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Take These Chances

When teaching her Rock & Rhetoric class, Heather Pinson, Ph.D, tells her students, many of whom are aspiring musicians, that, in order to be successful, you need to do more than just play music.

“You have to teach, promote, and manage music as a business as well,” she says. “I remind my students that popular music is also a response to the social/political issues throughout American history. Basically, you need to know the history of both popular music and the music industry in order to become a critical consumer of how music is marketed to you.”

And Pinson is speaking from experience.

Besides working as an assistant professor of communications and media arts at Robert Morris University, she also plays the violin for Antz Marching, a locally based Dave Matthews cover band. “I love the Dave Matthews Band,” says Pinson, a classically trained violinist who majored in violin performance at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., Baptist college. “I mean, how many rock bands have a violin?”

During her junior year at Samford, however, Pinson had to undergo surgery on her left wrist for Kienboch’s Syndrome, a degenerative bone disease that affects the hands and wrists of musicians and athletes. “Basically, a wrist bone deteriorates because of stress or, in my case over-practicing, and the bone dies and blocks the blood stream to the hand,” she says. The doctor had to remove Pinson’s wrist bone and insert a metal plate. As a result she lost her agility in her left hand and was unable to play as she had been trained.

She tried switching the violin from the left to the right side to no avail. It was a devastating blow. “I boo-hooed for nine months,” she says. “It just wasn’t in the cards for me to be a classical diva.”

But in the end, Pinson says it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to her. One day she walked into a local jazz club and asked them to teach her how to improvise. As a result she learned to make music in a new way. “I was terrible at first, but they were very patient with me.” Eventually, she was playing in bands featuring a variety of styles including country, zydeco, jazz, blues, bluegrass, funk, and rock.

Pinson went on to get her master’s degree at LSU in musicology and a doctorate in interdisciplinary arts at Ohio University. While at LSU, she was accepted to play in the jazz “big band”. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “So they put me in the horn section.”

She first discovered Antz Marching in March of 2011 after they had posted an ad on Craigslist looking for a drummer and bassist; they already had a violinist. But that didn’t stop Pinson, who asked if they could keep her in mind if anything happened with the other violinist. “One night, they let me come practice with them during a rehearsal when the regular violinist was out of town.” After playing just two songs they invited her to join the band and fired the other guy on the spot.

Pinson says one of the band’s strengths is that it’s made up of professionals such as mechanical engineers, a consultant, and even a doctor (the lead singer). “This is a dream-team of a band. Every member has been waiting for an opportunity to play this type of music with a high caliber of musicians. We’ve all played in other bands and essentially paid our dues in the music world. We all know what we are looking for and recently found it in each other. I’ve never met such a dedicated group of young professionals that are willing to drop their work, family, and social life just for the chance to practice together as a band.”

(Watch Heather and Antz Marching play her favorite song, “Tripping Billies”, last July at J.D.’s Pub in Glenshaw.)

Pinson, who was recently named the interim head for RMU’s Department of Communication, has close relationships with many of her students, and she hopes her love of music will in turn inspire them. “I’d like to see a lot more music here on campus,” she says. “The students cry out for it.”

Recently she helped organize Intensity, a spoken-word group on campus, which is led by senior communications/theatre major and RMU P.R. and marketing student assistant Chauncey Alexander. Pinson also works with the RMU Association of Musicians, which aims to spread the knowledge of music at the university, while encouraging RMU musicians to write poetry and lyrics; and record, perform, and promote concerts on campus.

Although she’d like to see more, Pinson points out that there are already a lot of opportunities in music at RMU. “Betsy Charles conducts the RMU Jam Blues Marching Band and several other ensembles for students,” she says. “And through Colonial Theatre, Ken Gargaro and Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre offer classes such as Music Appreciation, Applied Voice, and Jazz Dance, as well as opportunities to perform music in their shows.”

Next May, as part of an Irish music course she’s teaching, Pinson and Prof. Jim Vincent will be leading a group of students to Ireland. And in addition to her Rock and Rhetoric class, she also hopes to soon offer a music business class as well. “Robert Morris has always been known as a leader in business education,” she says. “But we also have a lot more to offer. I think we need to do more to spotlight our incredible artistic and musical talent as well.

“After all,” she adds with a smile, “RMU is really a rocking musical university.”

Written by Valentine J. Brkich 

Antz Marching website: Facebook page:

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