Jazz professor challenges, inspires students

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Professor Lawrence Lapin instructs his jazz class through a rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon. Lapin created the nation’s first jazz vocal program at UM. Nick Rodriguez // Contributing Photographer 

Few people can say they created the “first” anything, be it the airplane, a dubstep song or a software program. Larry Lapin, professor and program director of studio music and jazz vocal performance at the University of Miami, can.

When Lapin came to UM in 1968 to teach theory-composition, there was no such thing as a major in jazz vocal. Lapin realized something was missing, and the first jazz vocal performance program in the country was born.

“He built this program from the ground up,” said Kelly Garner, a doctoral student and teaching assistant of Lapin’s. “He is a part of jazz education history.”

A white-haired man with a warm demeanor, Lapin is humble about his role in creating the program.

“It didn’t seem like a big deal,” he said. “It just seemed like a natural thing to do. It was an evolution, not a revolution.”

Lapin is an arranger, composer and pianist with a rich career, from accompanying Tony Bennett to writing arrangements used across the country.

At UM, Lapin teaches several classes each semester, directs the award-winning Jazz Vocal Ensemble 1 (JV-1), and he won the 2009 Phillip Frost Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship.

Under Lapin’s watch, students become more than just singers.

“He teaches us to think like musicians,” said Danielle Wertz, a freshman majoring in jazz vocal performance and member of JV-1.

According to Lapin, many vocalists start college with less musical knowledge than instrumentalists and have to play catch-up.

Lapin himself started as a piano player, mowing lawns in exchange for lessons, and playing gigs as a young teen.

“I was always exposed to music,” Lapin said. “When I was four years old, I was walking around singing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.”

Despite coming from a musical family – his father was a professional violinist and his mother was a vaudeville performer – Lapin’s path was not clear-cut.

“When I expressed a desire to get into music, my dad said, ‘No, absolutely not,’” Lapin said. He also spent an “unsuccessful” year in business school and an “even more unsuccessful” time dabbling in accounting.

But after playing music on the road and meeting his wife, Lapin got his undergraduate and master’s degrees in composition.

“I figured if this is what I am going to do, I might as well try to get good at it,” he said. And get good, he did.

Today, Lapin’s former students have excelled nationally. Jon Secada, who will be playing at Festival Miami this year, is a three-time Grammy award winner and international Latin pop star whose 1991 debut album went triple platinum.

Other alumni have followed in Lapin’s footsteps, directing vocal jazz programs and teaching.

Working with Lapin is demanding yet rewarding, his students said.

“He wants it to be a professional atmosphere,” Garner said. “He expects you to bring your best.”

The hard work has paid off. JV-1 has performed around the world and received more than 20 awards from Downbeat Magazine in its annual student music competition.

“The most rewarding part is seeing the light bulbs go off,” Lapin said. “If I feel like I helped inspire them to do the work to get good, then I’m thrilled to death.”

Expectations may be high, but Lapin doesn’t hesitate to show he cares.

John Splithoff, a senior jazz vocal performance major, recalled when Lapin invited him to lunch to give him advice and help him through a rough time.

“He just noticed I wasn’t myself,” Splithoff said. “I was playing gigs four to five nights a week on top of school. I was a mess.”

Having taught at UM for more than 40 years, Lapin is now considering retirement.

“I’m at an age where if I want to do anything else, I’d better get started pretty soon,” he said.

That thought is not an easy one to face, though.

“In some ways I have the perfect job,” Lapin said. “I get up in the morning and I go to a place and I make music with really talented, beautiful, energetic young people all day.”

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