From the moment Melody Cook stepped to center stage Sunday at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, she transformed from a UCF student into a conductor of a 9-person orchestra debuting her original composition in front of an theater audience.
The fact that the 41 year old decided to pursue a degree in music performance and a career as a piano teacher is not all that out of the ordinary. She’s had the urge to play ever since she was a toddler who used to reach up to plunk on the keys of her mother’s piano in their Tennessee home.
What is unexpected about Cook’s story is that for the first three decades of her life, she had no exposure to most music genres and artists — from The Beatles to Duke Ellington to Dolly Parton to Metallica and nearly everything in between.
And then college happened.
“When I started going to college, I was a very shy, withdrawn, anxious person. I had almost no confidence. My professors [at Valencia and UCF] believed in me. They helped me to learn to believe in myself,” she says. “When I think back in a few years from now, I’m going to be really grateful that I had this experience.”
Raised on Hymns and Classical Music
As the second oldest of six children, Cook says she had an ultraconservative upbringing and says the homeschool program her family subscribed to was very restrictive. Cook — who learned from her mother how to play the piano — was allowed to listen to hymns or classical music, but anything with a bassline was off limits.
“If you couldn’t listen to Christian music that has a drum, then you definitely were not going to be able to listen to most stuff,” she says.
“If you couldn’t listen to Christian music that has a drum, then you definitely were not going to be able to listen to most stuff.” — Melody Cook
She didn’t think early on that college was an option because, like her limited exposure to music, she was taught college was a place of destructive and damaging influences. Instead, she spent most of her 20s doing mission work in Moscow and Siberia before moving to Orlando in 2012.
She was making minimum wage in a kitchen, hardly clocking enough hours to support herself, when the realization hit her — she did not want to live the rest of her life this way.
“I knew that [restrictive] lifestyle wasn’t what I wanted and what I believed anymore. If I was going to pursue something that I really loved, then I felt I should get an education,” she says. “So I thought, what would I do if I could do anything?”
The answer: art or music.
She enrolled at Valencia College with the goal of transferring to UCF through the DirectConnect to UCF program and cried with joy when Valencia Professor Alan Gerber told her she had what it took to pursue music. To her, those tears were proof she had pinpointed her passion and future path.
As a result, her world has opened up exponentially.
An Introduction to Bon Jovi and Black Sabbath
Cook says she had a steep learning curve to try to catch up to her classmates. She took a jazz theory class at UCF and spent hours listening to WUCF 89.9 FM on car rides to train her ear to the new sounds.
She is enrolled in UCF’s analysis of hard rock and heavy metal course. She never knew Mötley Crüe existed until a couple months ago. She says Black Sabbath is a little intense. She heard Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer for the first time when her class discussed glam rock.
“I’m really happy that I’m learning about it. At the same time, it’s really stressful. Every moment that I’m listening to it I have to say to myself, ‘It’s OK. You don’t have to feel guilty about listening to it,’ ” she says. “I love that I’m getting to listen to it myself and make my own opinion on which ones I like and which ones I don’t like.”
“I love that I’m getting to listen to it myself and make my own opinion on which ones I like and which ones I don’t like.” — Melody Cook
She says she doesn’t have any particular favorites. Because there’s so much she hasn’t heard, she tries to listen to something new every day.
“So far I haven’t found a whole lot that I don’t like,” she says. “Even Black Sabbath — even though it’s really out there and intense — I find it’s appropriate for certain emotions. If I was really mad or really stressed, it might be just the thing to listen to.”
UCF Assistant Professor Alexander Burtzos, her current composition instructor, describes Cook as an ideal student. He says we all grow up in our own musical bubble to some extent, and all that really matters is whether we have the determination to break out of it.
“Melody is a voracious listener who’s equally open to Renaissance polyphony, 20th century dodecaphony, speed metal — and everything in between. She quickly absorbs each new piece she hears, eventually incorporating it into her own singular musical language,” he says. “Melody is interested in pushing boundaries. Her pieces are often built around strong central ideas. I have no idea what the future holds for her. But whatever it is, I know she’ll be successful at it.”
Learning Through Loss
In the immediate future, at least, she will have her senior recital April 21 when she will lead a performance of a compilation of her work, and she expects to graduate with honors in May.
Her recital will include the composition Loss, which she debuted and conducted at UCF Celebrates the Arts on April 7.
She first composed Loss as a way to grieve the death of her grandmother, the last of her surviving grandparents. She was unable to attend the funerals of her other three grandparents, but she made it to this one and wrote the piece as a tribute to all four of them.
She continued to tinker with the piece — which does feature a drum kit — before she really got serious about polishing it after the opportunity arose to contribute something for the New Music Ensemble concert at UCF Celebrates the Arts.
Burtzos says Loss is composed in a style that is quite different from Cook’s usual aesthetic — it’s tonal, sorrowful, melodious, and to his ears, seems grounded in the folk music of Russia and Eastern Europe. He says he admires her ability and willingness to embrace different sounds and styles in her music.
As for Cook, she is pleased with the way the piece turned out and the journey it took to get it there. At one point, she had composed it in her head for a full orchestra, even though she had never experienced an orchestral performance. Knowing what she knows now from her studies, she says the balance would have been completely off and it would have sounded horrible.
“This is a chance for me to honor and remember my grandparents and to express those feelings that I have a hard time expressing.” — Melody Cook
Ultimately, she is most pleased because she feels that the ones she wrote it for would appreciate her work.
“I think they would really like the piece. This is a chance for me to honor and remember my grandparents and to express those feelings that I have a hard time expressing,” she says. “All of my grandparents were very artistic and creative and really valued creativity and art. My mother’s parents met in an art school. I think they would be really proud of me and pleased that I’m studying the arts and doing something with it.”
After she graduates, Cook wants to continue to teach piano lessons, develop her music studio and write music she can share with the world. And now that college has opened the door to so many new experiences, she never wants to stop pursuing new challenges and opportunities for personal growth.
“I’ve learned a lot about music, a lot about culture and society. In every area of life I feel like I’ve really grown a lot,” she says. “There’s no way that I could have done that without having come here. It wouldn’t have happened.”