The Kids Are Alright: Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Contemporary Music Program | - February 20, 2012

"Steve Paxton and his students: Today Santa Fe – Tomorrow The World"

“…playing, playing in the band…” Robert Hunter/The Grateful Dead

Sitting smack dab in the center of the City Different is a world-class institution of higher learning. But this being Santa Fe, instead of a curriculum comprised of science, law, medicine, or economics, this university focuses on the arts: Music, Theater, Film, Photography, Writing, Graphic Design, etc.

The Santa Fe University of Art and Design (formerly the College of Santa Fe) features a gorgeous campus with a nice band-shell in the quad, a highly-regarded film production studio, and a movie theater open to the public, in addition to numerous other amenities that colleges bring to the communities where they are located. And since the recent purchase of the institution by Laureate Education Inc., the school has been trying to raise its profile to the locals and involve Santa Fe residents with the campus in a meaningful way.

The mission statement of the school, taken from its website (, states: “Santa Fe University of Art and Design offers both campus-based and online learners a 21st-century approach to cultivating and nourishing their creative talents and professional skills. A distinguished faculty helps students drawn from richly diverse backgrounds in the United States and internationally to navigate and develop the byways of their lively and astute imaginations. We aspire to be a dynamic interdisciplinary learning community drawing upon the unparalleled creative and intellectual resources of our region to educate and inspire future leaders who will contribute both to their own communities and to our shared environment with integrity and an innovative spirit of collaboration.”

The Contemporary Music Program at the University has always been one of the aspects of the school that sets the college apart from other institutions. As its literature states: “Today’s music, our contemporary music, comes from all over the globe, uses all kinds of acoustic and electric instruments, encompasses numerous traditions and flourishes in hundreds of exciting styles and genres. This is the world of the Contemporary Music program.”

Dr. Steve Paxton is the Department Chair of the Contemporary Music program. He came to the College of Santa Fe in that position in 2003. During the school’s short hiatus before Laureate became its owner, much changed. When the school first reopened, it did not have a music department. Paxton was brought back to re-launch music department shortly thereafter.

He remarks that the program is not really different from the CSF days. Most of the faculty is the same, however due to the current smaller enrollment, some are now part-time instead of full-time at the school. But for the past 20 years, since the department first started, it still has the same goal: balancing traditional music studies with music technology and popular music, as opposed to focusing solely on classical music, as many universities with music programs do. However, he notes, more and more other schools are striving to do what SFUAD is already doing.

“Some other schools are really focused on commercial pop music or audio engineering.” says Paxton. “For example we don’t offer a degree in Sound Engineering or Pop Music or Rock Guitar…our degree is a general Contemporary Music degree.”

Because of that, students in the Contemporary Music program at SFUAD get exposure to all types of music, and instruments, along with instruction in the technical aspects of creating and recording music. According to Paxton: “we try to balance that area for all of our students…our operational mode is to push people through a lot of different areas, and not pigeon-hole people according to their prior interests or even their career aspirations.” Although he noted that there may be more specific degree programs in the future, "right now we’re pretty happy keeping it a little bit general.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the program is that all of the classes are open to all of the students in the college. For example, only about half of the university’s choir is comprised of music majors.

When asked about his perspective of the students in his department, Dr. Paxton identified one in particular. “Benito (Rose Plaza) is a good representative of the type of student that we attract, and that we’re really looking for—people who are interested in doing more than one thing. When he was in high-school he played tuba in the band, and he’s a pretty accomplished tuba player. (Since he’s been here) he’s moved more towards mandolin, but then he’s a really good electric guitar player too. He’s sort of pursuing this entrepreneurial career as a musician.”

Also, as with a lot of other students in the program, Benito is finding gigs outside of the school, performing with a number of Santa Fe-area bands on stages throughout the region.

But Paxton also emphasized that not all students are focusing on the performing aspect of music. Some are studying recording, some are strictly composers and others are focused on a more personal aspect of music as it relates to their careers goals.

When asked to identify some of the university’s famous alumni, he mentioned Alissa Moreno, a Hollywood and Nashville-based singer-songwriter-actress with an impressive list of credits, and Paul Botelho, who was an undergrad at CSF then went on to grad school at Dartmouth and Princeton and is now a college professor who also composes experimental avant-garde performance pieces. But  Paxton is quick to comment that not all Contemporary Music program students choose music as a career path. For those who do, he sees small communities of graduates of this program as part of the music scenes in Portland, Austin and Los Angeles.

The story of how Paxton ended up at the university is fairly simple: “I taught at Texas Tech in Lubbock for 25 years— composition, electronic music, and music theory," he says. "But the things that I’m most interested in like electronic music, and vernacular music, rock music, acoustic folk music, music technology…all of those things are just on the fringe of a traditional music program, but they are really at the heart of this music program. That’s what we’re all about, and when I found out there was an opening here I thought ‘that’s a good change for me to go from a university with 26,000 students to a university with about 500 students, and to sort of tackle the idea of college-level music education in a way that was more personal and creativity-based.”

Paxton believes that “Santa Fe (as a city) represents a different kind of approach to decision making about your life. This is an environment that is conducive to striking out in a new direction and this is an environment that is supportive of that. This is a place that will support you. You don’t get judged. People are going to leave you alone and respect you for what you want to do.”

Other faculty in the Contemporary Music program at SFAUD include Polly Ferber, a performer and recording artist specializing in hand percussion from the Middle East, who created a Middle Eastern and Balkan music scene in Santa Fe; Pete Williams, a graduate of the CSF Contemporary Music program, who is really active as a Santa Fe musician – “he can do so many different things as a musician, he’s like a model for our students” Paxton says; and Mark Clark, touring drummer with John Popper, Jono Manson, Cat Stevens, Ottmar Liebert, Dan Fogelberg, Kip Winger and other artists, who is an example of a “musician’s drummer, and a drummer’s musician," Paxton says. "He is a great musician and a tremendous teacher, and is committed to the idea of working with kids at all levels.”

The department is currently comprised of 25 adjuncts and 45 music majors – which combine to provide the school the capabilities for a lot of individual instruction provided by specialists on different instruments.

“Just within the last 10 years or so the phrase Contemporary Music has sort of taken a slightly different meaning," Paxton says. "When the program was founded and even when I came here, we were thinking ‘OK, Contemporary Music that means everything that’s relevant to a musician in the 21st century, regardless of their stylistic preference.’ But more and more kids coming out of high school think the phrase ‘Contemporary Music’ means ‘Popular Music’, and that it’s synonymous with vernacular or ‘non-classical’ music. We’re involved with Classical Music as well as other styles of music. We have to make sure that people recognize us as not just a ‘non-classical music’ institution. I believe that within a couple of years we’ll probably create two new degree programs: one in World Music Studies, and another one in Music and Sound for The Moving Image (Film/TV).

“The Laureate network that we’re a part of has 66 colleges around the world, and several of those have Music Departments," Paxton adds. "Several of them may not have music departments but the colleges exist in musical centers like Istanbul. We have a lot of opportunities to send our students to study in musically vital environments all around the world, and we also have opportunities for students to come from those other universities to come spend a semester or a year here working with us. So we’re really going to start exploiting that international networking possibility.”

After speaking with Paxton, we gave some of his students the opportunity to share their perspective on the Contemporary Music Program. All of the students involved said that they want to pursue music as a livelihood. To encourage them to speak freely, they were guaranteed anonymity.

When asked why they chose to go to school here, responses included: “It seemed like the right fit. This program is interesting in that you can focus on what you want to focus on. There’s no pigeon-holing.” “Any instrument that you might want to learn, they’ll find you a teacher – up to and including a hurdy-gurdy.” “(To get into the program) you audition on your main instrument, (and once here) you have an opportunity to play on different instruments with folks of a variety of styles and ability levels.” “Santa Fe is a good place to hone and cultivate what you do.” “Teachers here treat you very well and are very invested in you personally and in your education.” “(It is) very much a family here – we’re all close and collaborate, teachers and students.”

All of them said that they would definitely recommend SFUAD’s Contemporary Music Program to other kids, primarily because of the collaborative environment, unlike some other universities that they had attended. “(Here) students will help each other – they are not as worried about being “top dog” as much as at other schools.” “(SFUAD) is not very competitive (between students)…not as much as at other schools.”

Part of that collaboration leads the students to interact with different departments at the university. They have opportunities to compose scores for movies, music for theatrical performances. The school truly encourages inter-departmental cooperation.

During a recent performance by the department at El Museo Cultural, the audience had a chance to witness the Santa Fe University Chorus, along with the school's Acoustic Americana group (which includes students and faculty), plus the school’s Chamber Orchestra and a student Rock Ensemble. The performances included selections that ranged from Bach and Puccini to Paul Simon and Gillian Welch. The set list included songs suggested by both teachers and students – again highlighting the collaborative efforts of the department.

Paxton is truly helping to shape the sounds of Santa Fe bands. His students are members of, or have performed with, almost all the top bands in town including Broomdust Caravan, Anthony Leon and The Chain, Treemotel and many more.

The students’ feelings towards Paxton are openly passionate: “He’s amazing”. “He really cares about his students.” “He knows what going on and really has it all together.” “He has so much love in his heart, some of us refer to him as Poppa Paxton.”

SFUAD's Contemporary Music program  is a vital part of the creative scene Santa Fe. Paxton and his staff are one of the reasons that the next generation of creative folks are coming here, and bringing with them the talent and skills that may very well redefine what the “artistic community” in Santa Fe is all about.