Speak to Rebecca Vega, professor of music at Caldwell University, for any length of time about her life and you’ll see she was destined to be a teacher. She was only 6 when she announced to her parents that she wanted to be a teacher. Her father was a chemical physicist, and her mom had just finished getting a certificate in art. Their advice was direct: If you’re going to teach, you should go into science. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that music would take top billing in Vega’s life.
“Music was always around in my house,” Vega remembers. “We had a piano in the house, and I started playing flute in the fifth grade and really loved it.”
A move between seventh and eighth grades, when her dad began his Ph.D. studies at Cal Tech, may have cemented her future in the arts. “Music was my one consistency and was the one thing that kept me going,” Vega says.
Vega’s high school band director showed her the practical path toward achieving her dreams. He encouraged her to major in music in college and planted the idea that she could be a music teacher. During her senior year, he invited Vega to participate in a music internship at an elementary school for two periods each day. That meant she was participating in four music classes every day.
At California State University, Long Beach, Vega double majored in music and education. She joined the marching band, early preparation for her groundbreaking work at Caldwell University.
After completing her undergraduate degree, she stepped into her first teaching job, bringing music to six elementary schools. The workload was enormous, requiring Vega to prepare and teach over 40 lessons each week. She almost quit teaching at that point, but the marching band and the city of Paramount, California, showed her what was possible.
Vega arrived to teach at Paramount High School and in three short years tripled the size of the marching band while also leading the orchestra. Her drive and passion clearly translated to growth. It wouldn’t be the last time a program benefited from Vega’s infectious love of music.
“Nobody had ever really pushed them to march and do field shows and competitions,” she says of Paramount.
While the high school showed Vega the possibilities in music education, it was far from the end of her journey. It wasn’t long before she met her future husband, Quinn, on a blind date, a moment that would transform her life in more ways than one. After marrying, they moved to Michigan so he could pursue his postdoctoral degree in biology. While there, Vega completed her master’s in flute performance at Eastern Michigan and held a graduate assistantship, allowing her to gain teaching experience in conducting ensembles and co-directing the marching band in addition to her time attending classes.
The couple’s next move would set the stage for her introduction to Caldwell University. Her husband began a professorship at a New Jersey university and their first child was born. Vega gave private lessons and worked part time teaching band and orchestra in Essex Fells for eight years. Then she saw an ad.
The advertisement was simple. Caldwell University (then College) was looking for an adjunct flute professor. Vega applied. That job was the seed of what would grow into an influential career for Vega in Caldwell’s Music Department. Her responsibilities continued to grow as she took on each opportunity with enthusiasm. When Vega held the position of music instructor, Dr. Nancy Blattner, then the University’s president, had a new challenge for her.
She was hoping that Vega could put together a pep band for an upcoming televised basketball game. Vega said she could, and she did just that. The band was a big hit and has continued to perform for several years. When, in 2016, Caldwell announced it was forming a sprint football team, Vega saw an opportunity to take the pep band to the next level.
“I asked Dr. Blattner, ‘Do you want a marching band?’” Vega says. “She said, ‘Of course I do!’”
It had been 22 years since Vega had led a band, so she visited West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and began researching how one starts a band from nothing.
“How do we do this? How do we start this from scratch?”
Vega came up with a plan for hiring assistants, recruiting, creating scholarships and buying instruments. It was a huge undertaking. For the first year, she hired four Caldwell alumni to assist with the band. They had participated in Caldwell’s pep band and also had experience in marching band or drum corps. They knew Vega and were proud of their Caldwell roots. It turned out to be the perfect way to start a program and build the identity that every college marching band needs.
Unlike high school bands, university marching bands are less concerned with competitions and more concerned with providing school spirit for the functions in which they participate.
“How do you balance the seriousness and the fun?” Vega says was the main question as the band was launched. “We are finding out what our personality is, finding our place. I felt like we were making momentum and then COVID hit.”
One area of Vega’s musical life that is certainly fully formed is her own ventures into music performance: the flute octet UpTown Flutes and the chamber music group Terzetta.
“I got very lucky, and I started connecting with some of the flute players in the New Jersey area,” Vega says. “They were putting together a flute octet, and I ended up subbing a lot for one of the members.”
When one of the flutists stepped aside, Vega became a permanent member. UpTown Flutes plays several pieces commissioned just for its use and has performed everywhere from Caldwell University to the Kennedy Center to Carnegie Hall.
Terzetta was born when Vega joined former Music Department faculty member Nan Childress Orchard, who plays piano, and cellist Jacqueline Stern to play chamber music. Childress Orchard had discovered flute, cello and piano music that she was hoping to use with a group. Stern had played as a guest with the University, so the three musicians started playing together. They have now performed in New York City and in Pittsburgh at a women’s composers concert. Childress Orchard also had pieces commissioned to be played in concert during the University’s time hosting the Saint John’s Bible, and Vega performed at that event.
In addition to Vega’s two professional groups, she has conducted the University’s wind ensemble for over a decade. Her creative thinking has allowed the space to be more than just a school activity. Students, community members and alumni are all invited to participate.
“I love that so many of our alums have continued to play with the group even after they graduate,” Vega says. “It provides a great opportunity for our current students to network with them and ask questions about life after college. I am proud of that.”
The group has steadily grown under Vega’s supervision. There were about 25 musicians when she began conducting and there are now 45 members.
Vega hopes to bring that same steady growth to the marching band. Caldwell offers marching band scholarships to six students, renewable each year as long as they continue to participate in the band. Vega even commissioned a composer to write a fight song for the school that can now be used during games. Slowly, the pieces are coming together for the band Vega envisions.
Looking toward the future, Vega would love to build a 50- to 60-person band. She would love to create a structure in which student leaders, music education majors, are integrated into the experience. If anyone can take the band to the next level while maintaining excellence in the wind ensemble and her own musical endeavors, it is Vega.
“I am very happy that I pursued music,” Vega says. “I have a lot of friends who became music educators by default, but I have always considered myself a teacher first and I put my students first.”
– Nicole Burrell ’09