Combine musical talent, a doctorate in clinical psychology, and a stint off-Broadway and you get Mia Pixley, a 2018 graduate of the SFCM’s Professional Studies Diploma program in cello performance. Pixley’s career resembles the music she creates: eclectic, genre-defying, and always surprising. She is a composer, cellist, and singer who tells stories through her songs that mix classical music with jazz and blues influences.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, music was always a part of her childhood. “Making music was a beloved pastime on my mom's side of the family,” says Pixley. “My grandpa, who moved to the States from Gaeta, Italy, sang opera and played the mandolin. He encouraged my mom to start playing the piano, and they used to play duets together. Fast forward a generation, my mom transferred her love of music to me and my sister.”
Her affinity for music grew naturally from her upbringing, but the journey that brought her to SFCM was less direct. In 2015, Pixley, already a clinical psychologist, was cast in the musical Futurity, where she sang, danced, and played the cello. It was around this time that she was set to start her post-doctoral research, but she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to perform in the musical. “I put my post-doc on hold and went to New York City and had the time of my life. That’s when I realized I needed to keep music in my life, and that I liked working with artists.”
After Futurity’s successful run, Pixley decided to dedicate more time to her musical career, landing in SFCM’s Professional Studies Diploma program. “The program was ideal because I needed something that had intensity, a short duration, and flexibility. It allowed me to choose how I wanted to design my studies, was only one year long, and involved stellar faculty and students.”
Before enrolling, Pixley came to San Francisco to have a lesson with Jennifer Culp, cello faculty and strings chair. “She was such a cool person and wonderful cellist and teacher. I resonated with how she used natural imagery to describe aspects of cello playing. Even her teaching was artful!”
In 2017, Pixley began the intensive, year-long program designed to help musicians define and achieve their professional goals. “My year at SFCM gave me a lay of the land and showed me where I wanted to place my efforts moving forward. The program helped my trajectory as a musician, for example, by allowing me to create an EP of original songs, which was a great platform for future projects.”
While at a recording session for the Grammy Award-winning artist Fantastic Negrito, Pixley met Nahuel Bronzini, whom she recruited to co-mix her EP. Their partnership has proved even more fruitful—the two are starting a musical collective to perform their compositions. She also met fiddler, singer, pianist, and composer Barbara Higbie, with whom she will be touring in the coming months.
When she’s not collaborating with artists, Pixley is working on her solo project, “Baeilou,” which also happens to be the name of her cello. Her inspirations are books, nature, and groove, and her songs range from lullabies to pieces grappling with global warming. She loves performing in small, intimate spaces, where she can use her cello, voice, and music to connect with the audience. “I try to get as much out of the instrument as I can and I enjoy this pursuit,” she says. “I use a pedal board that has a multi-channel analog looper, pitch shifting, and delay so I can get a number of different sounds and textures.”
Pixley’s style has been described as a twist on classical music with rock, jazz, and blues influences. But for her, more than creating a novel genre, music is about connecting to others and to herself. “I find it to be a holistic way of spending time engaging my mind, body, and heart.”
In that vein, Pixley is bringing people together through her musical book club, an Oakland chapter of the already established Bushwick Book Club. “Each session, musicians read the same book and each write a song inspired by that book. The musicians then come together to perform their new songs for a literature-loving audience. It’s a great way to build and maintain a community and encourage reading.”
This past summer saw Oakland’s first Bushwick Book Club. Musicians read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. The next event will be in January 2019 and will focus on Octavia Butler’s Dawn.
Since enrolling in SFCM’s Professional Studies Diploma program, Pixley’s musical endeavors have expanded to also include her studies in clinical psychology. “Both have helped me to learn and to enjoy listening. With clinical psychology, it’s listening to what someone is saying. Playing music is similar. It’s about listening to the other person, listening to what’s on the page, even listening to myself.” Pixley is combining her two passions and two career paths in an academic paper on the psychological aspects of street performing, “Busking in the Depressive Position.”
Whether it’s a musical book club, a new, genre-defying sound, or groundbreaking scientific research, it’s clear that whatever Pixley does, she brings a fresh perspective and voice. With each endeavor, one thing remains true: Pixley’s underlying passion is connecting to others. “That has been the drive for me since I was little, all the way up to now—the pursuit of connection and keeping that alive within myself and with others.”