A Guitar That Inspired a Major, an Award, and a Song

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on July 6, 2011

Throughout the final composition, “Esquire” mirrors the same growth and development that I experienced during my 4 years at Fairfield.

Jamie Debicella ’11

Hometown: Shelton, CT

Program: Music

The word “Esquire” etched into his favorite guitar means more to Jamie Debicella ’11 than ever before. It is now the title of an original rock piece that he composed, arranged, and recorded as recipient of Fairfield University’s annual “Mary Louise Larrabee Prize” – a prize the Department of Visual Arts usually awards a visual or performing artist. His persuasive essay, which stated that his musical vision was “a perfect project for a freshman with the intent of bringing classical and rock/blues music together,” won both the department’s attention and the grant to fund his project 4 years ago.

Since then, Debicella’s final composition has become a point of pride for Fairfield’s Music Department. “Jamie has been a remarkably hard-working and dedicated musician who has shown considerable growth in his time at Fairfield University,” says Brian Q. Torff, Professor of Music. “His piece is an example of this hard work.”

Video by Long Hill Recording

For the past 14 years, Debicella held his uncle’s 1955 Fender Esquire close in hand and heart. At the impressionable age of 9 when he first heard his father pull the strings, he felt a natural inclination towards the guitar. Born into a family of musicians and artists, Debicella was struck by the “personality” of the Esquire when he first saw his father pick up the guitar and play it after many years; the guitar itself had been passed down to his dad in the late 1960’s by his brother, Jamie’s uncle, who later passed away from cancer.

Debicella noticed immediately the different texture in sound the instrument made and was inspired to master it. Over the years he has become a seasoned performing guitarist, and has privately instructed students between the ages of 6 to 55 for the past 10 years.

According to Debicella:

“Esquire,” the song, is played “up-the-octave,” a musical technique that most guitars do not perform well using open chords past the first few frets of the instrument. A 1955 Fender Esquire is the exception to this rule, as it possesses the structural soundness due to its simple construction and tuning system that offers almost perfect stability and dynamic playing range across the entire neck of the instrument. I named the song after the family guitar because at the time, I needed to use a capo to play the piece, and most guitars go horribly out of tune with a capo. A capo changes the “open” playing position of the guitar so open chords could be played at a higher position, and the Esquire can retain solid intonation, so this was capable.

Faculty Mentorship

Debicella, a Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society member who graduated in 2011 summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in both Music and English, appreciates the thoughtful attention he received from faculty over the course of his college career as this project evolved.

“At Fairfield, you’re not just a name or number,” he says. “You’re someone’s apprentice. They’re not just professors here, but working musicians who share the same dream. Creative expression is perhaps the most precious and defining component of humanity. There’s nothing better in the arts then passing down the tradition and watching it grow and progress; that’s what it’s all about.”

In truth, Debicella was the “apprentice” of many – particularly Professors Brian Torff and Laura Nash – both guiding him throughout the course of the process. Debicella’s private guitar instructors Paul Gabriel and George Naha have also played critical roles in the success of this project, helping him to expand the breadth of his musicianship. Professor Brian Torff, Debicella’s undergraduate academic advisor and closest mentor, hosted the first live performance of “Esquire” during the 2010 Fairfield University Jazz Ensemble Winter Concert on December 9th.

Recalling his need for guidance on this formidable endeavor and how it unfolded, Debicella says:

I came into this project in the dark with how to proceed. I drafted the essay and won the prize, but I had no clue how to score, how to write for string instruments. That’s where the faculty mentorship came into play. They didn’t try to mold it – they gave me full creative control and just pointed me to the tools, assuring me they were there if I had any questions. It was pretty scary, I thought I’d fail miserably, but it all came together in the end. Throughout the final composition, “Esquire” mirrors the same growth and development that I experienced during my four years at Fairfield.

The score Debicella proposed included a string quartet in addition to the electric guitar, bass, and drums for which it was originally written in 2005. Debicella‘s greatest challenge was figuring out a way to dynamically control the volume of the other instruments in order to showcase the strings, which consist of 2 violins, a viola, and a cello. “Rock bands typically don’t play very quiet,” he points out. “The volume level doesn’t always drop down to a ballad, and even when it does, there’s always an intensity that is present within the genre.” He describes string instruments as singing instruments that mimic human voices, playing long melodic lines, whereas instruments in the context of rock and roll tend to employ short, staccato notes often on the offbeat.
Debicella learned how to write a melody for the string quartet from his classical music courses. With the help of Professors Torff and Nash, he was given supplemental material in the forms of literature and computer software that directly dealt with the compositional process of classical music. At the same time, Debicella was taking courses in the classical genre, specifically Professor Michael Ciavaglia’s “Late Survey of Musical Styles” and Professor Netta Hadari’s “Music of the Twentieth Century.”

“This was all material that was uncharted territory for me as a musician, and it really forced me outside of my comfort zone,” remarks Debicella. “Most importantly, I was able to find a way to integrate both the aesthetics of classical and rock music into one totally eclectic composition.”

Music + English = Double Major

By his senior year at Fairfield, Debicella found himself on the cusp of earning a bachelor’s in another major – English. Having a strong passion for literature since high school, he had accumulated 9 English courses and just needed to take an intersession course to secure the double major under the direction and encouragement of Department Chair Dr. Jim Simon and another mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Petrino.

Debicella believes English is one of the closest related majors to Music, because all the arts are “really just a language at their basis. In music, we also have a vocabulary, form, structure – even grammar too if you break it down. We call it ‘inflection’ and ‘articulation.’ Every genre has a different dialect; in jazz, you typically would never start a solo on the root of the chord being played, but in blues, rock, or pop music, a solo might be entirely focused upon the root of that same chord. Furthermore, both English and Music are about story-telling… and revision. You would never want to hand in a first draft in English or the arts!”

Next Steps

Since the completion of “Esquire,” Debicella has recorded session work on the album “Silent Movie” by blues artist Paul Gabriel, taught guitar to students at the Jewish High School of Connecticut and St. Joseph High School Guitar Club in Trumbull, Connecticut, as well as his own private practice, and been a member of the band “Fairfield Trio.” His future plans are two-fold – touring and performing professionally with a blues band while simultaneously exploring his potential in the classroom at the collegiate level.

For the latter goal, he has already been accepted into Fairfield University’s M.A. in American Studies Program under the direction of Dr. Leo O’Connor.

Why Fairfield, and why an M.A. in American Studies? Debicella responds:

What the master’s in American Studies allows me to do is take a small core of classes and then tailor the graduate program around my interests – Music and English – while also encouraging me to explore other areas of academic interest. The personal significance is how the American experience changes and shapes us as a culture through our history. For me, that is at the core of what music does and why it is so important to incorporate its theme throughout academic study and investigation.

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