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Spotlight on Alumni: Rami Vamos

Rami Vamos entered my studio in Oberlin in my second year teaching there (he graduated in 1998); he was still in high school. It was obvious almost immediately that Rami would be an indispensable part of the group. He brought with him an extraordinary joy and curiosity, a huge talent and a predilection for sly humor that we all responded to. He's become quite a success in a variety of areas, all related to what we did together at Oberlin. Enjoy his story, in his words:

Oberlin helped me realize that I could combine all my talents, after developing and refining them further, and create a unique and fulfilling professional life. Students at Oberlin are encouraged to find a career path motivated by creativity and individuality.  My music education followed a path that is considered, nowadays, very traditional – enrolling in the four year undergraduate program at Oberlin Conservatory, studying with Steve, followed by a Masters degree program at Yale’s School of Music, studying with Benjamin Verdery.  It is, however, the combination of my various abilities that have made my career unusual.  When I am not singing falsetto with large groups of kids, I am under the bright lights of the concert stage running around in tights and a powdered wig discussing the great staples of the chamber music repertoire. 
Rami in the powdered wig
There is nothing out of the ordinary about going to college but my experiences at Oberlin were often extraordinary.  I had plenty of lessons where the focus was to ensure a solid technical foundation or understanding of the piece I was working on – that’s pretty normal, I guess.  But Steve also fostered creativity with his students. He was always supportive of my need to compose, encouraging me to program my own compositions on degree recitals. Once he even made the trip all the way from Akron to see a special concert I arranged with my roommate Randall Avers (‘95) premiering duets that we had written “12 Silly Songs For 12 Silly Strings,” which, coincidentally, got published by Clear Note Productions this year.
Rami with roommate Randy Avers, while at Oberlin
These Famous Duets are Published!
Another unusual aspect of my college experience was that it began in high school. I went to Oberlin High School and took private lessons with Steve. I knew right away that I would eventually want to study at Oberlin Conservatory as a guitar major. Both the high school, college and, most of all, Steve, were so forward thinking about this that they allowed me to design a high school schedule that included Conservatory and College classes. My personal program culminated in combining my final year of high school with my freshman year in the Conservatory. This bought me extra college level courses- making it feel like I got to go to college for six years!  On top of that, I was so lucky to have Steve, a master teacher and mentor, help mold me into the guitarist that I now am. 

The environment of the Oberlin guitar studio had a creative aura. Pretty much the entire guitar class composed music, arranged music, or played in some sort of band. We also all had ponytails for some reason. Embarrassing. I haven’t had a ponytail in almost twenty years yet my older brothers are still teasing me about it. In any case, the creative projects I did at Oberlin, purely for fun, unexpectedly ended up having a profound effect on my future. Those projects included a very silly rock band called Scrabble Champ, Duets with my roommate, and participating in my friend Walker Lewis’ (‘96) circus. These projects were designed to entertain adults but all three turned out to be appealing for children as well.
Scrabble Champ plays at a party at the Aron's house, 1996.
Left, Colin McGrath (also an Oberlin classical guitar major), Rami, David Justh, drums, Claude Sims, violin
Studying with Ben at Yale was inspiring.  He seemed to be joking 95% of the time. I would hear him laughing from down the hall on the way to each of my lessons. We would both laugh and joke through the entire lesson- as if we were writers preparing a comedy routine on the Bach E Major Partita. Yet, somehow, when I left the lesson smiling, to go practice, I felt that it was a thought-provoking experience. Ben is funny but he cared about every note we played. The environment at Yale itself is a serious one (surprise, surprise). At some point during my studies there, I began taking extreme care with not just my playing, but with things I had previously considered “just for fun.” I spent countless hours composing a piece for double bass and guitar based on the theme from Inspector Gadget. I also agonized over a ridiculous arrangement of the Ma Na Ma Na from the Muppets.  Those just-for-fun projects actually resemble closely what I do for a living now.
Rami plays solo
Rami in duet with brother Brandon Vamos, cellist
Perhaps I was a bit dense or naïve but it was only after finishing school that I realized that there was no pre-paved path for classical guitarists. There are no orchestras to play in and finding a university job is hard in your early twenties.  I tried to figure out what made me different and what my strengths were. I played in many rock bands, knowing full well that it wasn’t my career path. I also played in an electric guitar quartet with fellow Yale alumni. Usually Yale alumni form acapella groups but I was told I couldn’t do that on account of the fact that I had once had a ponytail. Rules are rules. I played on subway platforms and in restaurants. The thing that always stuck with me was that I loved writing (music, lyrics – anything, actually) - and I loved being on stage (with or without a guitar). Just as when I was an undergrad, the music I wrote, always intended for adults, came out sounding kid-friendly. 

Rami plays the Soldier and Narrator for Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" at Sewannee Summer Music Festival
In 2003 I began looking for a job where I could work with kids, play my guitar, and compose so I signed up for the New York City Teaching Fellowship as a general music teacher. This program was designed to bring people into the field of education. You earned a masters degree and certification for free in exchange for teaching in a high-needs district.  During this same period, I began writing educational musicals and performed them with Walker, my Oberlin Circus friend. I also started giving guitar lessons at Concordia Conservatory in Bronxville, NY. These three occupations essentially made me feel like I was still at Oberlin because I was always learning and had to be creative pretty much all the time.
Walker Lewis and Rami, Oberlin days
After a few years of teaching a handful of guitar students at Concordia, I helped create their Musical Adventures For Children Concert Series.  My job there now requires me to write two or three shows each year for this series. I also started a summer guitar camp, taught early childhood music classes, meet-the-instrument classes, coached chamber music, composed music to accompany author readings at the school, and even hosted parties for them. I eventually became the chair of their string department, which ties me to the community and allows me to organize professional developments, concerts, and other interesting experiences for the faculty to share.  

At this point, I have written nearly fifty educational children shows for various institutions. Somewhere along the way, I invented a character by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry. Herr Schmutzinberry dresses exactly like Mozart but instead of being a genius, he is an arrogant (but rather likable) dimwit. He enlists the help of his audience and other performers on stage to learn the basics of music. For the past five years, Schmutzinberry has been the host of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Beginnings Concert Series. I invented Schmutzinberry, but he taught me to act. Even though I never studied acting formally at Oberlin or anywhere else, I feel very comfortable being Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry. Perhaps it is because the wig I wear for him has a little ponytail.

The pictures below were taken at the Lincoln Center concerts, in Merkin Hall. We do ten shows a year--five each of two different programs, eight at Merkin Hall and two at Lefrak Hall in Queens. Kids are bussed in from all over the city. Up until two years ago we also had two shows in Staten Island. This year we are piloting a program where we bring the show to my school in Pelham. This is the fourth year that I have been doing Schmutzinberry for them; before that I just hosted the concerts as myself. I had just been a "teaching artist" for them, but one day their main guy who writes the program's big family concerts, Bruce Adolph, had to cancel a performance at the last second, and I filled in. When they realized that I was comfortable entertaining a thousand kids- and already worked for them as a teaching artist- I became the logical choice when the person who hosted this series moved on. A performance doesn't go by without me feeling so thankful. It's a real feather in my cap, it's crazy fun (I get to write the script, the music, play, act, sing, dress up, work with amazing musicians, and be in front of huge crowds- a real rush), and it ends up getting me hired at many other festivals doing really interesting work. Schmutzinberry could write you his very own blog entry at this point…
Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry on stage
Wolfgang Amadeus Schmutzinberry gives a lesson
The New York City Teaching Fellowship eventually led to an elementary school job in Pelham, New York. Suddenly I found myself in charge of a huge 4th and 5th grade chorus program. I took voice lessons and Dalcroze classes and started writing two-part chorus music for fourth and fifth graders. Schnitzel Music will publish my most recent composition, “Smile at Someone New,” this season.  
Rami rehearses his choir
I first started teaching music because it vaguely aligned with my interests and abilities but it has become my passion. Here is a link to an article I wrote for the NY Times Education Blog Schoolbook:

When I am not writing, teaching, acting, or singing, I still play my guitar. I married Nurit Pacht, a great violinist who on stage I refer to as my accompanist. She accompanies my important chord progressions with her background melodies. We stick to the fairly traditional repertoire by Paganini and Giuliani along with some arrangements and original composition.
Rami and Nurit's wedding
We live in New Rochelle, NY, own an old house in a quiet neighborhood, and have three kids… and if they all end up at Oberlin studying with Steve- I will be more than happy. Who knows where it will take them
The Vamos family

Joseph Daval Wins Pittsburgh!