Conservatory Students and Alumni Win Grants through the Sixth Annual New Venture Competition

Anya Garipoli, Alyssa Katahara, Robin Schulze

Harpists Anya Garipoli (left) and Alyssa Katahara (center) won the Audience Choice Award in this year’s New Venture Competition for their pitch titled DUO SYNTH. Bass trombonist Robin Schulze (right) received a grant for his pitch titled Pocket Rim.

The Colburn School’s New Venture Competition supports innovative products, projects, and ventures with grant prizes and mentorship from the Center for Innovation and Community Impact (Center) staff. In its sixth year, for the first time, the New Venture Competition was fully online in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Students and alumni were invited to submit a venture idea or product through a video pitch. Also new to this year’s competition was the addition of an Audience Choice winner for receiving the most public online votes. Due to the generous support of the Gluck Foundation and Nick Nichols, who has been the primary supporter of the New Venture Competition since its founding in 2015, the competition increased its grant awards and recognized six new venture pitches. Additionally, the Center extended mentorship support to all 14 of this year’s participants. View this year’s video pitches here. The following is a list of this year’s grant recipients:

We reached out to the Audience Award winning team Alyssa Katahara and Anya Garipoli, as well as grant recipient Robin Schulz to discuss their pitches and experiences in this year’s competition.

Tell us about your pitches for this year’s New Venture Competition.
Anya Garipoli (AG): Sure! We’re the founders of a harp duo called DUO SYNTH. We chose that name for ourselves because we love the definition of the word synthesize: to produce sound electronically, to combine things in order to make something new, or to combine a number of things into a coherent whole. The definition really struck us because it perfectly fit the concept of our duo as two harpists combining forces to produce new, eclectic content that draws from multiple genres and incorporates electronics and technology.

We hope to change people’s perceptions of the harp by pushing boundaries, breaking stereotypes, and expanding its sound palette with software and technology. And we really want to increase the harp’s exposure through creative and innovative duo videos and performances, in order to make the harp a relevant and important instrument in the modern world.

Alyssa Katahara (AK): The harp is a notoriously underexposed instrument, and what people do understand the harp to be is often stereotyped as angelic and gentle—all magic and sparkles. While those are indeed lovely things, we see the harp in its true colors, a monster of an instrument (in a wonderfully intense way), and we want to show people that it is capable of more than they know!

Our goal is to transport this 5,020-year-old instrument into the modern era by incorporating effects pedals, loop machines, and software programs to give the harp a fresh and current voice. In making the harp more relatable, we hope to draw in interest for the harp; what we believe is a remarkable vessel for expression.

AG: We’ve been playing together for many years, and it’s something we love doing because we have really similar goals as musicians, and we’re best friends who bring out the best in each other! Even while we’re apart due to the pandemic, we discovered we’re still able to make videos together through virtual harp duets! We’re planning to produce more videos on our newly launched YouTube channel “DUO SYNTH.” Our goal is to utilize creative editing and integrate all the aspects Alyssa just mentioned into our content. We feel excited and motivated to gain momentum as a duo because we can create even more compelling content when we’re combining creative harp forces than on our own.

How about you, Robin?
Robin Schulze (RS): Last year, when I did the New Venture Competition, the judges suggested looking into other products besides the Brasstache. They pointed out that once you buy it, you’re not going to keep buying it. So I’ve been trying to think of other things I can add to the brand, more useful things besides just the toy.

When I got back to Chicago right after Colburn, I started playing in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which is a training orchestra that’s part of the Chicago Symphony. Charlie Vernon, the bass player in CSO, is really big on rim buzzing, a training technique for brass players. He taught me how to do it properly and how to use the tool. When you’re trying to go and buy them, they’re expensive. So I was like, I have all these 3D printers. I’m just going to print one myself. I thought, “perfect,” you could put it on a key chain. I also want to add like, a bottle opener, just something silly to help draw people to it.

But because of the way that 3D printers work, my original prototypes ended up with these ridges that aren’t ideal. A 3D printer adds layers and layers of material to make the shape where a CNC (computer numerical control) machine will take away material to make it. The CNC is like a drill that can move and carve out a shape. So I’m going to carve them out of wood instead, which is a nicer material and easier to cut.

So the Pocket Rim isn’t a new tool, but it’s an improvement.

Can you explain rim buzzing for the non-brass players out there?
RS: So brass playing and singing are the only two, I might be wrong about this, but the only two I can think of where your body is actually producing the vibrations to make the sound. The buzz is really important for the brass player. Maybe on a good buzz, you have a good sound and when you have a good sound, you can do pretty much everything else.

We’re always being told to use more air, especially the low brass instruments, because it takes a lot of air to produce a sound. So using a rim is like training yourself to use way more air than you kind of need to so then when you go on the horn, it’s just like, wow, it just pops out.

My dad is a guitar player and he said whenever he practices on an acoustic guitar, because the strings are kind of heavier and there’s more distance to get to the fret, that when you go back on to electric, it’s easier to play. Rim buzzing is kind of the same concept.

How did you prepare for the competition this year?
AK: We were super thankful for this competition because it forced us to synthesize what our goals are as a harp duet. We sat down and went through the micro-course that Nate [Dean for Community Initiatives] had presented, answered the questions he posed, and then wrote out a script. What started as a massive eight pages long had to be cut down to two minutes of talking, so we really had to determine what was extraneous blabbing. Between that and speaking a little quicker than normal, which took a lot of brain concentration, we got it down!

AG: We also took full advantage of the magic of Google Docs so we could edit and work on our script together in real time. And we probably broke a world record for the longest Zoom and FaceTime calls while we were at it…

RS: I took a lot of the stuff I did last year and altered it for this pitch. Since this pitch was a video and it was two minutes, it was kind of hard to fit everything in. So I actually wrote out a script which really helped. Normally I’m not that organized. I had to really organize my thoughts to slim it down.

How did Nate’s micro-course videos help you prepare?
AK: The only pitches I’ve seen are from Shark Tank, so I had no real clue as to how to make my ideas attractive and something you’d want to support. The micro-course videos helped me define and hone in our goals.

AG: Definitely. The micro-course helped us streamline and narrow down our goals because it was basically all laid out for us, in an easy and approachable way. Once we understood all of the key topics and points that Nate was mentioning, we wrote those things down and just went straight to answering those questions. And that, in essence, gave us our pitch.

Where do you hope to see your projects a year from now?
RS: I’m curious to see how it goes. I wasn’t big into rim buzzing until Charlie taught me how to do it. So if I can get the word out about how useful it is, hopefully I can sell a lot of them. I was thinking of doing a little two-minute video explaining how to do it. I was also thinking about insert cards for when I ship it, some tips on how to use it effectively. I have to figure out the right target audience, whether it’s trombone professors or everybody. It’s going to be interesting to see how it does compared to the mustaches, which are more of an impulse buy.

AG: We plan to release more videos showcasing what the harp is capable of and expand our presence on social media sites to reach a wider and more diverse audience. We will be making a duo Instagram account and maybe even venture onto sites like TikTok to expose younger people to what we’re doing in an accessible way. TikTok harp duo? We’re on it!

We’re also super excited to slowly build up our collection of equipment and gear (like effects pedals) as we acquire more funds, so we can actually do all the cool things we’re dreaming of. One of our biggest dreams is to commission electro-acoustic harp duets, working with composers that specialize in electronic music in order to start building a new canon of harp duo repertoire that integrates innovative technology, pushes the instrument’s boundaries, and breaks harp stereotypes.

AK: In the end, our goal as artists is to eventually create for a live audience. Once that becomes possible, we want to present completely immersive concerts that integrate a myriad of mediums, even visual arts, to provoke the audience to tap into their many senses. We want the audience to feel the music we create as viscerally as possible all the while creating a comfortable listening environment that allows people to engage with us and each other. We want people to leave our concerts excited and questioning everything they understand the harp to be!

AG: We’re so grateful for the New Venture Competition and the Audience Choice voters’ support to get us started on our harp duo dream! Thanks for having us, and we hope you’ll follow along with us on our journey!