‘You can’t lurk in the shadows and expect to make it’: Frost musicians on pursuing the limelight

Five years ago, in a black dress her mother had bought her, Marlei Dismuke did her best to settle her stomach and keep her knees from shaking. Dismuke, now 21, took three deep breaths before walking out on stage for her first solo vocal performance.

It was the Valentine’s Day showcase and, apart from the occasional creak or cough, the auditorium was silent. Dismuke gripped the microphone, shut her eyes and sang “Ready for Love” by India.Arie as the crowd watched in awe.

“It made me realize ‘yes, this is exactly what I want to do. I’m having so much fun up here even though I’m nervous.’ That’s what really did it for me, that’s what made me realize I love music and performing,” said Dismuke, a senior at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “My mom said ‘okay, I see it. I feel like you’re really serious, you have a gift and I’ll let you do this.’”

Marlei Dismuke stuns in promotional pictures.
Marlei Dismuke stuns in promotional pictures. Photo credit: Marlei Dismuke

From that point forward, Dismuke has had her heart set on honing her craft and building her music career.

With an undergraduate enrollment of about 400 students, the Frost School of Music has numerous musicians who are paving their way to stardom. The ladder to fame is no easy climb, so what are the stories behind these names in light and how did they get to where they are?

Since the group was first formed in the fall semester of 2019, Pump Action is now a household name across UM’s campus. The group is an eclectic group of roommates, each with their unique style, swagger and edge. The five band members—Spencer Ford, Jack Dratch, Trent Jones and Patrick Geoghan—appear just like any other bantering group of college friends.

Frost band Pump Action poses with their instruments for promotional pictures on the beach in Miami.
Frost band Pump Action poses with their instruments for promotional pictures on the beach in Miami.

The group of Frost students first came together their freshman year. What started as jam sessions and house party gigs would become the group’s life passion. In their sophomore year, in a Shake Shack booth after a gig, the band decided they would invest fully in Pump Action and, hopefully, one day, go all the way to Madison Square Garden.

“I feel like most bands don’t even ask the question ‘can we go all the way,’” said Jones, the lead guitarist of the band. “I feel like it’s not even something that gets discussed by a lot of bands, but that fateful night in that Shake Shack we said, ‘let’s do it, let’s go all the way.’”

On April 1, Pump Action opened for the hip-hop and rap duo, Rae Sremmurd at UM’s Watsco Center. The duo, consisting of Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee, produced and collaborated on numerous songs that have topped the Billboard Hot 100, including hits “Throw Sum Mo” and “Black Beatles.”

“It was nuts. It was super-super cool, but it felt like where we should be,” said Ford, the lead singer of Pump Action. “It felt like where we wanted to get to, where people were yelling our lyrics back at us. I was watching Rae Sremmurd perform and I thought to myself ‘we could do that.’”

Pump Action’s talent and potential have caught the attention of a large fan base here at UM.

“They’re all extremely talented and you can really feel their passion in their music,” said Anna Steingruber, a junior and friend of the band. “They are some of the hardest workers I’ve met, and they care a lot about their music and their careers. Between this and their bond together I can see them going far and playing bigger and bigger shows.”

While Pump Action continues to perform around Miami to build a following in South Florida, it is consistently reminded of the direction it is working toward; the precipice of musical stardom: stadium performances around the country.

Dismuke and fellow solo artist, Jasmine Ortiz, have similar aspirations as Pump Action.

“Right now, my goals are kinda ‘smaller,’ like I want to win a Grammy one day,” Dismuke said with a wide-toothed smile across her face.

Ortiz—a solo pop, R&B and dance-pop artist—said that similar to Dismuke, she has dreams of making a major impact in the music industry, to make her music and her name known.

Jasmine Ortiz poses for promotional photos for her music releases.
Jasmine Ortiz poses for promotional photos for her music releases. Photo credit: Courtesy of Jasmine Ortiz
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Although fame and fortune are the goal of many of Frost’s up-and-coming musicians, professor of voice, Cassandra Claude, said that for most Frost students, fame and fortune is not their end-all goal.

“It would be so easy to say for them to be famous, but that’s not often what I see,” Claude said. “I know this is going to sound ambiguous, but often I see that they are just wanting to be happy… happy with their success. You know, whatever success looks like to them and for some of them it’s extreme fame and for others, it’s that they get to make music.”

Another Frost-based band, Damn Janis, defines their success as being able to write and perform the kind of music they want.

Aaron Bissoondial, lead singer of Damn Janis, said he realized that while he hopes the band reaches its full potential, his genuine aspiration for the band is crafting niche music that he and his audience can relate to.

“That kind of changed my view on experiences and art and shaped what I wanted the band to be; music for weird people,” Bissoondial said. “It just reminds me how important it is to make music for people like me.”

Damn Janis’ music is heavily influenced by 1990s alternative punk-rock and the band works to make their concerts a full-blown experience. For example, the band held a Prom-themed concert in which the all-male band members—Bissoondial, Kyle Skarshaug, Mike Ramos and James Hasell—wore dresses and suits. On other occasions, the band set up graffiti walls for the audience to mark up and even carpentered a box and dressed one of their friends as Zoltar the fortune teller to interact with concertgoers.

Student band Damn Janis poses for a photograph.
Student band Damn Janis poses for a photograph. Photo credit: Damn Janis

“It’s great, it’s fun, it’s memorable and that’s the stuff I really like,” Bissoondial said. “I don’t know what else there really is to it.”

These “weird” and immersive experiences that Damn Janis has cultivated through its music are what Bissoondial said feel like success.

Although Damn Janis is unsure if it will stay together come graduation, Bissoondial said that at the end of the day he is grateful for the opportunity to have made the music he wanted, to embark on the journey that he and his bandmates did and to create “music for weird people.”

“I don’t think we failed,” Bissoondial said.

Regardless of how these musicians measure their success and envision their future careers, they all agree: success comes to those who actively seek it.

“Put yourself out there as much as you can,” Dratch said. “You can’t lurk in the shadows and expect to make it.”

Assistant professor of contemporary voice and performance artistry at Frost, Raina Murnak, said that in an evolving and dynamic field like music, the Frost School aims to give its students the necessary tools to adapt to this evolving terrain and realize their goals.

“People come into Frost with this vague sense of ‘I want to make it’ and that means so many different things, and I don’t even mean just amongst each person, every passing year that means something different,” Murnak said. “The technology changes, the opportunities change, the messages change.”

While the courses and resources the Frost School offers provide a solid foundation for its students, staff and musicians said that traditional music education is only the first step. While these resources are essential in these musicians’ pursuit of stardom, faculty and students agree that a music education can only take you so far.

“I truly am blessed to have been able to be at this school and in this program for as long as I have been in it,” Dismuke said. However, she conceded “the gigs outside of the school are learned about by go-getters and people who connect with other people in the program.”

Connecting with other artists, growing social media platforms, and actively building a brand are what determine an aspiring professional musician’s success. Murnak urges all musicians, at every stage of their career, to network with other artists and professionals in the industry, as the music world is tight-knit and more interconnected than one may anticipate.

“Really invest in the human connection,” Murnak said. “The thing about this industry is it’s big, but it’s really not that big.”

Ortiz said that throughout her four years at Frost, the most helpful and enriching resource to her was the connections she had made with her professors

“They provide the real-world examples and the real-world connections, they actually understand how the industry works because they’ve worked in it,” Ortiz said. “Every single one of them is extremely qualified in what they do.”

While aspiring musicians utilize the resources around themselves, network with those in their field and ascend the ladder of fame, Dismuke encourages all musicians to remember one thing: have faith in yourself, even when it’s hard.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you love. I had a lot of people tell me that I couldn’t do it,” Dismuke said. “I think I can actually do what I love for the rest of my life and make a killing off of it. Truly.”