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App State Alumna & Drummer Shirazette Tinnin

Photo by Tore Sætre / Wikimedia

Boone – Life experiences have shaped the musical career notes of Appalachian State University alumna Shirazette Tinnin ’02, a Grammy-nominated drummer and bandleader, former Fulbright Scholar and music educator who resides in New York City. Her journey to success has been paved by natural talent, persistence and hard work, and support from strong mentors and peers.

Tinnin leads her band — Shirazette and the Sonic WallPaper Fusion — mixing jazz, world music and hip-hop to perform her original compositions.

The Pleasant Grove native holds a Bachelor of Science in music industry studies from App State and a Master of Music with a specialization in jazz studies from Northern Illinois University.

Tinnin has earned several awards during her career, including the following:

The 2020 Make Jazz Fellowship for emerging composers, sponsored by the Herb Alpert Foundation and hosted by the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, California.

A 2014–15 Fulbright Scholarship, through which Tinnin performed in South America as a cultural ambassador representing the empowerment of women.

The 2008 Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Stars Award from the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE), cultivating diversity and inclusion in jazz.

You started App State with a basketball scholarship — and ended up with a degree in music. How did that happen?

I grew up in a musical family and was in jazz ensembles all through middle and high school. I always liked App State’s drumline. My band director, Mark Hauser ’74, went to Appalachian and when he saw I had an interest in majoring in music, he introduced me to Todd Wright (professor and jazz area coordinator in App State’s Hayes School of Music).

Mr. Wright made me feel comfortable and said if I came to Appalachian, he’d look out for me in the jazz program. He really signed, sealed and delivered the decision for me.

Todd Wright took me under his wing and made sure I knew what it was like to play as a professional. He had me play with him on multiple gigs.

You have described yourself as a “fearless professional” in the music business. What do you mean by that?

In the profession I’ve chosen, some have ideas of what a person should look like and how they should play. I’ve experienced people saying things like, “You don’t look like a drummer,” or asking if I was setting up the drums for my boyfriend. You have to have a sense of security and fearlessness to overcome people’s perceptions.

At App State, I was not just the only female in the drumline of the Marching Mountaineers — I was the only Black, gay female. Because of my upbringing, though, I’ve never been afraid to try anything. I have three older brothers and was raised to have toughness and to stand up for myself. God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear. Being afraid is a learned behavior.

What were some of the other struggles in your career, and how did you overcome them?

After I finished my internships and graduated, I tried to stay in New York but was there for only a short time. I worked for Barnes and Noble, making about $300 a week, and was playing with a band, but we weren’t making much money and living in New York is crazy-expensive.

I lived with a friend from the recording studio, but he didn’t have any heat. It was the dead of January, and then to top things off, my car was towed, and I had to call my parents for money. That was it. I moved back to North Carolina.

I ended up in Winston-Salem, working jobs during the day and establishing myself on the jazz scene playing in clubs at night. I thought I was living the dream!

Then, through my network of musician friends, I learned about the master’s program at Northern Illinois University and was granted a full scholarship to continue my education. I was part of a jazz ensemble that played all over the world, and through connections, I made during that time, I ended up back in New York playing and touring with the Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, I was in Santa Monica with the Make Jazz Fellowship. I spent time in solitude and had time to reflect upon the recent loss of my mom, in 2019, and my dad, in 2016. I wrote tunes that traveled through the grief process, to acceptance at the end, and there were tears, joy and laughter.

What advice would you give to App State students who want to pursue a career as a music performer?

One thing is to be flexible. My career isn’t just about jazz. I was granted opportunities like being on “Black Girls Rock!” on BET, and playing with the house band on “The Meredith Vieira Show” on NBC. Those things would not have occurred if I hadn’t been open to playing other types of music. You can’t limit your mindset.

Also, I always try to think about the people who sacrificed for me to get to where I am. Whenever I’ve felt like giving up, I had to remember I’m not doing this just for myself.

You have to have perseverance and believe in yourself. You need to be confident but not arrogant. Confidence comes from lots of practice on your instrument and surrounding yourself with supportive people.

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