As a kindergartner, Brent Edstrom’s father took him to see a famous banjo player who held a performance in his hometown of Marysville, Washington—and he has had a love for music ever since. Edstrom went on to become a professional jazz pianist, composer, and arranger as well as a full-time professor at Whitworth University.
Few professional musicians start off their musical journey with the banjo, but Edstrom found his passion. He only decided to learn how to play piano as a junior high student because “a lot of other kids knew how to play and it was something I felt that I should do,” Edstrom said.
Though Edstrom did not grow up listening to jazz, while in junior high school he started to learn about jazz and loved it from the beginning, he says. As a junior high and high school student Edstrom played in a professional rock band with classmates but got bored with the repetitiveness of playing rock, he said, and found jazz more interesting to play.
Though jazz remains his main focus, Edstrom took classical piano lessons in his hometown throughout junior high and high school, as well as throughout his undergraduate study at Washington State University and his graduate schooling at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.
Edstrom says that taking those classical piano lessons allowed him to develop technique that would later assist his “artistic sensibility” while playing jazz. “I wouldn’t be able to play jazz without classical training,” Edstrom says, “You don’t want to be limited by lack of technique.” Classical training and study is really beneficial to develop skills needed to play jazz such as nuance of tone and touch as well as proper phrasing, he says.
Edstrom says that he began his teaching journey by teaching lessons, like most freelance musicians do in order to make more money. His love and passion for teaching began to grow when he attended graduate school and had to teach a class, he says.
After graduate school, Edstrom began teaching as an adjunct professor at Whitworth University. Shortly after beginning teaching as an adjunct, he moved to Western Carolina University to teach on a tenure track. However, about 10 years later Edstrom says that he heard of a full-time position opening in the music department at Whitworth and eagerly took the job.
Since teaching as an adjunct professor, Edstrom says he developed a deep appreciation for Whitworth. Those at Whitworth who know him cite him for his fun and quirky personality, his dedication to students and his profession, and for his contributions to Whitworth through being an active member of multiple committees.
It is evident that Edstrom has a passion for teaching and is always looking for new ways to engage his students and bring in contemporary work to keep students interested, said Debbie Hansen, chair of the music department. “He is one of the best teachers that I’ve ever been colleagues with,” said Hansen.
Students say that they appreciate Edstrom’s availability and willingness to help students for however long it takes for them to understand the concepts being taught. “No matter how busy he is, students feel free to go knock on his door and expect to see him there and get answers,” said Whitworth music student Shelby Lemley, who has taken four classes from Edstrom.
“I honestly think that every moment with Brent is memorable, that’s just who he is,” said Lemley. Another student, Teague Starbuck, knows Edstrom outside of the classroom through playing jazz and said, “It can be very difficult for musicians to manage their career and their family, and I admire him for that.”
After all, Edstrom moved back to Spokane to teach in order to be closer to both his family and his wife’s family that all live on the west side of Washington. Edstrom has two children: son Evan, who is currently attending Whitworth, and daughter Emily. Both of Edstrom’s children play instruments; Evan plays the saxophone and Emily plays piano and flute.
A typical day in Edstrom’s life includes waking up around 5:30 a.m. to get work done before classes and before the rest of his family wakes up, which is when Edstrom says that he is most productive. Most of his morning work includes arranging pieces for the Hal Leonard Corporation, a music publication company out of Minnesota.
For the rest of the day, Edstrom teaches at Whitworth, then comes home to a family dinner every evening, and continues work for school, composition, or just practicing before going to bed and doing it all over again the next day, he says. Some days also involve leading worship services in his church and attending committee or faculty meetings at Whitworth. “Every semester is always a balancing act,” Edstrom says.
A project that Edstrom has been working on for the past two years is called Arduino. Edstrom currently is working to publish his book titled Arduino for Musicians, expected to be released at the end of the coming summer through the Oxford Press. Arduino is an open source micro-controller. That means that inner workings of the hardware can be changed according to the person’s desires.
Arduino can combine hardware and software (programs) to create any type of controller desired. Edstrom says that he sees a large application of Arduino to music. It gives musicians the ability to create and manipulate sound waves (synthesize) as well as have real-time control of volume, phrasing, and tone just to name a few, he says.
Arduino “allows a musician a new way of interacting with an instrument,” Edstrom said, and gives musicians “very powerful tools that are very inexpensive.” Edstrom has been an active computer programmer for the past 10 years and active in researching electronics such as Arduino more recently, he said.
Edstrom first got into computer programming thanks to his undergraduate roommate and computer programmer. This was not very common, Edstrom said, since computers were not as prevalent as they are today and were much more expensive. Edstrom says that he is self-taught in computer programming and really started being involved in programming during his graduate degree.
He says that he sees how much potential there is for computer programming and music to merge. “I would compare computer programming to composition,” Edstrom said, “They are both a blank slate and there is a lot you can do in music with computer programming.”
While learning and developing skills in computer programming, Edstrom says that he feels as if there is a “subtle rewiring of the brain,” much like what would happen if someone learned a foreign language.
As a computer programmer and professional musician, Edstrom says that he has been able to combine two things he is interested in to “cross-pollinate” between two areas of study. “One of the things I love about the liberal arts is that we are encouraged to go outside our boundaries,” Edstrom said.