This August, music alumnus Erskine Hawkins III ('10) joined rap artist Eminem and pop singer Rihanna as the lead pianist for "The Monster Tour," a three-city series of concerts that kicked off in August at the Rose Bowl Stadium in California, with stops at New York City's MetLife Stadium and Detroit's Comerica Park.
The duo's tour was a first for the multiple Grammy-winning musicians, who had collaborated previously on "Love the Way You Lie" and "The Monster."
"Working with Eminem is amazing because he's a person whose music shaped the lives of a whole lot of people," says Hawkins. "His music was essentially the soundtrack for their lives."
But Hawkins's journey to collaborating with big-name entertainers wasn't necessarily a short trip.
Change of plans
Hawkins -- whose grandfather first received the moniker in honor of the great jazz trumpeter Erskine Ramsay Hawkins -- was 7 when his family moved from Idaho to Texas. As a child, he started by playing the drums as a substitute during church rehearsals whenever the lead drummer was absent. That happened a lot, according to Hawkins.
But the drummer always arrived -- almost miraculously, says Hawkins -- just moments before the church service's music portion was to begin. Heartbroken, Hawkins knew he needed to find another instrument if he wanted to play during services, instead of just filling in at rehearsals.
He chose the piano.
While he was a good player in high school, he decided that UNT's College of Music was not an option for him. As a teenage pianist, he had heard the jazz program had a rigorous classical music component. And a recent attempt at classical repertoire that year at a high school band competition landed him in fifth place out of five performers.
Hawkins worried he would never make it in the renowned jazz studies program. So why try?
But his mom had other plans. Fearing her son would leave Texas for an out-of-state college, she urged him to apply to UNT. Hawkins agreed. But where he saw an insurmountable obstacle, UNT's jazz faculty saw potential and Hawkins was accepted into the program.
However, Hawkins had never played classical music, which is a requirement for the College of Music's jazz studies program. He pushed himself.
After earning a letter grade of C, which is not enough to advance to the next course level in the College of Music, Hawkins says he began to have doubts.
"For a split second, I thought about switching to a different degree, but I never really wanted to give up," says Hawkins, who decided to stick with jazz studies and pursue what he loved most: music. "The low grades were discouraging, but my professors really believed in me, and that was encouraging."
Hawkins developed a strong foundation in classical repertoire before transitioning into the jazz piano concentration courses. It was during that formative time that he learned how to play Bach's two- and three-part fugues. These contrapuntal compositions of two or three "voices" imitating each other are complex, but for College of Music students, this type of classical training is a starting point for a musician's success.
"While jazz forms the core of our curriculum, we want our students to be prepared for any kind of professional opportunity that appeals to them," says John Murphy, chair of the UNT Division of Jazz Studies. "The way Erskine was able to meet a high standard of classical performance and make it part of his skill set as a professional musician is a reminder to our current students that every part of the curriculum is potentially important for their success."
That success of conquering classical techniques would later help Hawkins beyond academia.
"The things I did at UNT: learning new songs, improvising, practicing accompaniment with jazz vocalist Tatiana Mayfield ('10), memorizing music and preparing for our juries and final semester performances -- without that background, I would have been in over my head," Hawkins says.
His first major breakthrough came in 2012 when he went to the National Association of Music Merchants trade show and met Adam Blackstone, a music director and consultant for pop music stars like Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, Maroon 5 and Jay-Z. A mutual friend had been telling Blackstone about Hawkins for years, but this was the first time the pair actually met.
After exchanging numbers, the UNT alum soon was on a roll.
"At first, Adam would call me to transcribe songs and chart them to make it easier for his bands to learn the material," says Hawkins. "But after a few months, he asked me to compose a string arrangement for an upcoming Nicki Minaj performance."
After that night, Blackstone called again, asking, "Are your hip-hop chops pretty good?" Rapper Eminem -- described by Hawkins as "definitely the biggest rapper in the world" and listed by Rolling Stone as one of "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time" -- had a tour coming up for the summer of 2013 and Adam wanted Erskine onboard. Keyboard, that is.
Growing up in a devout Christian home, Hawkins was only allowed to listen to gospel and jazz music. So while Hawkins knew who Eminem was and had even seen the entertainer in the starring role for the movie the 8 Mile, he was not familiar with the rapper's repertoire.
"Eminem's music is extremely classically based and often includes two or three simultaneous piano parts," he says, adding that if he hadn't listened to his mom's advice to attend UNT, he would have struggled. "I would not have known how to approach or learn the technique for classical piano repertoire."
In addition to his three appearances with Eminem, Hawkins has played with several other performers including the Disney Channel star Zendaya, Grammy-winning gospel musician and R&B singer Myron Butler and songwriter and pianist Vivian Green. He's also traveled across the United States and the globe with stints in London, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and South Africa for a steady stream of concerts, festivals and sold-out stadium performances to crowds of over 100,000 people.
Value of preparation
When it came time for Blackstone to select players for "The Monster Tour" this summer, Hawkins was asked to play all the lead parts -- piano, keyboard, organ and synthesizers -- for the bands of Eminem and Rihanna, who is named on Rolling Stone's list of "The New Immortals." Behind the scenes at rehearsals for the tour this summer, Hawkins says he's received a new nickname -- Degree -- in honor of the academic prowess that he brings to each rehearsal. Jokes aside, Hawkins says that his UNT degree and everything he learned at UNT have been invaluable.
"They all know I went to UNT, and they really respect this school, so I've sort of become the one everyone turns to when they have a question," he says. "I'm not a music nerd or anything, but I do like to sound good, and I'll definitely articulate areas where we can improve. All of that came naturally because I was used to doing it for UNT's jazz program. It doesn't get much harder than that."