Five Minutes With Natasha Pasternak, UCLA
Five Minutes With is a Composium series where where music professionals share their stories, insights, and advice
Photos provided by Natasha Pasternak
An artist, entrepreneur, and professor, Natasha Pasternak does it all. Getting a bachelor's degree from the Randolph College for the Performing Arts in Toronto, she co-founded Hands & Teeth, an acclaimed Toronto indie-pop band whose songs were featured on stations like the BBC and MTV. At the same time, Pasternak is part of the Women In Music LA and a juror for FACTOR Canada.

She also launched Desert Dream Creative, a songwriting workshop/ masterclass business, all while balancing a professorship at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
Talking about what sets a great applicant apart from a good one, Natasha mentions that the school is looking for driven students with clear goals of how they want to affect the industry. "That doesn't mean they have to know exactly what they want to do because everything is subject to change, but what I found most impressive is when a student comes into the interview and says: 'I really want to see this, this, and this change and this is how I see myself being a part of this change'," she says in her interview with Composium.

The school's job then is to establish those connections and provide the necessary tools.

To do that, immersing yourself as much as possible in the industry is key. If you want to become a singer-songwriter, try writing music and getting a band together. "I say just try a bunch of things while you're in high school before you get to the interviews and applications and see if there's something that just sounds great," Natasha explains.
The more activities and things you try, the better, as it will really help you to get a sense of what it is that you enjoy. "Try putting yourself in those shoes as much as humanly possible before you decide, [because if] you've never tried doing it, you decide to pursue it, and you find that it gets intense and hard, it's going to be very glaring to you as a student."

That means doing your research, seeing who you can reach out to in order to learn more about the field you're going into, reading articles, and staying on top of what's happening in the industry. UCLA's faculty themselves are all involved and working in the music industry, which is a crucial factor for passing on the knowledge to the younger generations.

"We have a lot of focus on technology and the future of technology in music, so there's just a lot that feels really current," the professor shares. "If you have someone who retired from the industry even five years ago teaching songwriting, they are already behind light-years. You really have to be immersed, because it's changing so quickly every day, with TikTok and different platforms like that and how music is being consumed, you really have to be in the thick of it to really understand."
Growing up in a musical family with her mom being a professional songwriter and touring musician, Pasternak's education was very hands-on and, as she describes it, instinctive. "I learned from just doing it and being out there in the industry, which is a great way to learn, but [not] from a technical standpoint," she says.

This led her to apply to a school that would provide that foundation so she could continue her career as a professional musician. "It was really intense schooling, a very classical background of voice and theory, so I was kind of thrown into this structure that I was not used to," Natasha recalls. "To me, music was freedom, [and] when I went to school, suddenly all these rules, technique, and structure really freaked me out."

Learning that discipline and unlearning some of the habits, while challenging, proved to be very useful.
Talking about internships and advice on landing jobs, the professor says that it's like going in from the ground up. "If you're fun to be around, you work hard, and you do what needs to be done, you can move up pretty quickly, especially on the more behind-the-scenes jobs like Manager or A&R," she adds. "[In] that part of the industry, there are definitely places to move up and places to go."

On the artist side, you need to just keep making music and putting out as many songs as you can. "Your end goal really should not be being signed by a major label; you'll find the reality is, being signed means many things and it does not mean instant success," Pasternak says. "Building your following and your own foundations yourself is a way better goal to have for yourself as an artist and a songwriter."
After being hired by UCLA to teach songwriting, Natasha started asking herself about the most important things that she's learned throughout her career and brainstorming how she can make that into a curriculum. That was also just when she began working for a nonprofit called Jail Guitar Doors where she taught songwriting in correctional institutions as a part of their rehabilitation and the power of music and having a voice.

"I started seeing a common thread across the board — it's almost not about writing a song, it's about helping someone have a full realization that they have something to say and what they have to say is important," the entrepreneur conveys. "I'm helping them through that process. There are all the technical aspects that I show, but I'm more like this midwife in songwriting where I'm helping them find that and birth that within themselves."

For her, it's been very rewarding to see all of the beautiful things that come along with it: being there when someone sings their own song for the first time in front of people, going into struggling and at-risk communities and helping them with art, and the synergy that happens at that moment. "I try to be like the teacher, but then I cry after class [because] it's so inspiring," Pasternak smiles. "I've definitely cried during class which is embarrassing, but I love music, so when I see people open up, be themselves, and be free in their art, it's such a privilege for me."
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