PEMBROKE — For 25 years, Larry Arnold has been a creative force in the classroom, studio and on the stage. His musical journey defines the nature of musical scholarship in higher education.
A recital last spring of original works by The University of North Carolina at Pembroke professor took listeners to some of the many destinations that define Arnold’s career. It was an evening of compositions performed by faculty, students and family, and Arnold performing on stand-up bass, piano and computer. The recital spanned classical, electronic and jazz compositions.
The classical segment of the recital featured Arnold accompanying vocalist and wife, Nancy.
“While I was in undergraduate school, one of my jobs was as an accompanist,” he said. “I met Nancy when I played for her.”
On Sundays, Arnold continues to accompany Nancy, who is the music director for the Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen. One of his other jobs in grad school was playing bass for local jazz groups. “Everybody needs a bass player,” he says.
With a stand-up bass tucked snugly into his Nissan Versa, Arnold plays as many as 200 gigs a year, mostly with jazz ensembles. Arnold’s musical odyssey began as a guitar player for a rock band.
“From the time I was a kid, I listened to recordings,” he said. “As a teenager, the first songs I wrote were rock and roll. Our band did well, but around 19 or 20, I got restless. There was not enough intellectual challenge to rock music.”
Studying music, particularly classical composition, at the universities of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa proved the necessary stimulation. Even then, he led a musical double life — classical by day and jazz at night.
“There is conflict in the academy between classical and jazz,” Arnold said. “My advisor for the master’s degree warned me not to mess with jazz. My first doctoral advisor said: ‘Jazz is just a collection of habits and most of them are bad habits.’”
By this time, Arnold had fallen in with a group of fellow students who were inspired and creative and loved jazz. Bits and pieces of Arnold’s classical compositions were converted to jazz scores. “Jazz is in my DNA,” he said. “My second advisor said: ‘It’s part of your creative life; you should have a recital.’”
Another of Arnold’s part-time jobs was in the studio. He set up UNCP’s first studio shortly after coming to the university. His office is littered with instruments, sheet music and piles of wiring for the control and live rooms next door.
“We have converted the studio from analog to digital,” he said, explaining the tangled mass of wires at his feet. He held up eight thick wires that have been replaced by one thin fiber optic wire.
“The recording standards are very high for the work our students put into their portfolios,” he said. “Students have composed and recorded three CD length projects. This results in significant career opportunities for our students.”
In the control room, Arnold plays a student recording, a blend of gospel and rap. It is impossible to ignore the electronic music. At the recital, Arnold played several original electronic scores on which he collaborated with John Labadi, a UNCP art professor.
“I got into electronic music back in the rock n’ roll days,” he said. “I teach a course in it in the Media Integration and Music Business programs. Electronic music is popular with students.”
Composing, recording and playing music is scholarship for those who teach it. Arnold plays often with UNCP faculty and students on campus and elsewhere. Last summer, he played a concert of Dave Brubeck music in the Cape Fear Botanical Garden with a jazz ensemble drawn from players with the Fayetteville Symphony.
Playing for audiences serves as a model for students. Like athletes, practice and performance are necessary.
“I have to practice my skills all the time; there is a physical aspect to playing,” he said, contrasting his work to other forms of scholarship. “We always have to do those basic scales.”
At UNCP, Arnold has taught piano, bass and guitar along with composition, music theory, audio production and jazz choir and ensembles. “I never get tired of it,” he says. “Bored? No, I never run out of things to do.”
The many keyboards in his office — mechanical and digital — are tools of the trade. Music, technology and students keep changing. “I keep myself open to student input,” he said. “It’s my role to know what they need and to know what they want to do.
“Most of what I do is about students being able to communicate their innermost thoughts. I give them creative license.”
Classical, jazz, electronic and contemporary music have a place in Arnold’s music world, and he is ready for the next generation of musicians who will fill the classrooms and stages of Moore Hall.