When she’s not busy playing at prestigious Hollywood parties or photobombing Mariah Carey’s paparazzi pictures, award-winning harpist, Dr. Alison Bjorkedal, spends most of her time teaching music at PCC or performing for others.
Dr. Bjorkedal, more commonly referred to by her students as “Dr. B”, teaches Music Appreciation at PCC, a general education course that familiarizes students with music terminology and educates them on how to properly assess classical music.
Teaching the subject is a challenge in and of itself because Bjorkedal is well aware that most young adults don’t necessarily have a soft spot in their hearts for classical music like she does. And so, she is always stunned when her students leave her class wanting to listen to Dvoják instead of Drake through their headphones.
“I think I’m always surprised by how many students come into the class not really caring about the subject, but then really try to show an interest and really open up their world to something new.” said Bjorkedal. “I’m always in admiration of people who say ‘Oh ok, classical music. Sure, why not? Let’s give it a try!’”
As a professor, she is patient and full of enthusiasm. She plays classical music as soon as she unlocks the classrooms doors to give students an idea of what new piece they will be deconstructing in the weeks to come. She can sometimes be heard singing along to the music or humming the melody with the most genuine smile on her face. Her excitement as she claps along to the beat or plays a tune on the piano would make one believe that she was destined to become a music professor, but that wasn’t the case.
“I didn’t seriously think about music as a career until I was a senior in high school,” she said. “I didn’t come from a family of musicians and I was from a rather small town where there weren’t many professional musicians, so it didn’t occur to me that it was an actual career choice that was available until I began to think about what I was passionate about.”
It wasn’t until she started her graduate work at USC and becoming an instructor’s assistant, that she discovered her love of teaching.
“That was my first taste of teaching and I really enjoyed it. That’s when I knew this will be a part of what I do as part of my career.”
Bjorkedal laughs after almost every sentence she speaks. She is filled with a sort of zest for life that would make one think she looks at everything through rose-colored glasses. Her love for all things music and creativity is infectious and a big part of why students enjoy her presence in class.
She continuously radiates such enthusiasm, despite having to juggle an overwhelming, and oftentimes unpredictable, schedule.
On days she works at PCC, she is up before the sunrise to get from Glendale to Pasadena on time to set up her classroom and teach two back-to-back classes.
“Beyond that, my days are filled with private harp students, ranging from ages seven to sixty-something…” she said as she chuckled. “Yeah, you don’t really ask at a certain point! There’s just all sorts of people wanting to learn how to play the harp and I teach them one-on-one. I also teach at another college, California Institute of the Arts, specifically [students] that are wanting to become harpists.”
When she isn’t teaching music to her students, she’s performing it for an audience instead. In addition to playing for church services and events, Bjorkedal records compositions live. She plays with large orchestras, as well as small groups of people for chamber music. No day is typical for Bjorkedal, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sometimes I’ll get here at 7:00 AM and I know I won’t be able to stop until 10:00 PM. But the nice thing is there’s always something new to learn and always something different to do in a freelance music career, so it’s always really engaging.”
As a performer, she is beyond dedicated and it is her commitment to her craft that has allowed her to be so successful in her career, despite having a rocky start.
“There were many years that I was unsure that this would be my career,” she said. “I’ve worked as a nanny, I’ve worked at a desk job, and a couple other part-time jobs to help make sure I could pay my rent and things like that.”
Her story is one many people starting out in their career can relate to. Bjorkedal’s advice for establishing a career in the arts is to always be prepared and to interact with colleagues because the best way to get acknowledgement is through word of mouth.
“When I arrived somewhere, I was as prepared as I could be, sometimes over prepared, so that I could do my best,” she said. “Never underestimate other people’s perceptions because they could really help you in an artistic world.”
All that hard work ended up landing her a spot in a quartet that played music for Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon’s vow renewal. It is a story she likes to add to her PowerPoints and laughs in embarrassment every time she recalls the memory.
“So [we] were getting ready to play the recessional when Nick Cannon pulls out this giant jewelry box. There was somehow lights inside of it and it was sparkling off of a lifesize Ring Pop, but instead of being made of candy it was made of pink and white diamonds,” said Bjorkedal in awe. “I was just amazed by it, so I had this wide-eyed look and as I’m looking at it, I also notice that I can see a camera lense right there.”
That moment turned out to be just as special for Bjorkedal as it was for Carey and Cannon, but for very different reasons.
“The next day, a friend called and said ‘You’re on TMZ’ and it was this picture of Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon looking at this ring and right in the middle, in the background, is my face. I always felt a little bit bad that I had maybe ruined their important wedding photos,” she said.
And though she has had some major career goals that most people could only dream of, she is taken aback when asked about her greatest accomplishment. Her humbleness and gratitude for being able to share her creativity and knowledge with the rest of the world allows her to see every experience as an exceptional one. She doesn’t even mention the fact that she won a Grammy for Best Classical Compendium in 2014 for the work she did with the Partch ensemble.
“I came into music with no specific goal in mind, so as I’ve been going through, I’ve been able to do some really amazing things,” said Bjorkedal. “I’ve loved them all, but there’s never been a moment where I felt like this is the pinnacle because by having an open mind on what I want to do, the small things feel like big things and the big things sometimes don’t feel like ‘my life is complete!’
Her reluctance to set specific goals for herself drives her to work hard to better herself as both a harpist and professor and enables her to find joy in everything she does.
“The thing with music is that we’re never done learning so I think a lot of musicians don’t reach that point where they think ‘This is the top thing I’ll ever do’,” she said. “I get as happy when I hear a former student saying ‘You changed how I think about music’ as I do when I come off of stage when I play for thousands of people.”