Music alum Orlay Alonso shares how a liberal arts education shaped his career
When asked what advice he would give to current and future students, School of Music alumnus Orlay Alonso said, “There is no one single path. There are a million possibilities, but it all depends on which one calls to you the most.” He admitted that the life of a professional musician can be challenging, but “for those who cannot live without it, you will find a way.”
“The most demanding part of the arts is that it doesn’t wait for you. Expand your horizons, try everything…don’t be afraid to fail. The biggest regret is not trying.”
A Cuban native who spent many of his formative years in New York and has called Columbus home for over a decade, Alonso ’15 is a musician in every sense of the word. A virtuoso pianist, enthusiastic teacher, dedicated director and accomplished academic, he is a major proponent of the arts in the community. Alonso received the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Emerging Arts Leader Award in 2022 for “making a significant impact on the central Ohio community through performing, teaching, managing, producing, recording, partnering and advocating for the arts.”
Since his last interview with the College of Arts and Sciences five years ago, Alonso recently took on the role of director of music at St. Mary Catholic Church in German Village. “I’m now in charge of three choirs. I run the rehearsals, direct from the organ or the piano, and perform masses in both English and Spanish.” Alonso is also the executive director of the Music at St. Mary Concert Series, which is now in its third season.
Several School of Music faculty members had a significant impact on Alonso during his time at Ohio State. “Steven Glaser, Charles Atkinson, Edward Bak and Maria Staeblein were definitely influential, but there’s no one I didn’t love working with. It was great to get different perspectives from different people,” he said.
This holistic musical education inspired Alonso to focus his doctoral dissertation on music and architectural design. He distilled the topic down to music and math. “With the help of my professors, I was able to dig into the mathematical and medieval aspects of music, on how you measure music and how it was conceived for the early renaissance. It illuminated everything I’d been feeling and trying to do with my music.” The advisors that he worked with were instrumental in guiding him throughout the process, leading him in a direction he never would’ve imagined.
Alonso will return to the School of Music’s piano department for spring semester 2024 to fill in for Professor Steven Glaser, who will be on sabbatical. “It’s all coming full circle for me,” Alonso said, referring to having gone to Ohio State for his doctorate and studying under Glaser. “From adoring all those teachers and feeling like I’m not even worthy to be a student, to all of a sudden they’re calling me to teach there…it’s a dream come true in every possible way. I’m over the moon about coming back.”
“I also have a duo with my brother, Orlando, called The Alonso Brothers, and we frequently play in places like New York and Miami,” Alonso said. “We also got to play at the Art with Me Festival in Tulum, which is sort of like Mexico’s version of Burning Man.” During the isolation brought on by COVID, the Alonso Brothers used their time to record an album of Cuban music titled Havanesque. Inspired by their Cuban roots and favorite songs, the arrangements were transcribed by an old friend of theirs from New York, who also happened to attend school with them in Havana. “You take popular music and put it on two grand pianos, and all of the sudden it feels like Gershwin,” Alonso said.
Being a director, a performer and a teacher all enable him to explore the various parts of his musicianship and ultimately feed his artistic soul. “Those paths may be calling you to create something that works perfectly for you. Follow that passion — the thing that you cannot live without — and see how you can fit together the puzzle pieces that life brings you.”
Alonso strongly believes that an arts degree gives young adults an opportunity to work on their craft, grow as a person and have a chance to find themselves. “Being an artist may seem like a free thing and ‘so out there and liberal arts,’ but it takes an enormous amount of discipline to pursue anything in music,” Alonso said. “Whether it becomes their future passion or not, it’s still a great way of learning who they are.”
A music degree prepares you for more than just a job in the music industry, it prepares you for life, Alonso explained. “The discipline of knowing what it takes to prepare something to a certain level…that you carry with you no matter what it is that you do.”
Alonso supports the local arts community by being an active participant, not just as a performer, but also as an audience member. He frequents the Columbus Symphony, ProMusica, churches, jazz venues like Ginger Rabbit and dive bars like Dick’s Den. Alonso also attends as many Ohio State performances as he can, from vocal and instrumental recitals to chamber music and string quartets. He loves the acoustics in the new Timashev recital hall and is excited to experience more performances in that space.
“Coming from schools like Manhattan School of Music and Yale University, most people said ‘Why Ohio State?,’” he said. “The advantage of studying music at a place like Ohio State is that you’re not just learning your instrument, but you’re also learning everything that goes around it. It’s more interconnected and you end up working with more people. It gives you that well-roundedness that you didn’t know you needed.”