Pursuing film composition with perfect pitch and plenty of instruments 

When Sierra Ulloa’s mother showed her notes on her old saxophone from her school days, Sierra switched from playing guitar to the alto saxophone in her junior high band. It wasn’t the first time she had pivoted to a new instrument, and it certainly wasn’t the last.

“That branched out my party trick of ‘oh, we don’t have that instrument? That’s fine. I’ll play!’” she says.

Sierra is a senior at Minnesota State University Moorhead, majoring in both commercial music and entertainment industries and technology. She hopes to compose music for film but would be equally content as an event manager or audio engineer. She loves to play the tenor sax, violin and euphonium but is perfectly happy playing any instrument. 

Sierra Ulloa Saxophone

Sierra currently participates in the university’s concert choir, chamber winds, wind ensemble, jazz band, and string orchestra, along with being a part of a saxophone quartet, brass quintet and string quartet. She also gives trumpet, violin and cello lessons as a part of MSUM’s Community School for the Arts. 

Sierra began with playing violin and guitar in elementary school, then branched out to more instruments in middle school. She can now play the euphonium, bassoon, tenor sax, violin, guitar, trumpet, French horn, clarinet, keyboard, string bass and more. There’s nothing Sierra won’t try in the realm of music.

“I auditioned for the Concert Choir at MSUM just to practice auditioning and then showed up on the roster,” she says. “So, I thought, why not?”

Sierra Ulloa Jazz BandSierra Ulloa

Sierra grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., with a high school band class larger than the entire music cohort at MSUM. Upon moving to the Midwest, she was surprised by how everyone seemed to know everyone, and the professors were more personable.

“In Arizona, it took much longer to form connections because the classes were much bigger. Here it’s natural for teachers to get to know their students and start building relationships whereas, at a larger school, you only have that if you specifically go to your professors with the goal of spending time with them.” 

She also credits the smaller size of the university with the ability to provide a more diverse musical experience. 

“Because there are fewer ensembles at MSUM, it forces students to form their own groups that play more advanced music, to compete with other communities rather than just with each other, and to acquire well-paying gigs in the area,” she says. 

What’s more, Sierra’s professors have helped her make vital connections. Her professors Ryan Jackson, Benjamin Druffel and Tom Strait match students with industry professionals like Show Imaging to give them real-world entertainment experience or advise them on next steps in their music career.

“My commercial music degree is very composition based … I want to write music for movies. I’m learning how to write music, play it, get in the studio, record it, mix it, and do the entire process. That prepares me for when things go wrong or how to communicate with people with different job titles. I know how to speak to lighting technicians and to sound engineers. Even if I do just one of those jobs, I will know how to communicate and be empathetic.” 

Exceptional opportunities and innovative faculty brought Sierra across the country to MSUM. She first heard of the university from a visiting professor at an event during her senior year of high school. At the time, she played baritone in a marching band and tenor saxophone in a jazz band.

Sierra’s can-do attitude stems back to middle school, when she switched from guitar to saxophone, and to elementary school, when she switched from viola to violin. 

“In all our school concert videos, you can see me get up and walk across the stage to the next instrument. By my senior year in Phoenix Youth Symphony, I did one song on violin, one on French horn and one on trombone. Then I would join the symphonic band or the chamber wind, where I’d play bassoon or trumpet, depending on what they needed,” she says.  

Sierra attended Northern Arizona University in the Fall of 2019. But the conversation with a Minnesota professor inspired her to finish her college career in Moorhead. 

Sierra’s studies are supported by the Joe Best Music endowed scholarship and the concert ticket scholarship, which she earned by being in every single ensemble MSUM offers.

She recently finished her film senior’s capstone project, which involved writing, recording and editing the music for another student’s 3-D animation. Sierra will be composing and arranging for different MSUM ensembles for her commercial music capstone in Spring 2023.

Sierra has learned through experience and her educational journey that music is not linear.

She says, “The music rabbit hole never ends. There are rules but an exception to the rules and exceptions to those rules, with branches in every direction. You can keep pushing yourself. I constantly get my mind blown. I think that’s why I love music so much.”  

Forge your own path at MSUM

MSU Moorhead is a mid-size, affordable university in Western Minnesota with more than 200 majors & minors for you to forge your own path, no matter what your interests are. It's time to unfollow convention and start something big.

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