show American Idol knows her face and music judge persona. And anyone who grew up in the 1980s or 1990s knows her sound. But long before Paula Abdul rocketed to pop stardom with her 1989 chart-topper “Straight Up” and album Forever Your Girl, she was simply a San Fernando Valley girl with a passion for dance. Abdul grew up dancing and cheerleading in high school. After graduating from Van Nuys High School, she studied broadcast journalism at CSUN from 1980-84, where she also was a cheerleader for the Matadors. She left CSUN before completing her degree, but Abdul took her passion to work in entertainment. She landed a job as an NBA cheerleader for the Lakers, and soon rose to the head cheerleader spot. During her time as a “Laker Girl,” top music artists, directors and producers sought out Abdul to choreograph their music videos and world tours. Most notably, she choreographed the Jackson family’s “Torture” music video in 1984. By 1989, it was her turn to step into the spotlight as a singer. “Straight Up” exploded on the music charts, and Forever Your Girl was followed by several other albums. Years later, Abdul joined Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson on one of the most famous panels of judges in TV history, on Idol — where she served as a music judge until 2009. In 2014, she wrapped up a successful season as a judge for Australia’s version of So You Think You Can Dance? Abdul also has turned her attention to charitable efforts. In 2017, she hosted a one-hour fitness session with nearly 1,000 female breast cancer survivors. Her appearance helped raise nearly $1 million to retrofit a women’s breast health center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. —B.F.
Conductor / Grammy Winner
Distinguished Alumnus Richard Kaufman ’77 (Music) is an internationally renowned conductor, accomplished violinist and respected studio music director. His parents encouraged his interest in music from an early age, presenting 7-year-old Richard with a violin and arranging for music lessons. In his multifaceted career, Kaufman supervised music at MGM, a position he held for nearly 20 years before pursuing conducting full time. Kaufman is also a two-time Emmy nominee. He has been a pops conductor with orchestras in Orange County, Chicago and Dallas, and conducted or recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few. In 1993, he received a Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance for a recording he conducted with the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. In 2012, Kaufman was recognized with a CSUN Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2016, fellow Matador and friend Stewart Copeland of The Police reached out to Kaufman to conduct Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, with a score composed and performed by Copeland and accompanied by the Pacific Orchestra — led by Kaufman. “I’ve played a lot of concert halls, and the acoustics and the whole feel of this place really is magical,” Kaufman said before the performance at The Soraya. He’s been a fixture at CSUN Baseball games for years and is a close friend of CSUN Baseball announcer Ross Porter. But perhaps most importantly, he penned the school’s alma mater and fight song, “Hail to the Matadors.” —C.O.
Record Company / Entertainment Exec
Richard Foos ‘71 (Sociology) grew up in Philadelphia, where he fell for 1960s soul music and, he acknowledges, “became a self-confessed music geek.” At the age of 16, Foos ventured to Los Angeles, where he began selling used records out of the trunk of his car and then from bins in the back of a Santa Monica electronics store. While he had a modest beginning, five years later his canny idea of assembling genres of pop, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues would turn into a million-dollar enterprise. In 1978, Foos co-founded Rhino Records (which later became Rhino Entertainment) with Harold Bronson, and the pair compiled novelty records, labeled with the company’s former mascot — an Elvis Presley rhinoceros boasting a black leather jacket. As their business progressed, Foos and Bronson noticed their audience growing — they were captivated by Rhino’s diverse musical tastes and commitment to quality. Foos explained that his achievements wouldn’t have been possible without his degree in sociology from CSUN, then known as San Fernando Valley State College. “A lot of sociology classes focus on how society works,” Foos said. “It helps you predict changes in trends.” Rhino Entertainment was sold to Warner Music Group in 1998, and in 2002, Foos departed Rhino to pursue and expand upon his entrepreneurial vision to create a world-class consumer products company, which he and his partners called Shout! Factory. Shout! Factory has built a solid reputation as a preeminent entertainment media group, serving up feature films, classic and contemporary TV series, animation, live music, sports, and comedy specials. Foos explained the process of bringing feature films to DVD and Blu-Ray. “First, we have to find shows and films that have not been out on DVD or Netflix,” Foos said. “Then, we speak to the rights holders and come to an agreement to license their show(s).” Some of the company’s productions include new, original episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, airing on Netflix; The Boxcar Children movie franchise; and the 30th-anniversary restoration of Hasbro Studios’ Transformers. While Foos is busy as CEO of Shout! Factory, he gives back to numerous charitable groups. He serves on the board of various organizations and is chairman emeritus of Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit whose mission is to transform lives by restoring, expanding and innovating music education in schools. “I’ve spent most of my life in the music business, and I think it’s terrible that music programs have been either severely cut back or cut out completely, especially in lower-income schools across the United States,” said Foos. “It’s been a particular passion of mine for many years. I want to ensure that music is always taught in schools.” —Jan Palma
Record Mogul / Songwriter / Philanthropist
Few names are as synonymous with modern American music as Mike Curb ’09 (Hon.D.). He’s a living legend whose name graces a record label — Curb Records — and arts schools across the nation, including his alma mater, CSUN’s Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication. Curb was elected California’s lieutenant governor in 1978 and served as acting governor in the early 1980s. His company still maintains offices for Curb Entertainment in his native state, but most of the record company is based in Music City: Nashville. In fact, Curb is still helping crank out No. 1 records in country, the genre that made Music City famous. “My company is the oldest record company still owned by the original owner,” Curb said. “Next year will be my 55th year. We’ve had like 300 No. 1 records over the years. We just had a No. 1 record with Dylan Scott, and Lee Brice is having a lot of success.” Among his recent charitable efforts is a push to preserve American music history in Nashville and Memphis. Curb has bought up a slew of historic properties in order to restore and protect them, including 10 buildings on Nashville’s “Music Row” and the first home Elvis Presley purchased in Memphis. “One of the things I’ve been trying to do is bring people together on this,” Curb said of preserving music history. As an individual, Curb has written more than 300 songs and received countless industry awards. In 2006, CSUN honored Curb with its highest alumni honor, the Distinguished Alumni Award. Curb wrote his earliest songs and got his start while a student at what was then known as San Fernando Valley State College in the early 1960s. “I had a professor who let me use the music room in Cypress Hall,” Curb said. “The ‘music room’ back then just had a tape recorder — it was not a sophisticated room, but in those days it was enough. “I wrote the Honda song there, and I made a tape,” he said, of his first sale: “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda (Go Little Honda),” for the company’s national motorcycle advertising campaign. As a college student, he formed his first record company, a predecessor to Curb Records. “Then, Linda Ronstadt’s group (The Stone Ponies) signed with us, and The Electric Flag with Buddy Miles. We also were involved in some of Chicago Transit Authority’s (later, simply Chicago) early music. It’s grown and grown over the years.” After graduation from Ulysses S. Grant High School in LA, he enrolled at Valley State but left after completing two years — one of his few and major regrets, Curb said. It’s a life lesson he tirelessly emphasizes to students today. “One of the many things I would praise the CSU system for is that they emphasize graduation and the four-year program,” he said. “If I look at my own life, if there had been a Mike Curb College of Music, that would have been exactly what I would have wanted to do with my third and fourth years of college — I want to give people the opportunity I could have had.” —Olivia Herstein
What would the history of rock ’n’ roll be without The Police? Band members Andy Summers ’72 (Music), Sting and Stewart Copeland formed one of the most transcendent bands of all time. Founded in the punk movement in London, The Police were actually miscast practitioners of that genre because of one important trait: They were all virtuoso musicians, with Summers studying classical guitar at CSUN in the early 1970s. After the success of the classic single “Roxanne,” The Police became regulars at the top of the charts and soon were in the rarefied air of the hottest bands in the world. Yet superstardom did not come without a price. Creative conflict caused friction among the band members. By 1986 the band had broken up, though they would get back together in 2007 for a reunion tour that would become one of the highest grossing of all time. Summers wrote the book One Train Later as a memoir to chronicle his earliest days playing the guitar in England, and eventually coming to the United States as a member of The Animals. The breakup of that band led to Summers attending CSUN, and he later applied that classical training to playing lead guitar with The Police. Summers used the memoir as a basis for the documentary Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, which mixes archival footage on and off stage, as well as in the studio to give the audience a glimpse of what went into the rise and fall of one of the biggest bands of all time. Summers gave some insight into the movie in an exclusive interview with CSUN Today in 2015. “We’re not really around the public’s face at the moment, although we never seem to really have left,” Summers said during the interview. “I think it’s the personalities and the interactions and the actual chemistry of our trio (The Police) that’s always connected with the audience. We had a lot of very sparky chemistry, as is really well-known. It’s always fascinated the public, how we could get on stage and hammer out these great songs and have them connect. Certainly we proved that again on the reunion tour.” —Jorge Martin
“I was a classical guitar player then. You don’t forget these things. I’m obviously in a more fortunate position. Partly through [CSUN lecturer] John Dearman, it occurred to me that I could help out and provide scholarships for those who want to be classical guitarists. It’s a nice way to put something back and encourage people in something that I always loved and starved for at the time. Music is a very tough game. you want to put some of it back to encourage the next group that’s coming up.” —Andy Summers (center) ’72 (Music)
To donate to the classical guitar scholarship at CSUN or apply, contact
When she turned 5, Ixya Herrera’s father, Fermín, a longtime professor of Chicana/o studies at CSUN, asked what she wanted for her birthday. “I said, ‘I want to go school with you!’” she recalled. “It was a treat for my siblings and me to go to CSUN — sitting in on my dad’s classes, roaming the halls, hanging out on campus and rolling down the hills by the library.” It was those fond memories that inspired Herrera later to choose the university for her undergraduate studies. “When it was time for me to go to college, CSUN was where I wanted to go,” said Herrera ’03 (Chicana/o Studies). “CSUN has had a lot to do with my growing as an artist.” Herrera performs traditional Mexican regional music, from huapangos and romantic boleros to canciones, clásicas and canciones rancheras. The music has been passed down to her from generations past, and she said she wants to sustain the genres for future generations. In 2015, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences took notice, nominating her for a Grammy Award in the “Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano)” category. “It was really shocking for me because I’m an independent artist,” said Herrera, who is on her own label, Herrera Music Productions. “Being nominated for a Grammy has never been on my radar, because that’s not why I make music. “What makes me really, really happy is that the Grammys — as big as they are — will recognize you no matter what,” she said. “If your body of work is of quality, no matter who you are, they will recognize that.” Herrera said she aims to “do my part in preserving Mexican culture through song.” —Natalie L. Camacho
K-Pop Mogul / Producer
Businessman and South Korean record producer Lee Soo-man ’85 (M.S., Engineering) is best known as the founder of S.M. Entertainment, established in 1989. Today, it’s the largest management and record label in South Korea. The country is known for Korean pop music, aka “K-Pop,” one of the most popular music genres in Asia. Lee was the driver and father of the global phenomenon. Born in 1952 in Seoul to a musician mother and college-professor father, Lee began his career in music while attending Seoul National University in the 1970s. He debuted as a singer by releasing songs such as “Happiness” and “One Piece of Dream.” In the early 1980s, Lee left for the United States to study at CSUN, where he pursued a career in computer engineering. As a graduate student, he witnessed the rise in power of American popular culture, including the launch of MTV. As he watched the fledgling cable music channel, he knew he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. Lee returned to South Korea after graduating from CSUN, and four years later, he founded his own company. Some of the most popular K-Pop groups launched from his company, including TVXQ (Tong Vfang Xien Qi) known as K-Pop royalty in Asia. The group has sold more than 10 million records over the past decade and had one of the highest grossing worldwide tours in 2013. Another well-known group signed by the company is f(x), an EDM/pop all-girl group. The most famous K-Pop group created by S.M. Entertainment, however, is the all-girl group Girls’ Generation. The band has crossed over to North America and signed with Universal Music Group. Girls’ Generation has five albums out and a sixth one in the works, including top hits over the past decade such as “Run, Devil Run” and “The Boys.” In 2010, Lee retired from his position on the company’s board of directors, but maintains his role in the business’s management and artist development division. —B.F.
Drummer / Rock Legend
His beats helped define a generation. Best known as the drummer for The Doors, Los Angeles native John Densmore grew up playing piano and later took up drums and percussion in high school. He attended Santa Monica City College before transferring to what was then San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) in 1964. At Valley State, he studied ethnic music under legendary jazz cellist Fred Katz. In the mid-’60s, Densmore joined guitarist Robby Krieger in the band The Psychedelic Rangers. Later, the pair played in the group Rick & the Ravens with keyboardist Ray Manzarek and singer Jim Morrison. In 1965, the quartet renamed itself The Doors. By 1966, Densmore had left college — and The Doors were the house band at the famed Whisky a Go Go nightclub on the Sunset Strip. In 1967, The Doors rocketed to stardom with hits such as “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through (To the Other Side).” They released six studio and several live albums, eventually selling more than 100 million copies. After Morrison’s death in 1971, Densmore and his surviving bandmates recorded two more albums of songs, as well as an instrumental backdrop for the late singer’s recorded poetry. The Doors broke up in 1973. In addition to playing with other bands, Densmore has worked as a dancer, actor, playwright and book author, including penning a best-selling autobiography, Riders on the Storm. In 1993, he was inducted with The Doors into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In recent years, Densmore’s lifelong love of jazz has fueled his new band, Tribaljazz. —O.H.
Born in Pomona, Calif., Carol Vaness ’76 (M.A., Music), Hon.D. ’98 has loved music since she was 8 years old — she has fond memories of singing and dancing with her family. Vaness’ passion for music intensified as time went on. After earning her bachelor’s degree in music, she enrolled at CSUN for graduate school, where her love for opera manifested and transformed her into a world-renowned opera singer. She credits her former CSUN professor and mentor, David Scott, for shaping her into the successful soprano she is today. “My experience was incredible,” she said. “I learned everything about singing, and I had an incredible mentor — David Scott — who was my voice professor and head of the Department of Music at the time, but he unfortunately passed away (in 2012). He helped me through everything, helped me have a truly solid, flexible singing technique.” After graduation from CSUN, Vaness sang extensively throughout Europe and made her debut as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Electra in Idomeneo. She is especially identifiable with the role of Floria Tosca in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. “Tosca is absolutely me, 100 percent,” she said. “I’m an opera singer playing an opera singer. I’m very much like her personality.” In 2005, Vaness was in a horrific car accident that left her knees and vocal chords injured, and she endured surgery and physical therapy. After a year of treatment, she was able to return to the stage. A year later, she was invited to join the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music to teach master classes. In 2012, she traveled to Amsterdam to perform the role of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. For students who dream of a career in opera, Vaness has a few pieces of advice: “Study as many languages as you can — learn French, Russian and German,” she said. “There are operas in all languages. Try to have a solid technique, and try to go to graduate school, as CSUN made a very, very big difference in my life.” —J.P.
Pop Music Critic
A Kentucky native and longtime lover of music, particularly country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll, Robert Hilburn ’61 (Journalism) served as the Los Angeles Times’ pop music critic from 1970-2005. During his 35-year tenure as a music critic — “the greatest job in the world,” according to Hilburn — he interviewed icons such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre and Eminem. Hilburn almost picked a different university but decided on Valley State (now CSUN) for its smaller class sizes. He planned to transfer to UCLA after two years, he said. However, as Hilburn got to know his professors and saw how knowledgeable they were, he knew he had to stay at CSUN. A proud Matador, Hilburn said that the start of his success was his first step on the campus. “The real foundation was here in class,” he said. “You do a good job, you work hard, you press the teacher. That’s really important. You have to show a passion for something.” After three and a half decades as the Times’ renowned critic, Hilburn has plenty of stories about his experiences in the music industry and working with its legends. In 2009, he published a memoir, Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life. The book received acclaim from musical icons such as Bono, Yoko Ono and Elton John. Hilburn is working on a biography of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Simon, set for release in spring 2018. Hilburn remains an active member of the CSUN community by hosting Rock ‘n’ Roll Times, which airs from 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays on The New 88.5 FM. —N.C.
Singer / Songwriter
When he was a boy, Sebu Simonian’s ’01 (Music) parents dreamed that he would excel at piano. By the time he reached young adulthood, Simonian’s commitment to music exceeded their wildest expectations. Today, the Syrian native is half of the successful pop duo Capital Cities. An LA-based duo in the indie genre, Capital Cities’ members are Ryan Merchant (vocals, keyboard and guitar) and Simonian (vocals, keyboard). The Matador alumnus said that being a student in the Department of Music at CSUN helped him prepare for his career as a musician in more than one way. “The music program expanded my musical skills, and the music industry studies program taught me how to navigate the business side of things,” Simonian said. He was born in Aleppo, Syria. In 1985, when Simonian was 6, his family fled war in the region and moved to Southern California. He grew up in Glendale and chose CSUN for its Music Industry Studies program. While at CSUN, Simonian performed with the Northridge Singers, which represents the university in major choral festivals and competitions. “My experience with the Northridge Singers, led by the charismatic Paul Smith, was memorable, sometimes intimidating and always inspiring,” Simonian said. In 2013, he and Merchant were signed to Capitol Records and released “Safe and Sound” on their debut full-length album. The catchy dance hit was nominated for six awards between 2013-14, including Top Rock Song at the 2014 Grammy Awards and World’s Best Song at the 2014 World Music Awards. The duo is busy touring and working on a new album. To CSUN students and aspiring musicians, Simonian had some words of advice:
“Practice, collaborate, practice, be loud, practice, listen to criticism, practice, take the stage.” —N.C.